This article contains spoilers for the Final Destination movies
Olivia Castle (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood) knows things are about to be bad. Despite her doctor’s kind assurances that her laser eye surgery is routine and harmless, despite the stuffed bear she clutches, Olivia cannot help but shudder. Strapped to a table, her head held still and her eyelids pulled open, Olivia only grows more agitated. In contrast, the doctor goes through the setup process in a patient monotone, calmly talking her through the process. So confident is he, that the doctor doesn’t even worry about stepping out for a moment, leaving Olivia temporarily unattended.
Of course, he doesn’t know what we know. After her life was saved by co-worker Sam Lawton (Nicholas D’Agosto), who convinced her and others to get off of a bus minutes before it was involved in a horrific accident, Olivia and her fellow survivors have been hunted by Death. Everything in the office could be an instrument of death, no matter how innocuous. Even a cup of water, perched precariously atop a bubbling water cooler, could lead to her demise.
But Final Destination 5 director Steven Quale understands that he’s making a movie for franchise veterans, viewers well aware of “the rules”, so he uses his camera to highlight the tools of Olivia’s demise. He slowly pushes into the laser, suggesting that it’s closing in on Olivia. He watches her eye squirm in extreme close-up, fluttering desperately, even as her head remains confined to the bed. He dispassionately pans up the water cooler, following the spilled water to the sparking outlet, and then along the wires that will eventually make the laser turn on, boring directly into Olivia’s eye. Perhaps most cruelly of all, the camera simply watches as Olivia claws for the emergency shut-off button, just out of reach.
By the time the chaos actually occurs, we already know what’s going to happen. With the laser burning her eye, face, and hands, Olivia tears herself free. She finally gets up from the bed just as her friends, followed by the now-worried doctor, burst into the room, only to slip on a piece of dislodged equipment and fall through a window, plummeting down several stories and crashing on a car. The exact process by which Olivia died may have been a surprise, but the end was never in question. No one escapes Death.
This mixture of shock and expectation makes Final Destination 5 the best in the franchise. Where the first film introduced the clever premise of a serial killer movie without a serial killer, and where the second film improved on the model with kill sequences that still make people think twice about following a logging truck or trying to get out of an elevator, Final Destination 3 slipped into a level of mean-spiritedness that undercut the inherently playful concept. By the time the supposed last entry, The Final Destination, released in 2009, the series felt rote and empty, a mechanical march toward death devoid of all energy and whimsy.
To understand Final Destination 5’s achievement, one must remember that the franchise is inherently formulaic. Each movie begins with an outrageous sequence in which an unremarkable event ends in utter carnage – a plane falls apart in mid-air or a Nascar crash launches debris into the crowd. That sequence is then revealed to be a premonition by one of the would-be victims, who escapes the accident along with their friends. Then, one by one, Death reclaims those who avoided their fate, picking off the victims with delightful Rube Goldberg scenarios.
According to this formula, Final Destination 5 may not seem like a clear franchise standout. It doesn’t have the single most outrageous death sequence. That honor goes to Hunt Wynorski (Nick Zano, playing the exact opposite of his lovable Legends of Tomorrow character Steel), who gets his guts sucked out of his butt by a pool pump in The Final Destination. Nor does the movie have the best actors in the franchise. While it does see the return of series mainstay Tony Todd as coroner William Bludworth and gives Courntey B. Vance a supporting role as an investigator, Final Destination 5’s likable but bland cast doesn’t quite match the charismatic turn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Final Destination 3 or the depth Mykelti Williamson provides his character in The Final Destination.
But even as it falls slightly short of its predecessors in some categories, Final Destination 5 outdoes them all with its pure sense of inevitable dread. Take the movie’s best death sequence, that of gymnast Candice Hooper (Ellen Wroe).
The scene begins with an establishing shot looking down on the practice floor, where Candice and her fellow athletes go through their routines. But Quale knows that he isn’t just informing viewers about a location – he’s inviting us to look for trouble. When the camera pans along the practice space, following Candice as she prepares, our eyes dart around, looking for anything that could turn deadly. Quale’s camera shows us the loose bolt in the parallel bars, exposed wires on a frayed power cord, and an upturned screw on a balance beam.
Quale devotes nearly three and a half minutes to setting up these hazards and letting Candice come close to them. He plays with the audience, watching as she unknowingly dances above the upturned screw or walks up to a puddle of water near the exposed wire. After toying with us, he then pulls things together, pushing the camera on the bolt coming increasingly loose as Candice twirls, cutting to another performer nearing the screw on the balance beam.
After all that set-up, it only takes twenty seconds for it all to go wrong. The girl on the balance beam collapses after stepping on the screw, spilling a bucket of dust into the fan, which blows into Candice’s face, causing her to botch her dismount and break her neck.
The culmination of events is horrifying, to be sure. Candice is left a twitching bundle of flesh, a bone protruding from a gash in her leg and her head peering above her back. But the real terror of the moment isn’t the gross-out finish. It’s the tension that has built up over the course of the sequence. And, as Candice’s death is just the first in the movie, it’s the knowledge that several more characters will go through the same process.
To be sure, all of the Final Destination movies are about Death’s inescapable grip. They all involve the protagonists uncovering Death’s plan and then doing their best to avoid or disrupt it. Each movie ends with a moment of peace, in which the protagonists think that they’ve escaped their fate, only to discover that Death still has them in their grip. As the apparent survivors breathe sighs of relief, a sign drops down or a grill explodes, reminding us all that Death always wins.
But Final Destination 5 takes that structural element to its most nihilistic extreme. Convinced that they have survived the ordeal, Sam and his girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell) board a plane for Paris, where they see a group of teens removed after a fight. Sam and Molly take no notice of the ruckus, but we viewers recognize them as the main characters of Final Destination, revealing that this movie was a prequel. Sam and Molly will die in the plane explosion.
Scenes like that put the fifth entry atop the Final Destination franchise. Rather than subvert expectations, the film builds those expectations into its theme, so that the familiarity becomes its own form of dread. Even as the movie invites us to guess at exactly how the characters on screen will die, there’s never any doubt that they will die.
Sequels are often equally inevitable in horror movies, especially coming off such a strong entry. And yet, there has not been a new Final Destination film in over a decade. While the slasher roots of the original have fallen out of favor in an era of “elevated horror” (complain all you want, we all know what the term means), its central theme of inescapable death is very much inline with high-concept slasher revivals like Scream, Halloween, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Perhaps that’s what franchise creator Jeffery Reddick has in mind when he promises a “different take on the formula” for the upcoming sixth entry, but whatever he and his co-creators have planned, they’ll have a hard time topping the terror of Final Destination 5.