Final Destination

*Originally written in 2003

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Of the teen horror movies which appeared in the Nineties era, most were dumb gore-fests with cheap shocks and a sexy, young cast. However, there were two stand outs: Scream, of course, and Final Destination. Both are intelligent, both have involving story lines, good characters, genuine shocks, and grisly deaths. While Scream was full of parodies and self-referential stuff, Final Destination played on our fear of death – the one common denominator which we all cannot avoid. While it does make jokes about itself and its genre, they are fewer than Scream, and do not go as over the top as some other films. The director fills every scene with real tension and fear, and successfully combines this with excellent set pieces and stunts, as well as sustaining a brilliant story. There are few films that can do this so we should admire Final Destination.

128 students are planning to travel to France with their teachers for one last big school trip. The plane crashes, killing everyone on board. We then flashback and realise that it was the premonition of one of the students, Alex. He has been having a strange day, and when he sees that his premonition is coming true he tries to get everyone off the plane. Like a certain Twilight Zone episode he succeeds in only causing a minor panic and some embarrassment, but is fortuitously thrown off the plane together with a few others who got involved. As they wait in the airport Alex relates what he saw and of course no one believes him. Suddenly the plane explodes – his premonition came true. In the aftermath, some of the survivors mourn, others see it as a second chance, the cops become interested in how Alex knew what was going to happen, and Alex has further visions. Soon the survivors are killed in bizarre ways, and the cops believe it is Alex. Alex thinks that death is stalking them because they cheated it, and he works out the order that they will die in, believing that if they can understand the visions and prevent themselves from dying again, they will be safe. This will not be easy though, as death can, and does strike from everywhere.

The idea behind the story is excellent, and it is stylishly and effectively executed. It will appeal to the teen audience it is aimed at, but also older viewers as it is a very thought-provoking, existential film when stripped back. One character, Carter, believes he is in control of his own life, not some invisible force, and at one point tries to prove this by parking on train tracks in front of an approaching train. Alex becomes increasingly paranoid, hiding in a hut from death, safe-proofing it in every way he can. Clear tries to be strong, has learnt to be this way through a tough childhood and cannot believe that all life is is a series of days avoiding death. The other survivors all have their individuality, and are not pastiches of other characters from teen movies. The performances are each outstanding, even from Sean William Scott who proves he is better than just being Stiffler forever. The side plot of the cops believing Alex is behind the deaths adds a depth which most teen horror films do not have.

Wong’s direction is very stylish, and the deaths and set pieces are some of the most innovative ever, recalling the style of Argento. That everything is a potential killer is an idea ripe for exploitation. Wong also creates a massive amount of tension throughout, peaking with each death – the train and car scene will get the most flabby heart racing, the teacher in the kitchen is brilliantly staged within every fork and implement seeming deadly. The opening 15 minutes have to be among the most tense and exciting 15 minutes in horror movie history, confirming all those with a fear of flying to stay firmly on the ground. The film shows how we are not immortal, and without the humorous moments it might become too much.

There are many famous shock moments, the bus scene being the most notorious – many have complained about this being stupid and unrealistic, but if Death was stalking you, of course it would try to put the approaching bus under a veil of silence. The premise may seem too far-fetched for people, but this is primarily for a horror crowd who come baying for the blood, and we do appreciate it more when our intelligence isn’t insulted. Death here as a character does have a sense of humour, each death being ironic, gruesome or made to look like an accident, but this is all the more terrifying, that this force is coming after us for entertainment. Death wants immediate pay back for those who cheated it, but in the style of a Bond villain, likes to play with its victims first. Of course the deaths may seem impossible in the real world, but if it is Death stalking us, I think it has the power to bend a few rules. Most criticism I have read of this film is petty and unexplained, but I can understand why some would be put off by it. For clever, shocking, exciting teen horror movies, there are very few better than this.

What do you think of Final Destination and its many sequels – let us know in the comments!

Rings

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A brief bit of history – Ringu is my second favourite horror movie of all time, and one which kicked off my love for J-Horror. Its sequel is problematic but a lot of fun, while its prequel is glorious and criminally underrated. I saw both the US remake and its sequel upon release – I hated The Ring at the time – a watered down, cheap jump-scare filled mess, while the sequel I thought was decent throwaway fun. There was no real need for another entry, but then again enough time has passed and enough new technology has arrived to allow for some interesting new spins to explore. Does Rings explore these?

Does it fuck. Rings is a mess. I can’t think of a single, remotely scary moment in the film – no tension, not even any jump scares, and Samara is again some ultra cheap CG mess who looks like she would slip and break her back sooner than crawl across the room to murder you. The film does offer interesting ideas, but either abandons them or messes them up in some convoluted fashion. The idea of being trapped on an airplane with someone about to succumb to the curse is sound – hell, that’s a movie in itself right there. This is messed up and rushed and filled with inexplicable moments – why do all the screens change, why does the plane crash etc? The idea of a group, almost cult set up surrounding the video – who both apparently worship and fear the video, while simultaneously creating a system for viewing and sharing the video to keep each other alive while not spreading the loop too wide – again a sound idea. This is abandoned fairly early and doesn’t get a lot of discussion – it’s basically a minor plot point irrelevant to everything else that comes afterwards. There may be other interesting ideas, but I can’t recall given that my mind is clouded by the other crap.

So the plot is that a guy is leaving his gal to go off to college. They’re very luvvy-duvvy. After a while the guy doesn’t return her calls so the gal goes looking for him. For some reason she has dreams which seems to involve Samara, before she knows anything about it. After some amateur sleuthing she realizes that people seem to be covering up her bloke’s recent whereabouts and there is a lot of talk about watching a video. The girl goes to a house with another girl who promises to find the guy if she watches ‘The Video’. The guys calls just in time to tell her not to watch so she hides and the other girl is killed. Soon we hear all about it, the girl watches the video anyway to save her man, then they both go to investigate the history of the video, which for some reason has decided to display new images.

So, we get a lot of unnecessary additional back story which doesn’t tell us anything new, and some sort of unexplained convoluted reasoning to explain how Samara wants to break free from the binds of the videotape, using the girl. How could she have foreknowledge of the girl? Did she smell her through the bathroom door and thought she was some sort of key? Why? What is special about this girl? It seems pretty obvious that one of the first things any viewer of the videotape in the last 10 years would do is upload it and send to their friends, yet that seems to be the big scheme and shock ending after all. Why? Why find the body, why find the man who got the mother pregnant, why anything? It’s just completely absurd.

Why make it another teen movie too? Ringu was powerful because it was about a mother, her son, her ex partner. There were kids in it too, but they were peripheral. I have no problem with teens being the focus, except when it is only there as a cynical cash grab. And yet with all this, I didn’t hate the movie. Maybe it’s because when I watched it I was dying with some stinking cold and was possibly hallucinating a better movie as I watched, or maybe I’m too lenient on movies, crap as they may be. Aside from Samara, it looked decent enough – standard bland stuff, and the performances were fine – nothing memorable, nothing bad. In the end it’s an entirely pointless exercise with zero scares, and a nonsensical story. I still say someone could make another good Ring movie, but I think it’s time we let it die.

Death Sentence

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The forgotten James Wan movie. James Wan is rightly one of the biggest names in horror, and deserves to be seen as much more than simply a single genre director. He has since has success in other realms and will presumably continue in that vein, but his first foray outside of the genre is nonetheless a violent and grim story of revenge which has just as much in common with Saw as it does with the 70’s films it seeks to emulate.

Based upon the book by Brian Garfield (in name and barely anything else only) which is a sequel to his novel Death Wish, this film follows a Nick – a wealthy (I want to say lawyer) man with a perfect life heading to the wrong part of town with his son to get some gas. Unfortunately for all concerned, a local gang is initiating a new member in the area and they rob the gas station, killing Nick’s son. We get scenes about how legal justice never works – a la Death Wish et al – and Nick takes the issue into his own hands. Normally, the protagonist would get his revenge after leveling up his Schwarzenegger and ninja stats and the movie would end with a hard rock credits sequence. Where Death Sentence is more interesting, more honest, closer to the source material, and ultimately more brutal is where it plays revenge as an unending cycle – you hurt me, I’ll hurt you – you stab me, I’ll shoot your wife – you have oil, I’ll airstrike you into oblivion. It doesn’t end, and no-one wins.

This cycle of revenge is played out with increasing violence and spectacle – we end up learning just as much about the gang members as we do about Nick, and the general tone is one of helplessness – is revenge the only option when justice doesn’t work? Do these events come from nowhere and we can have no answer for or resolution to them? Kevin Bacon gives one of his best performances as Nick, John Goodman hams it up nicely in a small role, and Kelly Preston is still as hot as get out (whatever that means). Wan shows a measured hand in the early proceedings garnering enough of an emotional core for us to care about what happens, before allowing the film to spiral out of control in the second half. The action is fast, the violence is grueling, and overall the film offers entertainment and intelligence (if not insight) in a sub genre not known for much more than a vigilante killing faceless punks.

Have you seen Death Sentence? How does it rank alongside other vigilante justice movies? Let us know in the comments!

Hellions

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I clicked on this one after meandering through my newly added Amazon horror movies for a while. I hadn’t heard of it, and I wasn’t aware of the talent involved being the camera. In all honesty it was a case of ‘the cover looks cool, the idea sounds okay without being too taxing, and Robert Patrick is in it’. It wasn’t until after watching that I realised it was directed by Bruce McDonald, whose Pontypool I had thoroughly enjoyed. There is a clear visual style at work in Hellions, a style which ensures that you will likely only remember this film for its look and presentation rather than its plot, cast, or what it is trying to say.

Fun fact – I wrote the above intro several months after watching the movie – and I am writing the rest of the review at least 6 months after writing the intro. Surprise surprise, I don’t really remember many details of the plot but I can remember clearly certain moments and how they looked. It’s weird being right. After reminding myself on IMDB of what the plot is – Hellions follows an annoyingly ‘don’t give a fuck’ teenage girl called Dora who has found out that she is inexplicably pregnant on Halloween night. As she waits at home for her boyfriend to visit she is harangued by children in creepy costumes who become increasingly insistent and violent and soon reality and fantasy bleed into each other until no-one has any idea what is going on.

Normally I would love this sort of film – I certainly appreciate the experimental style and the drive to create something unique, but it never comes across as scary or innovative or interesting. It’s essentially a home invasion movie on acid, but everything feels pretentious and the deliberate incoherence is too distracting. Every experiment needs a point, otherwise you’re just blindly pouring chemicals into a bowl and wondering why no-one cares. Is the point to show through image and noise how terrifying it can be to be pregnant at a young age? If so, why not have a more sympathetic lead? Is it all a dream? Is there any point? I’ll leave it up to you but it’s a difficult one to recommend – if you like trying to unravel visual puzzles or films which abandon plot for non-linear storytelling and visual flair then give it a shot. I don’t think your typical horror fan will get much out of this.

Have you seen Hellions? Did you enjoy it more than I did? Let us know in the comments!

Rogue

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I am a huge fan of Jaws – who isn’t? I’m not a fan of Lake Placid – who is? Rogue is a film I have been aware of pretty much since it was released, but I only saw it for the first time recently. It is essentially Jaws with a croc instead of a shark, and set in Australia instead of the US, but importantly it retains both a sense of fun, wonder, and fear which many similar imitators lack or don’t convey in a balanced way – too many dwelling on comedy elements, too many dwelling on cheap gore. The film looks great, has a strong cast, and while far from a comedy it doesn’t take itself too seriously, knowing that it’s job is to entertain for 90 minutes.

Rogue follows the tired and cynical travel writer Pete (Michael Vartan) as he goes for a river trip in the Outback with a bunch of tourists and locals – a feisty guide Kate (Radha Mitchell), family members Allen, Elizabeth, and Sherry, and several others. The boat trip goes according to plan until a flare is spotted and Kate is obligated to investigate – they find some wreckage and are quickly attacked by a large crocodile which destroys their boat and forces them to hide on a small island. Naturally, the tide is rising and the croc is waiting.

Since Jaws there have been a million movies of a similar man versus animal ilk, and not a single one has come close to emulating it in terms of quality, influence, or acclaim. It is so singularly iconic that any film with a murderous animal is unfairly going to be compared to it. Rogue is one of, if not the best of these and the reasons are simple – a good director who understands the project, a good script with characters we can get behind or not like (real humans in other words), and a stellar and experienced cast. We spend a significant amount of time getting to know each person, which is where so many of these films fail – where characters are usually fodder or one dimensional, Rogue is patient and smart with characterization. Greg McLean is a director who knows how to mix horror and comedy – one of the most difficult tricks to pull off well – and the fact that he tends to write the scripts he directs certainly helps. Where the film truly excels over others which fail is in the cast – you can have well-rounded characters but without the performers to bring them to life or invite the audiences to flock round, you won’t have a hit. There are established names, people who have since made it big (Sam Worthington and Mia Wasikowska), and experienced actors from Australian Stage and Television. The cast fully commit to what was probably an exhausting and fun shoot and it’s easy to pick your favourite character or who you wish to be chomped next thanks to their performances.

Where the film doesn’t always succeed is in the actual horror. There are a couple of decent set pieces where the tension begins to crank upwards, but it rarely reaches a peak. Possibly because there is a lighter mood at moments, we never think things are going to get too dark or to frightening – McLean maybe missed a trick by pulling the carpet from under us and going for full blown horror in the final act. Still, there are plenty of deaths, amusing and otherwise, and although there are few surprises to be had it’s still perfectly entertaining while never letting itself become the B-movie that it is.

Have you seen Rogue? Is it the best of the Jaws clones or am I forgetting another? Let us know in the comments!

The Gate

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The 80’s, horror movies, and kids go together like the noughties, The Daily Mail and pedophilia stories. As a younger audience began to take up a bigger slice of the market in the decade, horror movies starring and marketed towards kids and teens became the norm and we saw a number of now classic movies being released. The Gate is one of this group, and while it isn’t in the same league as something like The Lost Boys, it is a fun watch with a load of practical special effects, laughs, and scares.

We have a classic 80’s movie set up – kid boy and older teenage sister are being left alone in their house while their parents go away for a weekend of sexing. The boy is like any 80’s kid and has a geeky best friend, the sister is a bit of a bimbo wannabe and has a group of annoying friends. Due to a host of 80’s reasons – prophetic dreams, weird rocks, unintentional blood-letting, and heavy metal, the boy (Glen) causes a gateway to hell or something to open up in his garden, and a variety of demons, possessions, and little claymation freaks lay siege to the house. The three kids try to fend off the hordes and work out how to close The Gate, and we get some laughs, actions, soft scares, and snazzy effects along the way – it’s basically The Evil Dead for kids.

If I’d seen this regularly in the 80’s I probably would have enjoyed it more, but as such it remains an interesting artifact for newcomers. There will be nostalgic charm for many viewers of a certain age, but not a lot for modern audiences to get out of it. Steven Dorff is good in the lead role, showing a lot of skill at a young age while the rest of the cast are fine if unremarkable. The film takes a while to get out of first gear, but the last part of the movie emulates the likes of Poltergeist as it tries to pack in the thrills and the special effects. While the effects do not hold up, some of the model work is excellent and would have been impressive at the time of release, the scares are not going to have an impact on anyone but the youngest viewer, and the dialogue and laughs are likely only going to be enjoyed by the nostalgic viewer. Still, this makes a nice introduction to horror movies for the younger kid along with classics like Ghostbusters and Gremlins and would still provide some spooky fun during a Halloween party.

Have you seen The Gate? Let us know in the comments how you feel it ranks against other classics of the genre from the same time.

Ju On – White Ghost

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It has been quite some time since I first watched The Grudge and loved every second of it. Since then I watched the original Japanese TV movies (which The Grudge is a sequel of even though it seems like a remake) and the director Takashi Shimizu’s own US remake. I haven’t actually watched the US The Grudge 2 (also directed by Shimizu) and US The Grudge 3 (not Shimizu) partly due to bad reviews and partly due to Part 3 sounding like a straight to video mess. And of course partly because I was burned out on J Horror by that time. Black Ghost and White Ghost had been popping up on my Amazon Prime Viewer for quite some time but I’d avoided them as they sounded like even worse straight to video cash ins, but I finally relented and gave them a shot. Made to honour the 10th Anniversary of the series, these are two stories which deviate from the main plot of the main series, but are they any good!?

White Ghost, like it’s partner and predecessors has a labyrinthine plot which unravels in a deliberately non-linear fashion – events at the start of the film may happen weeks or months after events shown at the end, and vice versa, and more than that there appear to be certain elements which transcend time – echos of events which have not yet occurred. The story follows a group of characters who come into contact with a curse – a man murders his family, an old friend investigates, and several randomers are drawn into the pit. As I said in my review for Black Ghost, it is definitely worth watching each movie twice to appreciate the finer points and attempt to bring together a timeline in your head. Ironically, I fond this plot even more dense than Black Ghost but it appears to be handled more professionally. There is a lot of leaping about from time to time to character to place and back again, but it is engrossing.

There is some fairly dark stuff at work here – the murders and the curse of course, but an unsettling lump of incest, pedophilia, and suicide, none of which are shied away from. It’s unusual for a film in the Ju On universe to dwell much on the events which kicked everything off – mostly it’s shown in brief flashbacks, but here we are front row witnesses to the slaughter. This one is less atmospheric than Black Ghost, but still has plenty of tension and has more jump scares. The actual character of the White Ghost is not on par with Kayako, but her appearances rarely fail to scare to the point that you are dreading her next pop up. A few of these moments don’t quite work, and end up being almost funny, but for the most part the scares are particularly effective. That strange shimmering effect I mentioned in the other review is present here too. Again the performances are good, the soundtrack works well, and there is a grimy worn out look to proceedings. I watched Black Ghost first, but the stories don’t link together in any way so feel free to pick whichever you wish. BG has the atmosphere, WG has the bulk of the scares, but both are well worth a go for J-Horror fans.

So, who would I recommend this to? Grudge fans obviously, first and foremost. This doesn’t fill in any gaps from the main series or provide any resolution, rather it seems to be a similar story set in the same universe. There isn’t enough time to form much attachment to the characters, the plot is convoluted and non-linear, and the scares don’t offer anything new. With all that said, I enjoyed it, I was a little scared in places, and the idea still intrigues me as much as the execution. You won’t lose much by sacrificing an hour – so if you find this on streaming, give it a shot.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of White Ghost and how it compares to Black Ghost and the other movies in The Grudge franchise.