Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Halloween List: Final Destination and "Death Note"

Final Destination (2000)

This is a series I utterly missed out on in the 2000s because I was stuck-up. How lazy was it to ditch a proper Slasher killer and use an invisible hand of Death itself?

Not lazy at all, actually. The movie follows a teen whose vision of his flight exploding causing him and a few friends to leave. The plane does explode, and our teen becomes a suspect of the bombing. Meanwhile, the teens begin to die in a series of ludicrously complicated coincidences. The first features a kid slipping on water from a leaking toilet, falling into a bath tub where his neck catches on wire, and spilling shampoo under his feet so he can’t stand up. It quickly becomes apparent that Death itself is after the survivors, seeking to fix what went awry in its plan.

It’s a fun idea that fits right into the classic Slasher formula with one major change. Slashers historically thrive on either having a killer with a strong personality, or on having the identity of the killer be a mystery. Here instead we have a killer that is as absent as it is present, and one that uses entirely unconventional.

A friend called it “Rube Goldberg’s Death Traps,” and that’s apt, because the fun lies in trying to guess what things in a room are going to wind up being dangerous. Is turning on the record player going to lead to her demise? Is the electrical outlet going to short out at the right moment?

But it is obvious that while the studio knew they had a great idea on their hands, they had no idea how to end it. I was gobsmacked when, with ten minutes remaining and the plot utterly unresolved, the movie pulled a “SIX MONTHS LATER” and went into an epilogue. It ends on an obvious “one more scare” that doesn’t resolve the movie, either. It doesn’t even feel like a setup for a sequel. It’s a blatant non-ending that feels like they were shooting an unfinished script.

One assumes the several sequels will give you whatever closure you want. Given how trivial much of the movie felt, I wasn’t invested or betrayed here. If you’re going to watch it, you watch it for the thrills, not for the plotting. But you should be warned that this movie doesn’t have an ending.

Final Destination is a definite piece of 90s-era stilted American Horror. The characters are always too emotional, the music too bombastic, and conflict explodes from nowhere. It’s amazing that this was the standard in things like Scream and I Know What You Do Last Summer, when we live now in a period where realism is so highly fetishized in American Horror.

I have some qualms about whether we’re actually reflecting reality in our films that are shot in perpetual shadow, but both eras have their merits. Final Destination and its ilk feel lighter and fluffier, easier to watch on a bad night. Remember: cheese is delicious.

Death Note (2017)

A Netflix original film from the director of the atrocious Blair Witch sequel. This movie understands its source material every bit as poorly as 2016’s Blair Witch did.

You can view it two ways: as an adaptation with expectations to live up to, or as something that should stand alone on its own merits. By both standards, it’s a limp, soulless wreck.

Death Note tells the story of Light Tanner, a teenager who discovers a magic book. Anyone whose name he writes in it will die. He uses this power in an attempt to reshape the world as its god. It’s a heck of a premise that requires suspense to work.

As its own movie, Netflix’s Death Note is sloppy. We see the book fall between two clouds, then cut immediately to it landing in a park, with no sense of time or sequence. Light’s mother was murdered, and he blames his father for the killer getting away, but it’s presented as the most lifeless yelling conflict between two actors with no chemistry. There’s no consistent visual style to the camera work, and it follows the story of a kid with no internal life and nothing worth investing in before he’s suddenly in the highest stakes conflicts possible. It’s a script you’d never greenlight if it wasn’t an adaptation of a popular property that you could rely on for marketing.

As an adaptation of a Japanese masterpiece, the American Death Note doesn’t seem to understand anything about why the original succeeded. Gone is the secrecy; he has the book out in public frequently, and shows it off to the first hot girl who pays attention to him. Gone also are the moral stakes; his first victim is a bully who punched him one time. Light doesn’t read like a sociopath or megalomaniac, but like a flighty tool who occasionally monologues.

The greatest misunderstanding is what Light is supposed to represent. In the original, Light Yagami was a model Japanese citizen, studious, reverent to his parents, on the track to a life in law. The story is supposed to be about how such power reveals the inherent cruelty in such a person, not unlike Stephen King’s Apt Pupil. But Light Tanner is a random kid with no symbolic importance and no significant depth. His descent into murder and tyranny is immediate and lacks any reflection on America. The most generous assessment of its social commentary is that Light Tanner has the psychology of a bad 1960s Stan Lee villain. He feels outdated before he even has a plot.

Up next: Italian Horror! The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Bay of Blood, and Blood and Black Lace


  1. I think I like your well considered negative reviews as much as the positives. And they have the advantage that they don't make me feel guilty about yet another movie I am not watching.

  2. "As its own movie, Netflix’s Death Note is sloppy. We see the book fall between two clouds, then cut immediately to it landing in a park, with no sense of time or sequence."

    So Myst, except darker and focusing on one of the mad brothers. And except sucky.


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