Final Destination is the best horror franchise in history. A part of me feels guilty saying that, especially as I survey all the figures of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers adorning my desk at this very moment. But while Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween all ultimately squandered their potential in later sequels, Final Destination has remained surprisingly consistent throughout its five entries, providing cheesy thrills without ever jumping the shark.
To understand how, let’s take a closer look at some of the issues other horror franchises have fallen victim to in the past.
A frequent dilemma is that the original film simply does not have much sequel potential, and so there is nothing new to say in future installments. As a direct result, storytellers begin throwing anything they can think of at the wall to see what sticks, getting nuttier and nuttier until a relatively serious picture has become a parody of itself. Think of A Nightmare on Elm Street; though a guilty pleasure, it’s a bizarre series just because of how all over the place it ends up being. One minute, Freddy is a terrifying representation of our subconscious fears, but the next, he’s like a demon Joker, slaughtering teenagers with a Power Glove and saying “bitch” a whole lot.
To a lesser extent, this applies to Friday the 13th as well. It became apparent after Part III that teens being offed in the woods could only last so many movies and the kills had to be taken to the next level. So before long, Jason’s dead, he’s alive, he’s fighting a girl with telekinesis, he’s in hell and, finally, he’s in space. Once again, this is definitely not to say the franchise is bad, but it’s certainly erratic, jumping up and down in quality as regularly as an American Horror Story season. With both Nightmare and Friday, the problems stem from the first installment, which works on its own and doesn’t leave much room for continuation. The directors of each sequel had nowhere to go except somewhere utterly insane, inevitably leading to a shift in tone.
Then there’s the case of the overcomplicated franchise storyline. When writers realize their series will be around for a while, as moviegoers have inexplicably not grown tired of it, they might start developing an overarching narrative. Theoretically, if returning characters and cliffhangers are utilized from now on, it will look slightly less ridiculous that so many sequels are being produced. Very quickly, though, that storyline usually turns into a complete disaster, with each sequel like a Jenga block being added to an increasingly unstable tower.
Just recall what happened to Saw: the main villain died in Saw III, which seemed like a fine place to wrap things up. Unfortunately, Lionsgate wasn’t ready to leave Saw behind, and so the next few sequels devolved into an incomprehensible onslaught of plot twists, flashbacks, flashforwards, and parallel events in an attempt to craft a mythology to put most soap operas to shame. It was a valiant effort, but in the end, Saw just became too convoluted for its own good. It wasn’t a Nightmare on Elm Street scenario, where the series took a nosedive because it was difficult to keep coming up with ideas. Instead, Saw actually had far too much going on.
An even more cataclysmic example of the botched expansive narrative is Halloween; Tommy Lee Wallace should be commended for trying something different with Halloween III: Season of the Witch. But, as we all know, everyone wanted Michael Myers back, and so Compass Pictures sadly had no choice but to hunker down and prepare for a long stay in Haddonfield. The result was an absurd ongoing plot about a cult that is eventually revealed to have been in control of Michael Myers all along. By adding so much backstory and so many ludicrous reveals, John Carpenter’s simplistic slasher had transformed into a bloated mess.
Learning from history, then, a successful franchise must start off with sequel potential, and it must connect each installment without completely running the plot into the ground. That brings us to Final Destination, which meets exactly that description and which has proven itself to be our finest horror series.
From the beginning, Final Destination is clearly built to last as a franchise. The killer of the piece isn’t a specific man or monster whose return must be explained. No, the killer is death itself, an invisible antagonist who will be taking lives until the end of time, whether these movies are made or not. The premise is ideal for followups, as by definition it’s a story about something that happens all the time.
The deaths themselves are also always entertaining because the series allows for unlimited possibilities. With Friday the 13th, there are only so many ways a man with a machete can murder teenagers. Sure, some of the sequels get creative, like the sleeping bag kill in The New Blood or the frozen head smash in Jason X. But even the most innovative deaths are still some variation of a strong man slaughtering his victims with blunt force.
In the Final Destination movies, absolutely anything can happen and it will fit within the established rules without any issue. Want to kill someone in a brutal and realistic fashion by having them get hit by a bus or strangled by a clothes line? That works! Want to do something preposterous like have a flying barbed-wire fence slice someone into three pieces or have a set of weights crush a guy’s face like a watermelon? That works too! Death does whatever the hell it wants, and so the screenwriters can do whatever the hell they want. Friday the 13th had to journey into space in a desperate search for something unique, but Final Destination requires no such reach.
Final Destination also perfectly integrates its overarching plot, letting each film stand on its own but also ensuring it feels like a piece of a larger puzzle. Final Destination 2, for instance, reintroduces Clear Rivers, the only survivor of Flight 180. She becomes an integral part of the story, continuing her arc from the original and offering the valuable knowledge that comes with being a seasoned death-dodger. This sequel also expands upon the rules of the Final Destination canon, establishing what happens when a new life is added into the mix. Yet at the same time, it is not even necessary to have watched the first installment to enjoy this one. Right away, Final Destination is serving up sequels that please both casual and hardcore fans.
The same is true of Final Destination 3, which clearly exhibits the franchise’s DNA but is also a totally fresh narrative. Just as Final Destination 2 played with the idea of new life cancelling out death, this sequel involves a series of clues in the form of pictures that heavily foreshadow how each character will die. There were omens in the other movies, but now getting to the bottom of these specific photos is a major part of the drama, another effective way to spice things up.
The Final Destination, which is a bit more predictable compared to the predecessors, still answers another fascinating question: “What happens when someone who isn’t next in line tries to kill themselves?” Next up, Final Destination 5 revolves heavily around figuring out how committing murder affects death’s priorities, a cool idea not at all reflected in the previous four films.
As you can see, every sequel is connected as to not create a Season of the Witch scenario, but the bridge between all five is mostly a bonus intended to please hardcore fans. Never is the story dragged down by the need to explain an overly complex narrative with dozens of characters and increasingly stupid ideas like the lead character being under the influence of a cult. Instead, each movie is self-contained while nevertheless carrying over familiar elements, throwing in fun easter eggs, and addressing unanswered questions.
The only weak link is The Final Destination, which is cheapened by the poor special effects and awkward use of 3D, but it thankfully never verges into the franchise-ruining territory of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers or A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Even if fans found themselves disappointed with the fourth entry, the series quickly bounced back with Final Destination 5 just two years later, correcting every complaint and standing out as one of the strongest films yet.
What other series brings the same basic feel to every sequel but requires they all say something slightly different? What other franchise consistently impresses with the creative kills and jaw-dropping moments to top what came before, never jumping the shark with a trip to space? Most importantly, in what other franchise are 80% of the entries absolute perfection? Not Friday the 13th. Not A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not Halloween. Not Saw. Not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not even Scream.
In terms of pure creativity and consistency, Final Destination reigns supreme.