A Pair of New Horror Movies Show Divergent Approaches to the Format

The concept, you must admit, is pretty irresistible: another Final Destination flick! In 3D! For 10 years now the quietly profitable, marginally entertaining series has kept the relative goofiness of '90s teen screamers alive, even as the rest of this decade's horror declined into dour brutality. So when it comes time to saddle a known quantity with a popular gimmick like 3D, what could be a better choice than a series that's already managed to squeeze three films out of an awesomely stupid gimmick of its own?

Said gimmick is a simple one, yet it doubles pretty definitively as a synopsis for all four films: A generic young lead experiences a premonition of a terrible disaster—in this case a fiery stock car racing accident—and ends up saving several people, who then begin dying under convoluted circumstances as Death itself attempts a course correction. Meanwhile, our heroes come to the conclusion that these deaths are happening in a specific order, and make feeble attempts to further disrupt Death's plans.

Conspicuous sameness aside, the Final Destination movies have found their niche thanks to the reliably over-the-top kill scenes, and the fourth installment—optimistically titled The Final Destination—doesn't mess with that formula any more than it does the plot's. We are privy to the fatal consequences of riding an escalator, visiting the salon, and burning a cross in someone's yard, to name only a few, and most of the sequences are marked with the series' characteristic panache and misdirection.

That it all goes down in three dimensions, though, does nothing to fend off diminishing returns, and with few exceptions The Final Destination consists largely of the least impressive 3D since the format resurrected itself in 2005. Director David R. Ellis has gone on record saying he was more concerned with adding visual depth than simply popping stuff out at the audience, and the folly of his priorities is clear in a film that fails to be even half as fun as January's My Bloody Valentine 3D, which was only half-fun to begin with.

Even a successfully 3D Final Destination, though, would be sunk with the rubbish that passes for Eric Bress' screenplay. It's very much expected by this point that these films are written from some sort of template, but for The Final Destination Bress seems to have simply printed out the template and handed it in unadorned. The characters show no depth that couldn't be summed up in a single phrase—one fellow is even referred to primarily as "the racist guy" by the other characters—and facile passes at humor fall invariably flat.

Worse still is the dialogue, which at its very best slogs the film towards its next gory spectacle but more often repeats entire conversations or devolves suddenly into impenetrable nonsense. It's far too much to ask that the final Final Destination aspire to determinist commentary or step to a level of fantasy where Death shows his face and we learn who, exactly, is filling these kids in on their impending doom; no, it's even too much to ask that someone bother to proofread it.

Rob Zombie's Halloween II, on the other hand, suffers from no such lack of thought, and despite its flaws is a curious surprise for it. A sequel to his 2007 remake of John Carpenter's inaugural slasher, the film picks up (at least initially) where its predecessor left off, but soon jumps forward to the next Halloween as Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) continues to fight through the psychic aftermath of Michael Myers' holiday rampage. Then Myers (an imposing Tyler Mane) shows back up, and you can pretty much guess what happens from there.

This, too, is standard stuff, but Zombie continues to assert himself as one of horror's most distinctive voices, as comfortable behind the camera as he ever was at the microphone. Impeccable visuals, taut suspense, and stomach-churning gore effects account for plenty of the film's impact, but most fascinating is Zombie's approach to violence, and how it envelops his themes. In a film like The Final Destination we're treated to a fistful of novelty kills, each played for maximum entertainment; in Halloween II we're instead asked to witness countless scenes of senseless murder, most of them carried out with nothing fancier than an axe, a knife, or a boot. Zombie chooses not to trivialize the carnage, and furthermore forces on us the emotional and psychological reactions of those left behind to mourn. In this way it is very clearly a mature work of horror.

Still, it's left for us to ponder, what really separates these two films if their divergent attitudes toward death and violence end up competing for our Saturday matinee dollars? If it's any help, know that one of them is pretty good, one of them is very bad, and neither is much fun at all.