First let me start this off by saying, I am absolutely terrified of rollercoasters...
...Have been ever since I was a kid. The large loops and sharp turns going at an ungodly speed, the only thing keeping you safe from plummeting to your death harnesses that you hope were locked in correctly. I’m not alone in that fear; thousands of people around the world suffer from various rollercoaster-related phobias, so it makes sense that a supernatural horror franchise with a habit of preying on such weaknesses would tackle rollercoasters in their third installment.
Final Destination is a film franchise where survivors of increasingly elaborate catastrophes find themselves being hunted by death, eventually falling into “death’s design” where their best hope for survival lies in the hands of the main character, who has usually been gifted with foresight at the beginning of the film.
By the time Final Destination 3 was in production, writing and directing duties had passed to James Wong and Glen Morgan, both of whom had a hand in writing and shaping the first entry in the Final Destination franchise with series creator Jeffrey Reddick.
Shot in Vancouver, Canada, the film features Mary Elizabeth Winstead in one of her early roles post-Sky High. Winstead plays Wendy, our main protagonist chosen either by fate or death themselves to receive the vision of what could be.
Wendy visits an amusement park with her boyfriend and a group of friends, snapping pictures along the way. The group decides to take on Devil’s Flight, a corkscrew rollercoaster which was played by the Corkscrew coaster at a Vancouver amusement park. The first several months of shooting were focused on the derailment sequence, as it required extensive special effects work with an estimated 144 visual effect shots. Watching the behind the scenes of this sequence is a must for those that enjoy a peek into the process of filming elaborate sequences such as this.
The carts of the rollercoaster were shot in front of a green screen with the actors performing their own stunts and reacting to the derailments, sometimes suspended in the air via cords. Future Final Destination films would later expand as technology improved, allowing more batshit insane sequences that would one-up each other with each film.
As someone with a fear of rollercoasters, this sequence sent my anxiety skyrocketing. The camera’s focus on bolts and suspension fluid leaks in the Rube Goldberg-esque sequences that have become a staple of the film franchise makes my stomach flip. The twists, turns, and loops are built up and made all the more tense thanks to the score by Shirley Walker. When catastrophe does happen, you find yourself helpless to the carnage that ensues and, honestly, it just made me never want to set foot on a rollercoaster. Ever.
From here the pieces in death’s game begin to move as the survivors of this disaster must contend with guilt over living while so many others have died. It isn't until after the tanning bed deaths of two of the survivors, Ashley (Chelan Simmons) and Ashlyn (Yan-Kay Crystal Lowe), that Wendy begins to notice patterns that coincide with how each crash survivor’s death will play out in the photos taken that night at the amusement park.
Ashley and Ashlyn’s tanning bed death sequence is possibly the most iconic death sequence in not only the film but the franchise as a whole; it perfectly showcases the franchise’s ability to turn the mundane into the horrific.
Fun fact: I used to clean tanning beds as a teen for extra cash at the beauty supply/tanning salon that my mom managed and we would have people come in to tan for long periods of time—some even falling asleep in the beds—so the concept of Ashley and Ashlyn dying in these tanning beds is not entirely implausible even if the execution is a little more brutal than reality.
While the first two films feature memorable slow burn deaths, Final Destination 3 is really where the franchise finds its footing with ramping up the intensity of the kills. Each one gets more gruesome than the one before, shining even as the formula and predictability of the plot and story arc of the film, with the protagonist alternately succeeding or failing in their efforts to circumvent death’s design, remains the same.
The film takes a turn halfway through when one of the survivors decides to take revenge for one of the deaths. The survivor vs survivor storyline wouldn’t really be touched upon again until later on in the franchise, and then with a different motive and execution.
This only heightens the final sequence which takes place at a tricentennial event where possible deaths are around every corner. Honestly, the lack of death-by-firework was the only disappointment I had with this sequence. Unfortunately, just as with the first film, this entry suffered from test audiences not liking its original ending, which meant re-filming a new ending that leaves you questioning where our remaining heroes end up.
Final Destination 3 would go on to earn $118.9 million in the box office, more than making back its $25 million budget and cementing future sequels. While the plot was predictable, it was Winstead’s acting and the creative deaths that left people raving about the film. Indeed, Winstead’s performance here gives only a hint to her acting skills later exemplified in such films as Death Proof and Scott Pilgrim.
There are several outtakes of Winstead trying to get the tear shot and profusely apologizing when it doesn’t work; it’s this endearing level of professionalism and desire to set the scene that makes her always a highlight to watch onscreen. Wendy never feels like a caricature. Instead, we connect and feel for her much as we did with Alex in the first film. If nothing else, the film is worth watching for her performance alone.
But perhaps what sets this entry apart from any previous or future efforts is the use of a special feature on the home video release called “Choose Their Fate” where the audience can make choices throughout the film and impact how the story plays out. It would have been interesting to see an attempt at integrating this feature into the theater experience, although the execution would have no doubt been a complex William Castle-esque gimmick.
The interactive movie features on the home video release make re-watching an immersive experience. Seeing how each alternate opening or sequence plays out, it's almost like you are playing fate in a way, having a hand in the deaths that follow.
Final Destination 3 signaled a change in the franchise’s formula. The standalone story effort would return in later installments, although not to quite the same effect. It's no wonder that, in discussing our favorite deaths from the franchise, even 15 years later this film still holds a place of honor in the top ten or top five for any fan of carnage.
If you’re on the fence about this entry let me just say: it's well worth the watch and, pardon the pun, it’s a real thrill ride.
By Kalani Landgraf
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