Final Destination 3

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You tell the audience which characters are going to die. You even tell them in what order. And then they sit back and enjoy the mayhem.

That’s how the “Final Destination” films work, and if it seems counterintuitive to give away so much up front, the series has made it work with macabre humor and devilishly clever setups. There’s not much suspense over who will die, but you can thrill in trying to guess how.

“Final Destination 3” is a return to form for the series. Part 2 was a pale imitation of the original, done by newcomers who clearly missed the subtle touches that had made the first one work. Part 3 has the original filmmakers back onboard — director/writer James Wong and his co-writer Glen Morgan, both formerly of “The X-Files” — as well as much of the original sense of humor and more of those elaborate deathtraps that result in such unexpectedly entertaining demises.

The premise: Fate dictates when you die, and if you somehow cheat Death and miss your time, Death will come back around for you, presumably the next time he’s in your neighborhood. (Or maybe he makes special trips, I don’t know.)

This chapter begins with a Pennsylvania high school’s “Grad Nite” trip to an amusement park, where a responsible, controlling senior named Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has a premonition about a roller coaster accident. She is freaked out enough to make a scene and get herself and nine others bounced from the ride. The roller coaster takes off, and sure enough, derailments and carnage ensue.

As if it’s not eerie enough to survive such an accident, now Wendy and the others have this to contend with: Death is going to swing by and kill them all anyway, in the same order they would have died if they had stayed on the ride.

Wendy’s friend Kevin (Ryan Merriman) notices the trend after the first few survivors are bumped off in bizarre accidents, and finds an account of similar events that occurred six years earlier — in the first “Final Destination” movie, of course. (Part 2 is never referred to.) What’s more, Wendy was taking pictures for the yearbook during Grad Nite, and she happens to have snaps of all the survivors — photos that seem to presage the manner of their impending doom. (Two bimbos were photographed at the amusement park in lighting that made them appear darker than they are; sure enough, they die in a tanning-bed mishap.)

It would seem there’s no way to outsmart Death, and that is indeed part of the film’s very dark philosophy. Where most horror films have a specific killer, monster, force or virus, the “Final Destination” franchise has only Death itself. You can barricade your house against zombies, or take a vaccine for a plague, or simply run fast to escape Jason Voorhees. But how do you escape Death — which is merely an idea, a concept — and especially when Death is so good at turning ordinary events into unforeseeably fatal accidents?

The Rube Goldberg factor is the film’s must eye-catching element. It’s never anything as simple as a car swerving across the line and hitting you, or even a regular ol’ heart attack. No, for these grudge deaths, the Grim Reaper prefers something a little more elegant. We watch as several elements are established — that stereo is too close to that puddle, those decorative swords are not tightly affixed to that wall, and so forth — and then watch as one minor incident triggers a chain reaction among all these unrelated circumstances, culminating in someone’s head being smashed.

Wong and Morgan are smart to inject the film with gallows humor, which keeps it from becoming oppressively dark. They don’t dwell on the gore, either. The deaths happen, and they happen spectacularly — but they also usually happen quickly, without any lingering on the aftermath.

Speaking of lingering, the opening sequence at the amusement park runs 20 minutes, which feels long for a movie whose focus is what happens AFTER that. And there is a formulaic feel to it: Wendy and Kevin go to the next survivor on the list to warn him or her; the person doesn’t believe them; by the end of the scene, the person’s blood is spattered on Wendy’s face. I think that while this entry is suitably creepy and outrageous, it should probably be the last one. As these three films have proven, the last thing you want to do is try to extend your life past its expiration date.

B (1 hr., 30 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, one scene with tons of non-sexual nudity, plenty of graphic blood and gore and brains.)

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