There are only two scary movies. The simplest is called Bad Things Happen Off the Beaten Path. It goes like this:
Act One: Sin - People choose to stray from the beaten path.
Act Two: Penance - People are punished for straying from the beaten path.
Act Three: Redemption - The survivors run back to the beaten path.
During the first act of a movie like this, you find yourself screaming at the screen quite a bit. "Don't create super-smart sharks, you fools!" Or, "Don't sneak into the woods to have sex, you morons!" Or, "Don't go searching for a local legend named Dr. Satan, you dumbasses! Because he's not a legend. He's real. And you'll find him. And things aren't likely to get any better from there."
This first type of movie is a lesson written in blood, encouraging teenagers to follow the established norms of polite society.
The second type of horror movie is trickier, and perhaps impossible, to pull off. It's called Sometimes Bad Things Just Happen.
Act One: Fate Appears - A mysterious force comes to town.
Act Two: Fate Decides - The force randomly chooses a victim.
Act Three: The Fight Against Fate - The victim battles back.
This second type of movie is a way for humans to try to understand the cancers and the car accidents and the horrible accidents that destroy and take lives. It is an explanation of the awfulness of fate.
Over and over, horror movies have tried and failed to mythologize around the randomness of life. Michael Myers was visited upon Laurie Strode for no particular reason, until the makers of the sequel concocted a relationship. Jaws picked Amity randomly, but the town fathers sinned when they decided to keep the tourist beaches open. Sidney Prescott was forced to atone not for her sins, but her mother's. The victims in countless zombie movies will never learn that the zombies were inadvertently created by, say, our own government.
So close, yet still so far away.
In a life of watching scary movies, I have only seen one film that ever really challenged either of these two essential structures. Final Destination. In it, a premonition helps teens escape a fatal accident. Several of the survivors die mysteriously, and the rest realize that by evading death, they have interrupted its grand design. They search for a way to escape their fates as death circles back to complete its plan.
Final Destination squeezes the villain of the latter type of movie into the structure of the former. And in doing so, it captures the very essence of human existence. We come into this world randomly, unable to choose either our parents or our station. And we are faced with only one real possible outcome. Nevertheless, we give great weight to our own choices, imagining that perhaps we'll find some way to rewrite the script of human existence.
It is unlikely that Final Destination was supposed to be a message move. But it is. I've watched it and its sequels a dozen times, always admiring the perfection of their concept, if not their execution. They lack the energy of The Descent and often waver between Black Christmas 1974-style tension and Black Christmas 2006-style gore.
But they have something more important. Insight. And that's why I can't get them out of my head.