I have named this penultimate leg of the final Summer of Blood "Horror in the Late 1990s", but the quick-witted will notice that Final Destination was released in 2000. And no, this isn't some enormously pretentious "you see, decades begin in the year ending in -1 and end in the year ending in -0, so 'the '90s' were actually 1991-2000" type of deal, though I would absolutely not put it past myself to do that.

Rather, it's that Final Destination strikes me as a particularly clear-cut bridge between two eras of horror cinema. Genre films in The Age of Scream, with almost no exceptions, largely functioned as the theatrical wing of The WB, both in the literal sense that the teen-focused network largely shared a pool of actors with the many films that tried to cut off a slice of that Scream pie for themselves, and in the more general sense that a lot of these films were basically teen soaps into which violent death wandered. Final Destination has both of those angles covered: the headliners include Dawson's Creek regular Kerr Smith and two-shot guest star Ali Larter (in fairness, Larter's fame - such as it was - largely started with Final Destination, and she could fairly be called an unknown), American Pie stand-out Seann William Scott, and in the lead role, Devon Sawa. I'm damned if I can remember now why anybody cared about Devon Sawa prior to 2000, but I vividly remember knowing that he existed when this film first came out, and thinking that it was pandering to try and force him into movie stardom, though pandering to whom, I am also at a loss to remember.

The shift in American horror that culminated in 2004's Saw, meanwhile, was directly away from the sanded edges and glib friendliness of the reedy Scream followers, and back towards a measure of nastiness and violence-for-violence's-sake. It wasn't always scary and was frequently nothing but a gonzo show of elaborate, tacky gore, but this new mode of horror was at least unsafe. It punched, where the horror of the '90s tapped or tickled. And here, too, Final Destination stakes its claim: while the blood is spilled with quite a bit of a sense of humor that functions to delegitimise its horror, there's no mistaking how nasty this film is. It takes quite a lot of pride in the viciousness of its preposterously elaborate death sequences, and it makes them land with a real punch. Any ol' slasher movie can present its character deaths with a certain flair that makes them more fun and cool than actually visceral; this is usually done with a kind of showmanship that isolates the deaths as nothing but a self-contained setpiece. Final Destination has the setpieces, but not the isolation; the whole film is build around rising momentum and dread that spans its entire running time, with every character's behavior hinging on their awareness of horrible it must be to die.

Splitting the difference between the poles means that Final Destination ends up being more of a ghoulish black comedy than it gets credit for, if less than it could be. That, in fact, is the most signal achievement of Final Destination 2, from three years later: it fully embraces the sick humor that Final Destination merely hints at, in the process becoming a bit more enthusiastic in its cruelty and a bit less hard-hitting. It's an open question in my mind which of these two approaches results in the better film, but the main point is that, rather unpredictably, Final Destination and at least its first sequel both end up being good enough that "better film" isn't a totally incongruous phrase to use. There are a lot of forces working against Final Destination, including its largely bland cast and a scenario that makes a big damn point of not clarifying its own rules or explaining itself, but it's honestly as good as a teen-focused body count picture released in 2000 was ever possibly going to be.

So about that scenario: it's a real snazzy, gimmicky bastard. Once upon a time, a few dozen seniors from Mt. Abraham High School in Vancouverton, USA were heading on their senior trip to Paris, when one of them, Alex Browning (Sawa) had an intensely real dream of the plane exploding less than a minute after take off. His subsequent hissy fit gets so frantic and noisy that he's thrown off the plane, dragging several other students and two teachers, Valerie Lewton (Kristen Cloke) and Larry Murnau (Forbes Angus), with him. Larry is able to argue his way back on the plane - the kids can't be without a chaperone, after all - but Valerie and the other escapees, including Alex's best friend Tod Waggner (Chad E. Donella), his best enemy Carter Horton (Smith), Carter's girlfriend Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer), the dimwitted Billy Hitchcock (Scott), who was just making his way onto the plane when Alex had his freakout, and Clear Rivers (Larter), who uniquely among everybody involved chose to get off the plane because she actually believed Alex when he started shouting about his premonition. As well she might; the seven stranded folks haven't even caught their bearings from being unceremoniously dumped in the terminal when the plane does, in fact, explode.

39 days later, Alex has turned into a pariah and source of terror and fascination: Carter resents him even more know that he owes Alex his own life, Valerie is sickened just to look at him, Billy eagerly peppers him with questions about the future. Only Clear still wants to be his friend, I presume because of her asinine name that makes her incapable of having normal human interactions. It's Clear who serves as his sole ally when Tod dies of an apparent suicide that Alex just knows must have been an accident of some kind. We also know this, because we saw him die: we saw water inexplicably ooze across the bathroom floor, causing him to trip just so and fall across a rope hanging off the showerhead just so, and strangle to death. So we're ahead of the game when Alex and Clear sneak into the morgue to investigate Tod's body. But we're nowhere near as far ahead as the mortician, Mr. Bludworth (Tony Todd), who gently but menacingly informs the teens that they are being stalked by Death Itself, who wants to earn back the lives Alex saved with his psychic outburst. And as he says in a line that benefits immeasurably from Todd's irreplaceable bass purr, "You don't even want to fuck with that mack daddy".

And thus we have a concept loose enough to support five movies through 2011's Final Destination 5: survive an unsurvivable accident, and Death will catch up with you, though in an apparent fit of peevishness that you were able to get away from its grasp, your death is going to come in the form of a supremely complicated series of accidents that all add up to a spectacularly messy splotch where your body used to be. I will not run through the film's deaths, which start at the 36 minute mark and regularly punctuate the remaining hour, since the whole fun of Final Destination and its sequels lies in watching how much of a Rube Goldberg contraption the filmmakers can concoct to kill each cast member, and/or how much stage blood they can justify from a single human death.

What sets Final Destination apart from a routine slasher, as well as from at least some of its own sequels, is in the spirited attitude with which it moves through this mechanistic slaughtering of the innocents. There is a perfect mixture of the deadly serious and the hopelessly absurd throughout the whole movie; it's no surprise at all to learn that writer Jeffrey Reddick's first draft was a spec script for The X-Files, which is how X-Files producers Glen Morgan & James Wong picked up and rewrote it into what would become Wong's feature directorial debut. For it shares with that show a deadpan sensibility, an awareness that yes, yes, all of this is terrible - but it's also kind of ridiculous, and we're not going to try and sell you on the idea that it's not. The closest the film comes to acknowledging outright that it's a comedy at heart is when it throws a speeding bus at one of its victims quite without warning, splattering blood like a water balloon. But the whole thing has a hard time hiding its impish grin, especially in Valerie's unbelievably complex death sequence, punctuated by fake-outs where you can almost hear Wong chuckling "Gotcha! You totally expected that she was going to blow up the kitchen when she turned on that burner. Don't lie" over your shoulder.

It is, essentially, a film that knows it doesn't have the ingredients to be scary, only repulsive and nihilistic, so at least it's worth having a good time with it. Wong approaches this with a perfectly straight face, but the comedy is always right there, ready to erupt: the tasteless gag of having John Denver music play during or near every death; Scott's excellent performance as a starry-eyed moron (it is in fact my favorite of his performances, by no small margin); overblown audio cues, like a montage of packing scored like a murder scene, or a small circular fan that roars like a tiger, or the stove burners that ignite like a star exploding. It's a very heightened film that never calls attention to itself, which means that it's every bit as ominous as it is absurd: the whole movie positively looms with death, turning even the most innocuous moments and household objects into such leering avatars of destruction and bloody murder that it's hard to know whether to laugh or shudder.

At any rate, it is an ebullient movie that leaves nothing on the table; it commits hard to what it's depicting and how badly it wants to amuse & disgust the audience. Not everything plays: the "character surnames are famous horror directors" gag is musty and smug, though "Billy Hitchcock" is a magnificent character name. And the cardboard-thin performances Sawa and Larter give prevent the film from having even a smidgen of resonance - there really is no draw here besides the most superficial generic appeal, and the cackling delight the film shows in murdering its ensemble. But really, that's enough. Final Destination is shameless razzle-dazzle done by people who genuinely can't imagine why a pissed-off Death getting its revenge on meddling teenagers shouldn't be entertaining. It's crassly inhumane and too blunt to be scary, but it understands the spectacle to be gleaned from its bloody material far more viscerally than its teen-slasher forebears, and with more zest and good cheer than its torture porn descendents. All of which is enough to make it one of the few contemporary splatter pictures that also can lay claim to being something of a modern classic in horror.

Body Count: 292 if we count the plane crash, 5 if we don't, but of course, isn't the film's argument that the true body count is every single one of us?