From the mid-90s to the early 2000s, horror kind of sucked. Sure, there were breakout hits here and there, but the genre was exhausted from its heyday run of films. Scream, the movie that changed the genre in many ways, had torn down the rules and thrown the book into a burning inferno. Most of the films that came after it were duds, but two franchises would rise to power in the 2000s and bring the genre back to life…for better or worse.
Released in the middle of the horror movie decline, Final Destination was an innovative and new idea for its time. Instead of a masked or disfigured killer stalking teens, Death itself comes after those who escape mortal catastrophes. The first film, released a year before 9/11, dealt with the survivors of Flight 180 after it explodes in midair. While the killer is never seen, each death is more gruesome than the last and more detailed than just random stabbing or slashing. Critics called it ‘crude’, but that would come to define horror movies of the 21st century.
Four years later, the-little-terror-that-could known as Saw was born and horror would never be the same. Doing for splatter films what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre did for slashers, this franchise meant serious business and didn’t laugh at itself like most films had done since 1996. Created on a low budget, it also showed that practical effects and a compelling story could sell a film just as well as special effects. Not for the faint of heart, its stomach-churning imagery opened the gates for more revulsion in the hard-R horror films.
Final Destination spawned a total of five films from 2000 to 2011, and Saw birthed seven sequels from 2004 to 2010—a movie coming out every year around Halloween. In many ways, the franchises are similar, but there are also key differences that led to their different levels of success and split many fans. Each film in both franchises has essentially the same plot: in Saw people are captured by the Jigsaw Killer and tortured so that they may learn the value of life and repent in violent ways; in Final Destination people escape a catastrophe that would have killed them only to be hunted down by Death a little while later. Somehow, even with identical plotlines these franchises managed to keep them fresh and ongoing.
Each Final Destination deals with a different disaster that gives most people with anxiety some kind of nightmare anyway: plane crash, car accident, rollercoaster derailing, stadium cave-in, bridge collapse. Each Saw deals with human intervention for divine retribution, enabling people to change for the better if they survive the ultimate test. Both of their antagonists, Death and the Jigsaw Killer, use other devices to carry out their torture instead of doing the damage themselves. Each film ends in the same way as the survivors of the disasters realize that death is inescapable and the tortured realize that the game was more intricate than they thought. The franchises are both cyclical—using the following films to develop on and expand the first.
The key differences between the franchises lie in their executions. Final Destination depends on special effects for its scare factor, has poorly developed characters with little motivation beyond surviving, and doesn’t have too much of a plot beyond outliving Death’s plan. Saw uses practical effects that are terrifyingly real, has well-developed characters that have bigger purposes than just their deaths, and has an overarching plot that makes viewers think instead of just take voyeuristic pleasure from the gore. It’s been said that Final Destination is death first, story second and Saw is story first, death second.
Most would agree that Final Destination has weak sequels, whereas the films after the first Saw maintain the level of complexity and tension. With both series, there are a few characters that stand out, but most blend into an endless stream of blood, bone, and dismemberment. The same goes for the elaborate deaths: most people can remember the ‘bear trap’ and tanning bed scenes. It seems that, when given the choice, many choose Final Destination for its more accessible version of horror, rather than the deeper, more elaborate alternative.
Both films dominated theaters throughout the first decade of the 21st century and made multiple impacts on how horror was filmed, developed, and sold. They brought hardcore death into the new millennium, matching our real world terrors, and taking them to the next level. If you’re going to have a movie marathon before Halloween be sure to watch at least the first film from each of these franchises to honor what they have brought to the genre: intricate death scenes, lip-biting special and practical effects, and more blood than audiences could handle.
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