Choose your generationally appropriate reading matter, Where’s Waldo? or Highlights for Children. Now think about those busy, detailed drawings where familiar stuff is unfamiliarly embedded in other stuff (toasters in trees, Waldo on a roof), to the delight of those who catch on. The same notion of viewer participation applies to Final Destination, an unexpectedly alert teen-scream disaster chiller in which Alex (every-kid Devon Sawa) and Carter (Dawson’s Creek’s Kerr Smith) and their suburban high school friends aren’t pursued by madmen with masks or grappling hooks, but by the force of death itself, lurking in workaday physics. Dangerous activities extend to clipping nose hairs and crossing the street, because when your number’s up, your number’s up.
Alex, though (so groovy, he’s got a poster for Pecker on his bedroom wall), discovers he’s got an eerie — and unpopular — gift for seeing one step ahead of death. Strapped in for a senior class trip to Paris, he’s so sure of what will happen to the airplane (Volée Air Flight 180, for emphasis), he panics, demands to get off, and embroils five other classmates and a teacher in the melee. The seven survive. But death wants them.
In Final Destination, who’s next (the bully? the fast girl? the artsy chick who dresses in black?) and how (kitchen knives? oncoming train?) are the local stops along the way. And this is where director-cowriter James Wong and his producer-cowriter Glen Morgan go to town, shaping Jeffrey Reddick’s basic story to their own excellently warped X-Files-honed point of view, which relies far less on Scream-style verbal riffs than on visual and situational puns and punchlines. (Every character surname pays homage — among them Browning, Hitchcock, Murnau, Dreyer, and Chaney.) Myself, I like that the jittery schoolteacher (Kristen Cloke) spends her last moments listening to an LP of John Denver singing ”Rocky Mountain High.” You might prefer the antics of the cackling mortician, played by The Candyman’s Tony Todd. Either way: It’s your funeral. B+