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Reaper returns 'Final Destination 3' is a gruesome little dark comedy

Sequels are a funny business. Who's to know when the second or third round will be a success? For every "Cheaper by the Dozen 2," there's a "Chronicles of Riddick." Both awful, but one a moneymaker.

Then there are the "Final Destination" films. The first two grossed about $50 million each, a fine tally for genre pictures with no stars of note. Who knew there was such a devoted fan base for the "Final Destination" saga? And what are they called? "Desties"? I had no idea the series had done so well, yet, after seeing "Final Destination 3," I kind of get it, for this third film in the series is a shockingly effective, gruesome little horror treat.

And I mean gruesome. It is, without a doubt, one of the gorier horror flicks of recent years, which is rather surprising, considering that the film is likely geared toward a teenage audience. (It is indeed a hard "R.")

Director James Wong, who helmed the first film in the series, has created a tidy structure in which each death is the result of its own carefully put together and nicely convoluted set piece. This kicks in at about the 10-minute mark at a shady amusement park as nubile high school senior Wendy, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, has a sudden premonition of roller coaster disaster. Her freak-out saves the lives of several of her friends, as, you guessed it, disaster does occur (say goodbye to the aw-shucks boyfriend).

Following the coaster craziness, the deaths start to pile up -- death at the fast food joint, death at the gym, death at the home improvement store -- meaning the audience can kick back and ponder how the next elaborately planned casualty will occur. Fans of ominous foreshadowing will have a field day.

Surely the most memorable killing is the death-by-tanning-bed sequence, which, in the '70s horror film tradition, even features some frontal nudity. Wong slowly and meticulously draws out the sequence, making the obligatory offing of the gum-chewing bronzed beauties, Ashley and Ashlynn, almost unbearably grotesque. So much so that one audience member at the screening could be heard to cry out, "Oh my God!"

In fact, by the time Wong gets to, say, Gruesome Killing No. 3, the deaths are so over-the-top and graphic the film almost approaches dark comedy. To Wong's credit, each expiration seems to startle by reaching a new level of repulsion. The acting of the young cast is not flashy, but for a genre piece, solid.

If you head to a film titled "Final Destination 3" and expect to stumble upon expertly drawn characters, you've probably made a poor choice. But the main characters of the film, Winstead's Wendy, and Kevin, played by Ryan Merriman, are both rather likable and sweet. Winstead and Merriman are appealing actors, and manage to take their token character traits -- the control-freak yearbook photographer and the slightly dopey jock, respectively -- and apply to them a fresh coat of human interest.

Winstead, especially, shows herself to be a strong lead. Straight out of the Mandy Moore-Zooey Deschanel school of cute teenage heroines, she handles the role of put-upon survivor nicely. For those seeking a taut Valentine's Day scare, it does the job with efficiency.

But be warned: You may never feel completely safe in a tanning bed again.

2.5 stars (out of 4)

FINAL DESTINATION

STARRING: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ryan Merriman, Kris Lemche, and Amanda Crew

DIRECTOR: James Wong

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

RATING: R for strong horror violence/gore, language and some nudity

THE LOWDOWN: A high school senior has a premonition of a roller coaster accident and helps her friends escape death, but soon the survivors begin to perish in grisly ways.

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