In memoriam: David R. Ellis

david r ellisIt was about half hour before Final Destination 2 would start, and I’d already eaten a couple of “special” cookies, which I then chased down with a triple espresso from Starbucks. By the time the projector started to roll, I wasn’t just wired to the gills — I was on another planet completely. And yet I still wasn’t prepared for the insurmountable level of carnage that I would soon be a witness to, courtesy of director David R. Ellis, who passed away yesterday at the age of 60.

That opening scene on the highway (the grand finale of which you’ll find at the bottom of this post) still ranks as one of the most visceral moments of my movie-going history to date, up there with the Omaha Beach onslaught at the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the botched bank heist in Michael Mann’s Heat. Doesn’t matter if you’re watching it roasted or not, it’s easily the best opening to any of the films in the Final Destination series. (No easy feat.) The way the victims are systematically taken out in a fury of sound and explosive violence, it’s a miracle that you’re even able to follow what’s going on. But Ellis’s sure hand keeps everything unfolding in front of you in a manner that’s clear, concise and very easy to discern.

The bridge-collapse scene from the fifth film is unnerving, partly due to the use of well-done 3D, but FD2‘s highway massacre is absolutely ridiculous — exhilarating and absolutely horrifying all at the same time. The audience is expecting the inevitable mangling of the film’s main characters, and the scene unfolds in a way that puts that knowledge to maximum use, wringing insane amounts of tension out of every second before finally unleashing a non-stop barrage of vehicular death and destruction.

Ellis did a hell of a job staging an incredibly complicated scene. But of course he did. After all, this is the guy who shot second unit on the The Matrix Reloaded and thus was responsible for putting together the insane freeway chase that’s the film’s single best sequence. Over his 30 years in the business, he also did impressive second-unit work on Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games and Deep Blue Sea, just to name a few. Couple that with the extensive list of stunt work he compiled throughout the 70s and 80s, and you have a man who was more than capable of what the task of filming Final Destination 2 would require. His directing career was made up mainly of genre entries, including the fourth installment of the Final Destination series, Shark Night 3D (which he reportedly fought to have titled Untitled Shark Movie) and the infinitely quotable Snakes on a Plane.

Ellis was quite the journeyman, working on well over a hundred movies throughout his career in various positions. It’s a shame to hear of his passing, as one look at his filmography makes it undeniable that the guy was a workhorse of film.