The Final Destination series is one of those horror franchises that is amusing and maddening all at once.  If you set your standards low enough, they can be amusing: every entry appeals to the reptile-brain part of horror fans by serving up a handful of slasher-movie twits and then slicing and dicing them via hilariously elaborate Rube Goldberg slasher-setpieces.  It delivers what it promises and sometimes the results are as hypnotic: even detractors of the series will admit that the freeway-pileup massacre that opens Final Destination 2 is brilliantly staged and edited.

However, these films are also frustrating to watch because when you think about it, they waste a great concept. The idea of a set of supernatural rules governing the lives and deaths of everyone is a fascinating premise that could be taken in a number of directions.  If you added actual characterizations to the mix and allowed them to have psychologically complex responses to their predicament, you could take it even further. Or you could go the other direction and make an all-out moralistic black comedy with gory punchlines a la E.C. Comics.  That said, marketing always wins the day with this series and the Final Destination films are little more than a series of nifty splatter setpieces held together with a lot of dull padding.

Thus, it’s no surprise that Final Destination 5 is more of the same: the kind of complicated mechanism-of-death setpieces that gathered steam in parts 2 and 3 combined with added kick of digital 3-D that was introduced in part 4.  This time our Final Couple are Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto), an aspiring chef, and Molly (Emma Bell), his girlfriend.  They have some vaguely defined romance troubles but what really matters is that Sam has the obligatory “vision” of a disaster in which a collapsing bridge will kill him, Molly and a gaggle of co-workers en route to a corporate retreat.  Sam succeeds in saving Molly and a handful of others before the bridge proves his vision was correct.

As any fan of the series know, this is Death’s cue to swoop in and start claiming the ensemble cast one by one for the crime of avoiding his grasp.  Everything plays out exactly the way you would expect: the least-developed members of the group get picked off first, there’s a Tony Todd cameo, the survivors realize the pattern of the deaths and then they try to escape Death for the second time.  The one new wrinkle added here is the idea that a potential victim can pacify Death by killing someone else and absorbing the time that person has left but that doesn’t get in the way of the recycled story beats.

The nice thing about Final Destination 5 is that it’s a slight step up from its predecessor, at least from a technical standpoint: more money was obviously spent on it and the presence of a James Cameron protege in the director’s chair ensures that the film is precise in how its stages its eye-popping 3-D gore spectacles.  Tony Todd is suitably effective in his three-scene cameo as the darkly humorous coroner who functions as the film’s Greek chorus and Miles Fisher is the only member of the youthful cast who taps into the film’s campy-dramatics potential as a coworker who comes unglued in a Tom Cruise-esque fashion.

On the downside, the film flatlines whenever it isn’t indulging in its gruesome setpieces, particularly the numbing scenes about the Sam/Molly “romance.”  David Koechner is in there as a smarmy boss and Courtney B. Vance as a detective but their bits don’t add to much – and that means the film wastes its two best non-Todd actors. The plot starts to run out of steam after its first four kills and the added rule about substituting a victim doesn’t change things up enough to fight off the doldrums.  Even worse, the setpiece prompted by that new rule is a perfunctory bit of business that looks cheap and dull compared to the impressive kills that preceded it.

How much you get out of Final Destination 5 will depend on well you adjust your expectations.  If you’re a trash 3-D junkie, the bridge sequence and an amusingly nasty kill at a gymnastics practice deliver the blood-spurting goods.  The expended end twist is actually fairly novel and makes you wish they expended that much energy on the actual storytelling.  That said, you have a better chance of outrunning Death than you have of getting an actual start-to-finish “good movie” out of this series – and Final Destination 5 is a 10-minute digital splatter effects reel masquerading as a movie.