Grade: C-

Everyone out there who’s drooling over the prospect of another helping of the elaborately unusual death scenes that filled the first two installments of this horror franchise can rest easy: “Final Destination 3” delivers the goods in that department: teens are done in by the mysterious force of fate, or the invisible Grim Reaper if you prefer, at regular intervals, and in extremely vivid ways. Whether that’s enough to make the picture worth your time, however, is an entirely different matter.

This third episode in the series that ex-“X-Files” staffers Glen Morgan and James Wong initiated in 2000 effectively follows the old adage about sequels that “Final Destination 2” did–just make the same movie over again. A group of teens escape a fatal accident because one of them has a premonition that disaster is about to strike. Then they start to be knocked off in extravagantly florid ways, leading a couple to figure out that they’re being subjected to the same pattern that befell the kids in the initial movie. (The duo stumble on this conclusion by surfing the net–which is probably a better device than the one used in the original picture, which involved a mortician explaining the entire business. Given all the self-referential elements, though, it might have been more appropriate, in the post-“Scream” environment, if they had seen the first FD and learned their destiny from it.) The believers try to overcome the scepticism of the other potential victims to save them, but old McFate, as Humbert Humbert might have called him, proves a formidable foe, coming up with all sorts of Rube Goldberg-style contraptions to serve as vehicles of colorfully certain demises–by runaway truck, nail gun, exercise machine, lance, and even tanning salon.

The only differences between this movie and the preceding two are in the original disaster the teens survive–a plane crash in number one and a big auto accident the second time around, but here a roller-coaster collapse that allows for a spectacular action set-piece–and in the fact that this time around, the death scenes are more gory and explicit than before. Unfortunately, bloodier doesn’t mean better, because the staging isn’t as clever as it was even the second time around, despite the fact that Wong and Morgan have returned to replace second-stringers David R. Ellis, J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress from episode two. Wong, to be sure, has a more subtle hand than Ellis did, and manages a few genuinely spooky touches in the more intimate moments that FD2 never produced. But the handling of the bigger moments seems less assured than it was back in 2000; indeed, the precise choreography of some of the deaths is never made very clear, which diminishes any enjoyment you might get from seeing them unfold. But that would seem mostly to be a function of the fact that he and Morgan have fashioned a less crisp, finished script this time around, leaving too many holes and loose ends. Even the big finish they’ve concocted has a lackadaisical feel: the purely coincidental nature of the last catastrophe leaves one wondering whether there was any point in trying to piece together everything that preceded it.

That’s a fatal weakness, because plot contrivance is all “Final Destination 3” has going for it. The characterizations are at best sketchy, as in the case of the two bland leads (the weepy Wendy, played slackly by Mary Ellizabeth Winstead, and the more energetic but generic Kevin, played by Ryan Merriman) or clumsily stereotypical (Kris Lemche’s Goth outsider Ian and Texas Battle’s arrogant jock Lewis). Worst of all are the two airheaded class princesses Ashlyn and Ashley, whom Crystal Lowe and Chelan Simmons toss off as caricatures dumber than the dumbest high schoolers one could expect to encounter in the worst Fox sitcom, and Sam Easton’s crassly drawn Frankie Cheeks, the archetypal loser graduate who still lusts after younger coeds. A movie like this is never strong on character development, of course, but the level of narrative freshness had better be strong enough to compensate for its absence. Here it isn’t, nor is the picture impressive enough in technical terms to make up for the deficiencies. Mark Freeborn’s production design and Tony Wohlgemuth’s art direction are adequate but not much more than that, and the same can be said of Robert McLachlan’s widescreen cinematography and Chris Willingham’s editing. Shirley Walker’s background score does, however, feature some nifty Herrmannesque touches.

But ultimately the gnawing familiarity of the formula has caught up with the series, much as the cleverness of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” premise had grown stale by the third installment. Perhaps it’s time that Morgan and Wong took the first word of the title seriously and moved on.