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MOVIE REVIEW

A roller coaster of death -- and hilarious fun

Every weekend, horror films lure in millions of kids and usually send them home bummed: That's it? As the end credits rolled after a public showing of last week's moneymaker, ''When a Stranger Calls," the audience made catcalls. But the filmmakers and the studios don't seem to care -- a big opening weekend at the box office is preordained.

The horror film has been getting away with murder. Crazy but true: ''Final Destination 3" has come to the rescue.

Week in and week out, horror movies cheat us, so it's wonderfully cathartic to watch a bunch of kids cheat death in what turns out to be the best installment yet in the ''Final Destination" franchise.

If you missed the previous two chapters, the series is about fate's inexorable will. Or something like that. A teen has a premonition that he or she will perish on a plane (the first movie) or on the interstate (the nasty sequel) with his or her peers. The teen warns of doom, no one listens, and nearly everyone dies. Those who escape harm are chased and killed, until the embattled clairvoyant manages to show death the door.

In ''Final Destination 3," an amusement park roller coaster is the disaster site of choice. Sitting in a car of Devil's Flight, Wendy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has a vision that it will send its riders hurtling off the tracks. And what a vision it is: A dozen people harness themselves in and after one passenger's video camera falls onto the rails (in a sly diss to digital filmmaking), kids are hanging on for dear life and being dumped out when the ride stops at the crest of a loop. It's every thrill junkie's nightmare, and not long after Wendy opens her eyes and demands to be let out, it comes true.

She loses her boyfriend and her best friend but does have her best friend's boyfriend, Kevin (Ryan Merriman), to turn to. As death makes house calls, they study the photos Wendy took before the disaster, desperate for clues about how the survivors will die.

They track down potential victims and are treated like Cassandras, which allows the movie's wicked streak to show. After two dingbats fry in their twin tanning beds, the film lovingly cuts to a pair of matching coffins. (Before they sizzle, they bop to Ohio Players' ''Love Rollercoaster.") A lot of the murders are caused by hilarious, elaborately rigged ''accidents." Waiting for the grisly punch line is like watching a spark race down a long, winding fuse in an especially sick Wile E. Coyote cartoon. The mishaps could be like Olympic events for which you should feel free to hold up a judge's score card.

James Wong, the maker of the first edition, directed and co-wrote this third installment with an abundance of humor. Even better, this is the rare recent horror movie that seems to care about suspense (will Wendy's sister bite the dust?) and is still able to chuckle at itself without exploding into heartlessness, the way ''Final Destination 2" did. The deaths here are warnings. Beware amusement park rides, tanning beds, fast food drive-throughs, nail guns, and the crossed sabers that hang above your gym equipment.

Wendy and Kevin grow surprisingly sympathetic, but the victims are laughable high-school stereotypes (the jock, the goth, the skirt-chasing creep who graduated years ago but won't go away). For the most part, their demises are a consequence of how vapid they are. Death don't like stupid. It does not mind, however, entertaining the stuffing out of us.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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