Most sequels manage to both suck and blow at the same time. It’s a marvel of physics but it’s no surprise. Most great movies were planned on being one and done and it was only after their success that the suits started throwing money around demanding more of the same. And therein lies the problem. Who needs more of the same? If the movie told the story it needed to tell what need is there to tell it again? The alternative, of course, is to go in a completely different direction and risk losing the very qualities that made it worth sequelizing in the first place.
The odds are not in your favor. For every BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN there are 10 JAWS: THE REVENGE or any THE HOWLING movie that has a number after the word HOWLING. Still, there are a few movies followups that manage to not sully the good name of the original and, occasionally, even surpass them.
10. BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960)
Hammer Films reinvented the genre with the one-two punch of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA and, although the titular characters of both seemed to have reached their ends when the films were over, it did not take much to bring them back. One would think that continuing the adventures of an undead vampire would be an easy enough task but Christopher Lee began a series of “will he or won’t he” negotiations that resulted in his absence from many of the Hammer vampire sequels. Frankly, except for the original, the vampire movies without Lee fared better, since someone made the bone-headed decision to keep Lee’s Dracula more or less homebound and silent in subsequent efforts.Lee reportedly turned down this film and it’s a shame, because the role offers something to, ahem, sink his teeth into and the replacement– David Peel– lacks the gravitas for the role. Peter Cushing is back (yay!) as Van Helsing, chasing down a disciple of Dracula who has vampirized his mother and is laying waste to the local town-girls. And boy, why did I not grow up in that local town? These girls are absolutely exquisite, especially AndrÃ©e Melly, who’s iconic fanged visage, at once luminously beautiful and terrifying, epitomizes Hammer at its best. Combined with Terrance Fisher’s sure hand at the director’s chair and the breathtaking craftsmanship in color, set design and cinematography that was Hammer’s hallmark in its golden age, this film remains among its finest efforts.
9. REC 3 (2012)
The found footage genre has its proponents and detractors but most would agree that the REC series, begun in 2007, offered an entertaining merging of found footage, zombie apocalypse and supernatural horror.
REC 3 breaks away from the other sequels by bringing in an entirely new cast and switching early on from found footage to traditional narrative. It also goes for a more comedic vibe than the others–this is the EVIL DEAD 2 of the series. The reviews have been mixed on this one, with fans of the original often upset with the switch in tone but I think it’s a riot. The contrast of a picture perfect fairy tale wedding with the brutal carnage of a full fledged zombie outbreak–that’s art.
8. FRIDAY THE 13TH FINAL CHAPTER (1984)
Okay, you’ll just have to forgive the out and out lie that is the title of the film; it wasn’t the final chapter. It wasn’t even halfway to the final chapter. It was â…“ of the way to the final chapter, if final chapter it truly be. That’s a pretty bold miss.
There are differing stories on why the studio wanted to end the money making series but for whatever reason, the filmmakers needed to gpo out strong. They brought F whiz Tom Savini back to kill off the monster he had created (yes, yes, I know, Jason was not the actual killer in the first movie…you want a cookie?) and came up with an ingenious method that would have involved a tricked up microwave that would have cooked Jason’s skull until it burst open with Savini goodness. Ultimately they decided this would be too far removed from the simple slasher motif and Jason fell victim to his own machete.
Still, what an ending! It’s not having the machete slapped into the side of his face that does it, it’s the long long slide down as he falls face first onto the floor. Very cool and while, as mentioned, this was nowhere NEAR the last time we saw Jason, one could argue that it did indeed end him as a physical monster of flesh and blood, as all subsequent efforts transformed him into a supernatural zombie killing machine.
7. PSYCHO 2 (1983)
If there was one film that absolutely did NOT call for a sequel…ok, that would be EASY RIDER…but coming in a close second would be Hitchcock’s masterpiece. It would take balls the size of a steel wok to even contemplate doing a followup to so perfect and critically lauded a films and that is why, after getting their trousers adjusted, director Richard Franklin and writer Tom Holland went right ahead and did it. Nobody thought this was a good idea but when the film was released, after making the expected snark about the “unnecessary-ness” of the project, most critics and film-goers gave their grudging respect to the story they managed to pull off.
Norman Bates was really a supporting character in the first movie but he’s front and center here and Anthony Perkins makes the viewer really care about his seeming descent back into madness. A solid cast including a returning Vera Miles and the lovely Meg Tilly provide able support (though had they talked Jamie Lee Curtis into accepting the Tilly role it would have been awesome).
Subsequent chapters in the series, including one directed by Perkins himself, yielded less and less, but PSYCHO 2 stands out as an unexpected treat.
6. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER was an interesting, stylized take on Thomas Harris’ novel RED DRAGON and it died a horrible death at the box office. It’s influence has continued to spread, in both the popularity of TV police procedurals and the continuing popularity of serial killer/supervillian Hannibal Lector.
Having tanked pretty so badly upon its release, most people going to see the sequel 5 years later probably had no idea it WAS a sequel. The result here was entirely different; the film was a smash hit, earning back over 10 times its cost and dominating the Oscars, becoming one of only 3 films to sweep the major awards. It is also the only horror film to win best picture.
The studio.of course, would argue that it was not a horror movie, just a thriller where a significant percentage of the cast is into wearing suits made from human skin. Yeah, whatever.
Dr Hannibal Lector only got two scenes and less than 10 minutes of screen time in MANHUNTER but he left an indelible impression. As portrayed by Brian Cox, he is undeniably brilliant but very far from the playful supervillian Anthony Hopkins gave us. Cox’s killer is petulant and very pissed off and motivated entirely by animus to the man who put him away, while Hopkins turns him into a slightly more realistic Dr Phibes. Later movies took this too somewhat ridiculous (though still entertaining) levels but SILENCE OF THE LAMBS finds a nice balance and left an indelible mark on the culture. One simply cannot even imagine eating fava beans anymore unless they are accompanied by a nice Chianti.
5. THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005)
I wanted to like HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES more than I did. Great cast and director Rob Zombie knows how to put on a show, but the bad guys are too horrible to root for and the good guys are too dull to care about. It’s obvious which side Zombie is rooting for.
You could say the same about the sequel but THE DEVIL’S REJECTS manages to make it all work. As much an homage to the hyper-violent westerns like THE WILD BUNCH and CUTTHROATS 9 as it is to horror films, it makes the wise decision to follow the surviving members of the Firefly family as they evade the police and continue leaving a trail of carnage. The cop chasing them is as insane as they are and the victims are undeserving of their fate, and at least make an effort to fight for their lives (though, again, it’s the monsters that hold our interest). It’s mean spirited as all hell but it’s got style and a great southern rock soundtrack, as well as the claw your eyes out sex scene between Sid Haig and Ginger Lynn, both of whom have seen better days but give it the old college try anyway.
4. NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1987)
This is the film that saved the franchise and set the tone for what would follow. While everyone loves the wisecracking body morphing Freddy Kruger, it took 3 films to get him. He was a mere ghost in the first film and the second is better left forgotten. When creator Wes Craven returned to have a hand in writing part 3 he as determined to do more than just another rehash. The film’s best idea is to allow the doomed children the opportunity to take the fight to Krueger, taking advantage of the ability to alter reality while in the dream state. With worthy foes at hand, Freddy ups his game considerably, giving the film an almost Marvel comics vibe as our super-powered heroes face off against what has now become a wisecracking demon from hell. Director Chuck Russell adds some spiffy effects and this hybrid horror/fantasy remains one of the seminal examples of 80s horror. It grossed about as much as the first two films combined and made the franchise an enduring one.
(I have to mention that one of the more surreal moments in my life was finding a talking Freddy Krueger doll at a Kay Bee Toy store. You know we have come a long way as a culture when serial child murdering pedophiles that are burned alive by vigilantes are now suitable subjects for a talking doll sold at the mall. If they currently sell a build your own Human Centipede next to the Hungry Hungry Caterpillar I, for one, will not be surprised.)
3. ALIENS (1986)
ALIEN was a great movie, the result of a visionary director and one hell of a great crew of talents, many of them alumni from the aborted version of DUNE. The studio took a real chance entrusting the sequel to this smash hit to a director who had only one good movie under his belt (and no, I’m not talking about the one with flying piranha).
A smart man would have just more or less remade the first. Luckily for us all, James Cameron is smart AND creative. ALIEN was a near perfect science fiction/horror film. There was no reason to make more of the same. Cameron wisely went in a completely different route, and created one of the defining cross genre films of the eighties, a movie that effortlessly melded science fiction, action adventure, and horror, while boosting a heroic female lead. The very definition of a crowd pleaser, it elevated Sigourney Weaver to the pantheon of heroes and made the Xenomorphs into iconic cinema monsters, both in their original form and in the truly awe inspiring Queen. So completely did this film succeed that nobody has been able to top it or even equalize it in all subsequent sequels.
As to why ALIENS remains such a favorite, it’s easy enough to see. The film expands on the original while telling its own story, the characters are great, the dialogue is STILL being quoted 30 years later and will likely still be quoted 30 years from now, when I am gasping my last breaths in a nursing home: “Game over man, game over!”
2. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
It’s a great enough accomplishment to make a sequel to a film that is indisputably one of the greatest and most influential horror films of all time that manages to be a great film in its own right. It’s quite something else to do that AND create an entire new genre. And yet that is exactly what George Romero did with the sequel to his groundbreaking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Much like what Cameron did with ALIENS, Romero was not satisfied to simply do NOTLD on a bigger budget with color. He went big and the zombie apocalypse film was born. From that choice has come literally HUNDREDS of zombie films, a spectacularly successful TV show that has inspired others, comics, short stories, radio dramas, music videos, conventions, zombie walks…one can well make the argument for DAWN as one of the single most influential films ever made (admittedly, it needs to share some of the credit with Fulci’s ZOMBIE and Dan O’Bannon’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD but neighther of those films would likely have existed were it not for DAWN OF THE DEAD).
Romero knew it would be hard to make a scarier film than NIGHT so DAWN substitutes epic scale and groundbreaking gore for the claustrophobic fear and grisly but understated grande guignol of its predecessor. It also makes overt the social commentary that was implied in the original, A factor I am less fond of and which too often became the straw that stirred the drink in some of Romero’s later efforts. Still, it is among one of my fondest convention moments to have et George Romero and gotten him to sign my copy of the poster to DOTD. Romero has had ups and downs in the filmmaking business but at the end of the day it’s hard to imagine any movie artist alive who can claim a greater influence on popular culture.
1. ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992)
In 1981 a young filmmaker made a low budget movie about a group of young people who go to a cabin in the woods and unwittingly unleash a horde of demons. 6 years later he made a bigger, more ambitious sequel wherein a young couple go to a cabin in the woods and unwittingly unleash a horde of demons. 4 years later another young couple go to a …hey, wait a minute! You’re telling me they made the same movie 3 TIMES???
Well, yes and no. One of the many things I love about the EVIL DEAD trilogy is that each film retells the last one, with increasing brevity, so that they can get to the next chapter in Sam Raimi’s amazingly creative melding of genres. The first EVIL DEAD is a frantic tale of pure horror, told with a level of verve and youthful film-making exuberance that dares you not to go along for the ride. EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN exceeds it in every level, showing that Raimi and company were no one hit wonders, retelling the story with way better visual effects and introducing a surprisingly effective element of dark dark humor and 3 Stooges slapstick that should not work but totally does. It even ends on an unexpectedly epic shock of an ending.
And, once they dispense with telling the story one more time in the third movie, that is where we find ourselves in ARMY OF DARKNESS, a film that is far more comedy than horror, though a comedy that still features legions of skeleton warriors and homages to everything from THE MANSTER to A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT all anchored by Bruce Campbell’s pitch perfect portrayal of reluctant hero and loveable asshat Ash Williams. Almost every word out of his mouth is quotable. This is a fun movie and while the remake of EVIL DEAD was well received (it was a very good film and did an excellent job of returning to its horror roots) the REAL excitement came when the ASH VS THE EVIL DEAD TV show picked up right where ARMY OF DARKNESS left off.
What lessons can we take from this list? I would say that many of the best sequels came from films that were probably not intended to start a franchise. Such is not the case today; a major selling point for anyone pitching a film idea is to convince the $$$ men that there is major sequel potential in the idea. Too many films are made with the idea of a sequel clearly in mind, to the point where the most shocking ending to a horror movie would be to not have a shock ending. If I were advising anyone making a film I’d suggest telling the story and not giving two thoughts to the next film. This is not advice I myself always follow when writing screenplays but consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds.