Friday, October 9, 2009

How to Succeed In Sequels

More than any other film genre, horror has thrived--and sometimes shriveled--with the onslaught of sequels. From forced character crossovers to flashback riddled running times (is there even ten minutes of original content between the first round of followups to The Hills Have Eyes and Silent Night, Deadly Night?), it’s easy to mess up a sequel. But you know what? Pumpkins are in season, I'm high on candy corn, and the positivity is pumping, so let’s instead take a moment to consider some of the smart choices sequels have made in continuing a good story: 

Expanded Mythology
The true beauty of a sequel is that it can take a premise people found interesting the first go ‘round and attack it from a new angle, such as the Cenobite-heavy chambers of Hellraiser II. While it's true that many a sequel runs the risk of revealing too much (thereby negating some of the mystery that occasionally defines a first film) others seize upon the potential. Eli Roth's Hostel, for example, was a better idea than film, but his followup used the now established setup of a capitalist torture show to fully explore what audiences were drawn to in the first place. Instead of wasting time with standard protagonists, Roth gave us a briefer intro to much more likable women, then promptly delved into Elite Hunting and its own financiers. The result was a quick moving and smartly done film that found just the right note to revisit Slovakia.

Other films are less successful, but not always in a sacrilegious way. The philosophically horrific Cube series debuted as one of the most surprisingly intriguing films of the ‘90s, while a few straight-to-cable/dvd sequels attempted to take an incredible concept and try it with a different recipe. Cube 2 :Hypercube plays with the math, hints at its origin, and shoots itself with a horrid title worth of an Atari game while Cube Zero (arguably a prequel) goes behind the scenes to pose new questions. Neither is anywhere near as satisfying as Vincenzo Natali's original, which works precisely because we ultimately know nothing but what our own fears project. Still, if you watch Parts 2 & 3 as if they’re pieces of fan fiction blown up to feature length, both work on their own terms, sort of ‘what-ifs’ to a question that should never actually be answered.

Remakes In Sequels’ Designer Clothing
The world would be a far less groovy place had Sam Raimi ended the adventures of Ash in 1981. Yes, The Evil Dead is a great gooey film, but it's his first sequel that cements Bruce Campbell's status as an icon among the undead. Only quibble? It's not really a sequel if the first half hour retells the original story.

Sometimes, a filmmaker decides that directing a second film is code for second chance. In the case of The Evil Dead, this minor lapse of originality works because Raimi takes the good and makes it better with more money. We forgive the fact that Ash and Linda had already made a fateful trip to that cabin in the woods because even within the constraints of the same story, Raimi uses such a different energy that we end up with a completely different film not only from its original, but from just about every other film that had come before it.

Keep the Story Consistent
Say what you want about the juggernaut success of the Saw series, but has there ever been a 6 film franchise with such an excessively complicated spiderweb of a plot? Haters like to attack Lions Gate’s posterchild for its grisly suspenseless violence and contrived characters, but I continue to argue that this is, in many ways, one of the tightest (at least by script) franchises in the horror genre. With occasional flashbacks (and inventive ways to utilize the now deceased Jigsaw himself), each film has continued the story with something of a six degrees of separation mentality. A minor character from Part 2 returns to head Part 4, while missing characters reappear with believable, if somewhat logistically stretched explanations as to their whereabouts. I imagine the upcoming installment will have two audiences: those that have followed the five previous films and are still waiting for answers about Jigsaw's wife, the contents of a mysterious box, and the protagonists of Part III’s daughter (who’s been missing, but acknowledged in the last two films) while the other half will simply slurp their sodas through exposition and cheer at the latest rusted torture contraption. In a way, everybody wins. Except for oddly vast majority of horror fans who like to brand Saw the antichrist of filmdom. 

...or Dare To Be Different
Franchises are generally defined by their formula, whether it be pretty teenagers + machetes or redheaded dolls + profanity. Every so often, however, some series take a chance by breaking from the fold (even Chucky changed his act with married life). Though initially panned by critics and ignored by audiences, Halloween III: Season of the Witch has slowly aged to prove itself the most memorable of all those October 31st celebrating films. Admittedly, that’s not much of a feat when its competition included Michael Meyers’ worshipping cults and Tyra Banks, but still: abandoning Meyers for an evil corporation wielding head-melting dime store masks was a daring move well before its time. Likewise, the majority of Elm Street fans tend to use Part 2 as a coaster for their Hypnocil spiked Red Bull, but the sheer fact that such a random entry exists in an otherwise formulaic series is in itself somewhat notable. (Also, it’s one of the most fascinatingly homoerotic/homophobic films of all time, but that’s a discussion save for another day).

Jump Right In
Look, if we’re watching a film with 2, II, or the words “The Return” in the title, you can probably trust that we’ve been here before. Thankfully, the better sequels understand that audiences don’t need heavy exposition to get the kills rolling. Note how starting from Dawn to Land,George Romero’s Dead films never wasted time explaining the oncoming zompocalypse. Similarly, 28 Weeks Later boasts one of the most terrifyingly exciting openings in recent years by immediately thrusting us back into a nightmarish world we know all too well. 

There are plenty more notable sequel rules for continuing a franchise, so add some of your own and let the Freddy Vs. Jason style fights begin!


  1. Well, our entire site is based on the idea that sequels are better than the originals. So, my opinion might be a little skewed. But, you through out some great pics. HOSTEL 2 is way better than the first and EVIL DEAD 2 is at least as good as the original... maybe better. You are also right about Robert Englund... FREDDY VS. JASON was pretty embarrassing.

    I jumping over to read the article right now!


  2. When it comes to horror, there are quite a few that prove your point JM. I do confess, I have a soft spot for Freddy Vs. Jason, but it's a very particular Freddy that just can't do its scare job anymore.

    Thanks for the comments!

  3. Well, without sequels we wouldn't have the great F13 Part 2... Or the wack-a-doodle fun of Halloween III. Or heck, even Bride of Frankenstein! :)

  4. Wings: I totally forgot about the bride! Yup, sequels really are as old as cinematic zombies. I can't really imagine what the horror genre would be without them. And the more I think about them, there's probably a surprisingly positive mathematic breakdown of how many are actually good.

    Speaking of, JM: Has your site ever broken down the percentage of sequel quality? I imagine a pie chart could be made that documents which number installments do well and whatnot. Of course, I say this with no ability whatsoever to understand numbers very well. Still, I challenge you to do math!

  5. Well here's to hoping that the NOES remake does not completely suck. I have faith. Don't know why but I do.

    I agree that ED2 is the grooviest remake of them all.

    Some bad sequels can be highly entertaining in a comical way, even though that was not the filmmakers' original intention. Like Jaws: The Revenge for example. It is a turd, don't get me wrong, but it is easily one of the best comedies of the late 80s. Where else are you going to see a shark roar in a film with as many visible production errors as a video shot ny middle schoolers?

  6. For me, part of my hope is Haley's potential and the suggestion that Freddy is actually going to be portrayed as a very bad man. I thought those hints in Freddy vs. Jason of his human crimes were one of the few things that kept his character menacing, as opposed to an obnoxious standup comic.

    And I absolutely love my campy bad sequels. I recently had to stop myself from buying a poster for Jaws: The Revenge. The tagline "This time, it's personal" never fails to make me laugh. Doesn't the shark get a flashback in that one?

    My personal favorite bad sequel is probably Silent Night Deadly Night 2. Not only is it two movies in one (since 40 minutes are devoted to flash backing to the best kills of part 1) but it also boasts the most hilarious killing spree of all time..