There’s an unwritten law in Hollywood that states that anything that’s worth doing is worth overdoing and, by extension, anything that’s worth overdoing is worth really overdoing. Of course, the impetus for all of this excess is to wring the proverbial money rag for every cent that will drip out of it. So, for better or worse (usually worse), sequels have been a staple of the horror film genre since the golden age of the Universal Studios monster movies of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. In fact, the horror film sequel phenomenon’s roots extend directly back to 1935 with James Whale’s immortal The Bride of Frankenstein — a rare example of a sequel that surpasses its predecessor in both scope and pure creative vision. Bride was only the beginning as Universal would crank out several more installments in the saga of Mary Shelley’s man-made monster including Son of Frankenstein (Boris Karloff’s last outing as the creature), House of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein (which would pit “old bolt neck” against both Dracula and the Wolfman) and the unlikely and surprisingly great Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Each monster in the Universal pantheon would also receive the sequel treatment in countless follow-ups, remakes and team-ups. The quality varied from great to downright embarrassing, but as long as the ghastly money machine churned out a profit there was a guarantee that horror would always rise from the grave. The trend continued throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s thanks in part to England’s Hammer Studios which continually resurrected Dracula and his cohorts in dripping red Technicolor updates of the Universal originals.
However, the sequel disease reached pandemic proportions in the 1980’s due largely to the success of Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) both of which spawned a seemingly endless litany of often indistinguishable follow-ups and rip-offs of varying quality. (Ironically, both of these slasher series at last intersected in 2003 in Ronnie Yu’s excellent Freddy vs. Jason, which itself hearkens back to the monster battle royales of horror’s first golden age as well as restoring a sense of dignity to the “heroes” of both of these often maligned franchises). Even the rip-offs had sequels as horror audiences were treated to dozens of parts 2 to infinity of unremitting crap like Sleepaway Camp, Slumber Party Massacre and Silent Night, Deadly Night. Ultimately, the question is why so many lousy sequels and specifically, why so many lousy horror sequels? Well, feel free to take notes because the answer lies in this simple theorem: Teens + Disposable Income ÷ Limited Attention Span × 500 “Chucky” movies spread across six weeks = Big $$$. Simply, horror, and genre film in general, appeals predominately to a young audience (and if you don’t believe me try to remember the last time your grandmother asked you to rent Ghoulies 2 or Bloodsucking Freaks for her). That teen/young adult demographic also has the greatest amount of available disposable income (i.e. no substantial bills = loot to blow on Britney Spears CDs, $50 flip-flops at The Gap and renting Ghoulies 2 for Nanna) but is notoriously fickle with an attention span shredded by MTV. So, in order to grab that big teen dollar, the studios must first latch on to a hot property (the trickiest part because it’s all trial and error to the tune of sometimes millions of dollars — and remember, MTV-decimated attention span) and then clout said teens over the head with that property as rapidly and viciously as possible in an incredibly limited time-frame until they become jaded (they always do) and latch onto the next big thing that is always looming on the horizon. To put it simply, it’s the law of diminishing returns with a triangle of money, creativity and audience interest shrinking with each subsequent installment. Or, to quote Drew Barrymore in Scream (the ultimate example of the above theory in action) “The first one (A Nightmare on Elm Street) was scary, but the rest sucked.” Although I happen to disagree with Drew in her estimation of the Elm Street series, her reasoning is sound and truly reflects the love/hate relationship that even hardcore fans have with the genre. So, what’s the discerning horrorphile to do when the Horror section of Blockbuster is comprised of 40 to 60% sequels that 80 to 95% suck like a brand new Dirt Devil? In the interest of public service and an ex-English major’s love of alliteration I give you Six Sinister Sequels That Don’t Suck.
|Day of the Dead
In this third and perhaps, final (although recent developments indicate a fourth film may go into production as early as October) installment of the series that began with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and continued with 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, Romero tackles the Reagan 80’s with a full-on frontal assault on both the intelligentsia and the military industrial complex. Mostly rejected by audiences who preferred (in typical 80’s fashion) the similarly themed but lighter and more comedic Return of the Living Dead released at the same time, Day eventually found new life on video and a rabid and ever-increasing cult following as the years have passed. Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times panned the film saying that Romero had run out of ideas and was merely letting his zombies “run around in a basement” for two hours. With nearly 20 years of hindsight, time has vindicated Romero and the film’s deliberate pace and hopeless, often humorless tone as a stinging critique of its time. At first frustrated by a limited budget that forced him to reduce the scope of his original vision, Romero has gone on to claim that Day of the Dead is his favorite of the zombie series.
|A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: Dream Warriors
After a lackluster second outing in Freddy’s Revenge, everyone’s favorite child killer returned to the top of his game in 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: Dream Warriors thanks to the return of series creator Wes Craven as co-writer and the original’s star Heather Langenkamp as Freddy Krueger’s (Robert Englund) nemesis, Nancy Thompson. Dream Warriors is the creative peak of the Elm Street sequels and served as a template for what the series would become over the course of four subsequent parts (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is excluded because it’s not part of the original series’ storyline). Set in a hospital for disturbed teens, Dream Warriors finds the original’s heroine all grown up and a practicing psychologist specializing in sleep disorders. Recognizing the unmistakable razor-fingered hand of Fred Krueger in the “suicides” of several of her young patients, Nancy organizes the survivors and goes on an all out hunt for the legendary dream stalker on his own turf. Naturally, Freddy kicks all of these kids’ asses in some of the most outlandishly surreal murder sequences ever. All of the elements that make the Elm Street films great are present in comparatively restrained abundance from Freddy’s obscene puns and wisecracks to Wes Craven’s “rubber reality” in the dream sequences. Featuring a soundtrack by 80’s metal icons Dokken (how can you forget their video for Dream Warriors? God knows I’ve tried . . .) Dream Warriors may be the best horror sequel of the ‘80’s. Freddy would never be this scary or believable again until 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason which transformed him from the hammy stand-up comedian he had become back to a real, terrifying dream demon. It’s not surprising that Freddy vs. Jason scribes Damian Shannon and Mark Swift imported so many of Dream Warriors’ elements (the dream clinic, the drug “hypnocil) into the ultimate battle between two 80’s horror giants. If you must see only one Elm Street sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: Dream Warriors is the clear choice.
|The Exorcist III
Whether The Exorcist III is truly a sequel to The Exorcist or a merely a cinematic adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel Legion (Blatty also scripted and directed Exorcist III) has been source of conflict among fans of the original film since this sequel’s theatrical release in 1990. Whatever it is, it mercifully ignores the events of The Exorcist II: The Heretic, to which it is superior in every way. Focusing on Detective William Kinderman (George C. Scott) and Father Joseph Dyer (Ed Flanders), characters that were peripheral to the plot of the original (and portrayed then by Lee J. Cobb and Rev. William O’Malley respectively), The Exorcist III distances itself from the overt shocks of its predecessor while retaining much of its bleak tone. Faithfully recreating much of his novel, Blatty offers up the idea that perhaps, as Father Karras (Jason Miller) lay dying at the conclusion of The Exorcist, his soul was replaced with that of executed serial murderer James Venamun, also known as the Gemini Killer thanks to the demon that had been inhabiting young Regan (Linda Blair). A series of copycat murders and the sudden emergence of a mental patient with an uncanny resemblence to the late Karras (Jason Miller in a shared role with Brad Douriff) from a catatonic state lead Kinderman on a long, bizarre investigation of not only the crimes themselves but of his own faith. Blatty expertly paces the film allowing mood and dialogue, much of which is lifted directly from his novel, to convey the terror as well as to further punctuate some nightmarish scenes of pure surrealism. The only substantial flaw the film has is ironically, the exorcism sequence at the film’s climax. After viewing an early cut of the film, 20th Century Fox execs expecting a rehash of the original film demanded that Blatty include an exorcism scene. The result which looks like it belongs in any number of Exorcist wannabes that came in the original’s wake is off kilter, anticlimatic and wholly unnecessary. However, this one flaw does nothing to detract from fine performances from a solid cast, especially Brad Douriff (better known as the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play films) as the Gemini killer/Patient X. The Exorcist III is a worthy follow-up to what many consider to be the most frightening movie of all time.
|The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2
The only Saw sequel to directly continue the storyline of the original, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2 picks up thirteen years later with the continuing adventures of Leatherface (this time protrayed by Bill Johnson), The Cook (Jim Seidow) and a new character, Chop Top (Bill Moseley), twin brother of The Hitchhiker from part 1. Holed up in a defunct amusement park, the first familiy of human headcheese now runs a sucessful catering business with The Cook, now named Drayton Sawyer, a champion on the chili cook-off circuit thanks to his special ingredients (“Don’t skimp on the meat!”). Director Tobe Hooper upped the gore quotient with this sequel to his 1974 shocker by employing the make-up skills of legendary Dawn of the Dead FX man Tom Savini. It seems that Hooper was looking to live up to the previous film’s unwarranted bloody rep by bringing in Pittsburgh’s “Sultan of Splat.” Truly nauseating setpieces aside, this Saw comes across as more of a black comedy than a pure horror film thanks to the inspired and wholly demented performances of Seidow and Moseley. Moseley, quickly becoming heir apparent to Bruce Campbell among horror fans thanks to this role as well as his turn as Otis in 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses, is the standout and upstages even Leatherface for sheer depravity.
|Hellbound: Hellraiser II
Most Clive Barker fans will agree that Hellbound is the only worthy sequel to Hellraiser. Featuring a solid script by Peter Atkins based on a concept developed by Barker himself, Hellbound expands upon the premise and mythology set forth in Hellraiser while remaining true to the original’s intent. Although Barker was not directly involved in the production, it’s obvious that director Tony Randel did not want to diverge from the author’s vision and directorial style. Hellbound follows Kirsty Cotton (again portrayed by Ashley Laurence, the most underrated “scream queen” of the 1980’s) into Hell itself. Revealing a stark labyrinth of an underworld with varying levels and a complex hierarchy that would please even Dante, Hellbound presents a unique vision of Hell that is unequaled in the genre. Unfortunately, later installments, part 3 specifically, narrowed the scope of the Hellraiser mythos to concentrate on lead Cenobite, Pinhead to the point of attempting to transform him into a horror hero in the mold of Freddy or Jason. Few horror sequels compliment each other as well as the first two Hellraiser films and, although purists may consider it blasphemy, I prefer Hellbound to its progenitor.
|Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn
Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn is the film that elevated Bruce Campbell from hammy B-movie actor to hammy B-movie god. Part sequel and part remake, Evil Dead II chronicles the further misadventures of chronic lunkhead Ashley J. Williams (that’s Ash to you and me) in that infamous demon haunted cabin in the backwoods of nowhere. This time, Ash must face not only the evil of the Deadites but two hillbilly trail guides and an overzealous archeologist’s daughter who has journeyed to the cabin in search of her parents and the dreaded Necronomicon. Director Sam Raimi included all of the macabre elements from the first Evil Dead and infused them with incredibly morbid slapstick humor removing the original’s essentially deadpan tone. The result is a unique film that is in many ways superior to its predecessor, and surprisingly preferred by most of the series’ fans. It’s also the genre’s rarest animal: a horror/comedy in which the horror and comedic elements work equally well. Raimi’s use of camera and sound as character is, at the risk of being trite, awesome and has never again approached this level of innovation. And then there’s the mighty Bruce Campbell forever cementing his reputation as the supreme hero to movie geeks the world over. The abuse that Campbell’s Ash takes in Evil Dead II is just about equal to the mayhem of every Three Stooges short condensed to just under two hours and directed at one man as he has his ass kicked by nearly everyone and everything in the film including his own demon-possesed hand. Gore is taken to impossible extremes as the walls are splattered with blood, bile and an assortment of unknown fluids of various colors (according to Raimi, colors other than red were used to appease the MPAA in hopes of assuring an “R” rating). The cumulative effect is that of the classic carnival spookhouse: a blend of laughs, scares and light-headed nausea. In Bruce Campbell’s letter to Evil Dead fans (he adresses them “Dear Knuckleheads”) on the back cover of Elite Entertainment’s Special Edition Evil Dead II Laserdisc, he recommends at least one viewing per week to promote health, happiness and longevity.” Sounds like good advice to me.