[4 April 2014]
Can a barely recognizable sequel save a franchise? Or is it doomed to mark its epitaph?
Previously on The Next Reel: Out of Sequence, we discussed the Saga of Hollywood’s hidden sequels. But there are also a gaggle of unauthorized sequels and Sequels-In-Name-Only out there, all of which masquerade as valid entries into a franchise, but hardly cut the celluloid.
Then there is yet another strange sequel genus, that of the drastically divergent sequel that takes the saga in an entirely different direction to often successful / often disastrous results. For example, The Empire Strikes Back greatly expanded the Star Wars mythos, using similar themes and caused the film franchise to grow into a multimedia powerhouse with infinite tie-ins, while Home Alone 3 attempted to expand its own franchise, using similar themes to, yet different actors from the original and flopped miserably.
In many cases, sequels can appear to be a no-win situation. If the makers follow the same formula that sequels predecessors use, audiences may call the follow-up film “more remake than sequel” and dismiss the film as the same old thing. Yet if the sequel’s creators attempt to go a very different way, audiences run the risk of dismissing the film as completely unrelated. What makes divergent sequels work and what makes them fail? The answer is somewhere between the remake and divergent angles.
To illustrate this point, why not start with one of the most notoriously ridiculously divergent movie sequels in film history. In 1992, the year I graduated high school, I finally got around to watching 1986’s Highlander a film that starred a Scottish actor (Sean Connery) as a Spaniard and a French actor (Christopher Lambert) as a Scotsman (hence the “Highlander” title) in a sword-and-sorcery science fiction film about immortals fighting to become the sole remaining representative of their race on Earth. Surprisingly, I thought it was pretty good, so I immediately popped in the Blockbuster-emblazoned VHS copy of 1991’s Highlander II: The Quickening (a subtitle that almost immediately applied to my pulse as this ridiculous sequel began) and set about my task for a thrill.
My smile of anticipation faded almost immediately. The Quickening completely revised Highlander’s storyline into one about a very long-lived alien race whose members were marooned on Earth for rising up against their overlords. It turns out that MacLeod (Lambert) simply forgot until the ghost of Ramirez (Connery) showed up to remind him in a vision. Most people don’t have that much trouble remembering that their home town is in another galaxy, but to each his own. Ramirez also shows up in physical form later for a decidedly homophobic critique of a performance of Hamlet. Then again, just about everybody from this other planet shows up at one point or another, negating the entire “There Can Be Only One” philosophy completely.
This $34 million picture made back less than $16 million at the box office, having alienated critics and Highlander fans alike with its retroactive continuity and stupefyingly muddled plot. Attempts to rescue this film from its status as one of the worst movies ever made included director Russell Mulchahy’s Highlander II: Renegade Version which re-edited the film to restore the Immortals to an Earthbound race (now with time travel to get them from the distant past to the present), but the resulting film still sucks raw eggs through a rusty pipe… which is to say, it fails to satisfy.
In spite of this drastically divergent sequel, the Highlander series did survive to produce three more feature-length films (whose deviations from the original still paled in comparison to The Quickening), two animated series, a live action series (the slogan of which could have been “There can be Only One… unless you have a Cousin!”) and a spinoff from that live action series. Clearly Highlander couldn’t be killed in spite of the best (worst) efforts of its first sequel.
Science Fiction and Horror films are the two genres that seem to have the highest count of drastically divergent sequels, possibly because these films are more likely to have a plethora of sequels (usually of decreasing quality). When the twain of Sci-Fi and Horror meet, the results can be almost tragic.
Halloween (1978) was a pioneering slasher film from the creatively brilliant mind of John Carpenter who not only directed, co-wrote and co-produced the film, but also composed the score that featured possibly the creepiest and best-known horror motif since Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violins from Psycho. As Halloween ended on a cliffhanger, a sequel was made in 1981, appropriately known as Halloween II (although most of the events of that film took place on All Saints Day, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer). That first sequel was, again, written and produced by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, but directed by Rick Rosenthal.
You know the Halloween series. It’s all about Michael Myers, the seemingly indestructible slasher killer in the white William Shatner mask who stalks babysitters, especially one specific “final girl” played by Jamie Lee Curtis. The chase of Curtis’s character Laurie spanned virtually the entirety of parts one and two. Then came part three which was about robots that shoot lasers and the evil children’s masks they are peddling in order to make a mass sacrifice to the pagan god Samhain.
Let me say that again… Halloween and Halloween II were all about an iconic, silent serial killer, preying upon high school kids. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is about hard to kill robots who come at the main characters even after being decapitated (while squeezing out sparks) all in a plot to sell magic murder masks to kids just before one hell of a weird Halloween. There is even a laser battle. A laser battle… in a Halloween film.
Whose idea was it to soil the memory of the first two films and ruin the hard work of John Carpenter and Debra Hill? Sadly, strangely and surprisingly, it was John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s idea. In fact, when Universal approached the pair for a second sequel they agreed to produce only if this film was not a follow-up to Halloween II, thus it could not feature Michael Myers (whose story Carpenter and Hill considered to be completely over, told and done). The idea was that the Halloween saga could continue as an anthology series with every entry telling a new, unrelated story. So far removed was Halloween III from the rest of the saga that during its runtime, a preview for the original Halloween is seen on a television screen, complete with Michael Myers chasing down Jamie Lee Curtis, proving that the third film doesn’t even take place in the same continuity as the rest of the films. This wouldn’t have been so bad, had the movie been any good. Sadly, it was not.
Could this film have worked without the Halloween title (and baggage)? There are actually a lot of interesting moments crafted by original writer Nigel Kneale, whom Carpenter handpicked based on his Quatermass saga. However, Dino De Laurentiis, whose studio produced the film for Universal’s distribution, insisted on more graphic violence and gore to pull the concept farther away from the original Kneale concept. Kneale, in turn, considered these changes to be “horror for horror’s sake” and actually sued to have his name removed from the credits.
Who knows what this film might have been outside of the shadow of Michael Myers. As it stands, the film was dismissed by fans and critics alike and the saga continued six years later with Michael Myers, but without De Laurentiis, Universal, Hill or Carpenter. Halloween III: Season of the Witch was a bold experiment, but the experiment was a failure.
Michael Myers isn’t the only splatter artist from filmland to face a totally off-the-wall sequel. While Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddy’s Revenge featured dream killer Freddy Kruger walking around in the real world for a homoerotic horror flick, even Freddy can’t take that cake. The drastically divergent crown goes to yet another killer in a white mask named Jason Voorhees.
The man in the Hockey Mask was promised to be dead forever in the fourth film, entitled Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984). A fifth entry into the series debuted less than a year later, pretty much damning the “final chapter” claim before Jason’s next birthday. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning was advertised with a hockey mask right there on one poster and Jason’s very name (in huge, all-caps) and promised in its very title a new direction for the series. So Jason Voorhees was “only mostly dead”, right?
Spoiler Warning: Wrong. Jason Voorhees was (for the moment) still rotting in his grave and is nowhere to be found in this film. The “New Beginning” of the title pointed to a copycat killer in a slightly different mask basically trudging through the same stupid and repeated plot that most of the other films have followed (killing teenagers at a summer camp-like setting). In fact the only “Voorhees” in the entire film was actress Debi Sue Voorhees, who played Tina. The film was a critical and fan failure (much like Halloween III and Highlander II) and the series went back to the known less than a year later in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), which brought hockey-boy back with a lightning strike (thankfully without lasers).
Of course, a drastically divergent sequel to Friday the 13th shouldn’t be a big surprise with or without hindsight, considering the fact that the continuing series itself owes its life to the drastic divergence of the film’s first sequel (as does Jason). Victor Miller, writer of the original Friday the 13th (1980) and Sean S. Cunningham, that film’s director, never intended the major slasher movie to have any sequels and considered the film to be a one-off that focused not on Jason Voorhees (who had died decades before) but on his avenging mother, Pamela Voorhees. When sequels were demanded, Jason would become a wandering hermit who only started his own murderous rampage upon witnessing his mother’s death.
Much like the later Halloween III the original concept for the Friday sequels was an anthology of unconnected horror films released each Friday the 13th, sharing no actual continuity. Miller was appalled at the release as he considered the entire motivation for the film he created to be a mother’s love for her fallen son. Jason’s survival directly trumped that vision. Trump card or not, Friday the 13th Part 2 hit theaters in 1981 (in spite of Cunningham’s refusal to return to the director’s chair) and was a critical failure but box office success that kept Jason firmly set as the focal point of the series (though he still wouldn’t get his hockey mask until the following year’s Part III).
Victor Miller went on to receive several award nominations and wins for writing such television soap operas as All My Children, One Life to Live, Another World and Guiding Light. Presumably no teenagers were killed in the making of these shows.
While Miller was long done with the Friday the 13th series, that series wasn’t done with Jason, or with its drastic divergence from the themes of Miller and just about everyone else who contributed. The steer manure was piled highest for the ninth entry into the series, known as Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993). The film might have been more appropriately named Friday the 13th Goes to Hell considering the fact that Jason took the saga with him.
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday was, as you can see, the second film in the series since part IV to have the word “Final” in the title. Considering there have been two more Friday the 13th sequels and one remake since 1993 (each of which shared continuity with this one almost as much as Doctor Faustus shares continuity with episode 36 of Mork and Mindy), you can see how much of a dirty liar this film was. However, this isn’t what makes “Part IX” ridiculous. Jason Goes to Hell is such a dog of a film because it completely destroys everything the series has been based on from the very beginning (and considering the divergence we’ve seen already, that’s a bold statement).
In Jason Goes to Hell (a journey we never actually see), we discover that that Jason Voorhees really wasn’t just some picked on kid at camp who “drowned” and came back with a Mommy Complex and a serious Mad-On for partying teenagers! No siree, BOB, Jason was actually a chorizo-sculpture-looking malevolent demon all along and the body he “wore” was “just meat”. Thus, in the ninth film, Jason is something of a free-agent who can… ha ha ha… possess the bodies of anybody he chooses to come in contact with. And he does… ridiculously. When he needs to switch bodies, or just crawl around wreaking havoc, the body that Demon-Jason is “wearing” at that point simply vomits him up and he skulks around the place as a lame, unconvincing rubber puppet that looks like a cross between Freddy Krueger, that Larva Baby from The Fly and an angry parrot.
The worst crime of Jason Goes to Hell is that it not only shares next-to-nothing with the previous or subsequent films in the series, but it can’t even follow its own brainless progression. At times it seems like each day’s work was done while the entire cast and crew were wacked out of their minds on drugs, causing the following day’s work to be done with no recollection whatsoever of what came before. A later revelation about Jason needing to be “reborn” from a Voorhees pretty much negates the concept that the body he was wearing was “just meat”. And that is not even the dumbest thing in this movie.
Once again, I must ask, who the hell is responsible for wrecking this slasher saga that was launched by Victor Miller and Sean S. Cunningham? Sadly (though this time, unsurprisingly) much of the fault of this joke falls at the feet of Sean S. Cunningham himself, as evidenced by the tagline “The creator of the first returns to bring you the last”. Yes, in spite of his previous refusal to be involved with the series, Cunningham returned as Producer for this “last”, “final” film, the other tagline of which was “Jason goes to hell, and he’s NOT coming back!”
The subsequent three Friday the 13th films were also produced by Sean S. Cunningham.
These other three films included Jason’s actual crossover with Freddy (as hinted in the final moments of Jason Goes to Hell), appropriately entitled Freddy Vs. Jason (2003), the 2009 “remake” (actually more of a remake of the fourth film) and, of course, the drastically divergent sequel that truly merges “Sci-Fi” and “Horror” even more than did Halloween III: Jason X (2001).
Yes, Jason X, so named because it was the tenth film in the franchise (clever, no?), was the first film that I know of in which a famous slasher killer was actually ASSIMILATED BY THE BORG! Yes, this time we find out that no matter how cool the commandoes are, no matter how hot the chicks are, Jason Voorhees will still be around to stink up the room, murder beautiful women and force a corn and cheese infusion into any movie he disgraces. So, I guess it’s Death, Taxes and Jason, then.
Damn… I could have lived with the first two. In the years of waiting for Freddy Vs. Jason to debut, producers (including Cunningham) felt that they needed to remind viewers of just who Jason was, so their bright idea was to shoot him into outer space, have him destroy an entire space station, get chopped up and then improved into a Cyborg named “Über-Jason” before landing on some other planet where he prepares to prey upon… camping teenagers. Again. The saddest thing is that only the location is anything really different in this film. The rest is just the same old Jason, doing a bunch of Jason things.
This is what happens when producers run out of ideas for horror sequels… they shoot their star boogey-man into space. Jason is hardly the only bad guy to face a spacy sequel. The same thing happened to Pinhead in Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996), the king of all Vampires in Dracula 3000 (a 2004 film that was only a pseudosequel to 2000’s Dracula 2000), the guy who played Wicket and Willow in the dreadful Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997) and to those roly-poly Gremlins rip-offs in Critters 4 (1992). At least the Critters were originally from space.
Of course, Sci-Fi and Horror are not the only genres (blended or not) that feature drastically divergent sequels. In 2006 The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift hit theatres with a new story, setting and characters, completely separate from The Fast and the Furious (2001) and 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003). In this case a previously unseen driver travels from Arizona to Tokyo without the whole cops-and-criminals subplot of the other films and engages in illegal street races.
Again, the idea was to launch sequels in with their own stories, not necessarily connected to each other (save for a small cameo from the first film’s star Vin Diesel). In spite of negative reviews, Tokyo Drift was a financial success that warranted new furiously fast sequels. The first of these, Fast & Furious (2009) seemed to completely ignore the events of Tokyo, content with allowing this discordant sequel to drift into obscurity. However, the series runners have retroactively reinserted The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift back into the continuity of the series, but in a different order (the events of this film follow 2011’s Fast Five and 2013’s Fast & Furious 6, but remain a prequel to the events of the upcoming 7th film in the franchise (set for a 2015 release).
Incidentally, while Diesel has returned for all of these speed demon flicks since Fast & Furious, his cameo in Tokyo Drift was reportedly only done so that he could obtain the rights to the main character of yet another divergent sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick. To signal Diesel’s return to the franchise, Universal wanted his involvement in Tokyo Drift enough to give him all rights to the character of Richard B. Riddick in lieu of financial payment. Thus the way for Riddick (2013) was paved even after The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) failed to earn back half of its production and marketing budget (domestically). While Riddick is so non-divergent that it could be considered a near remake of 2000’s Pitch Black (the film that introduced the character), the 2004 film went a completely different way and almost sunk the franchise.
Pitch Black was a relatively low budget, claustrophobic sci-fi horror flick that managed to recover its costs by more than double at the box office and became a great success on the home video market. While it’s true that the second film is a direct story sequel to Pitch Black, the 2004 film leaps far from its small, tightly told storyline and into a galaxy-spanning saga of alien invasions and interplanetary intrigue that more closely resembled Dune (1984) than Pitch Black. The very title The Chronicles of Riddick signals that the main character and his franchise had surprisingly grown far too big for their britches. In this story, Riddick raids a prison, visits many planets, teams up with a ghostly Judi Dench, battles a conquering warlord and ultimately is seen sitting on his throne as a leader of an entire people. Pitch Black was about Riddick fighting monsters that are allergic to sunlight on a desolate planet during a total eclipse while helping the survivors who hate him.
After the risks of Chronicles failed to please the studio (even counting foreign box office, the film still fell far short of a profit), it took nine years for the next sequel, Riddick to hit theaters. Incidentally, Riddick is a claustrophobic story all about Riddick fighting monsters who require water to survive on a desolate planet during a total rainstorm while helping the survivors who hate him. Does that sound more than a little bit like the first film? Yes. It might as well have been called Pitch Wet.
The Chronicles of Riddick is an example of a film sequel that (largely) keeps the same characters and (much of the) continuity of its predecessor, but diverges greatly in theme and content. Other examples of this trend include Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), The Omen IV: The Awakening (1991), Xtro II: The Second Encounter (1991), Cars 2 (2011), Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), Shock Treatment (the 1981 sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show), S. Darko (2009) and Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997).
Pointing out my favorite example of this strange trend will require us to fly fast and furious back to Earth (namely Australia) for an adorable 1998 film called Babe: Pig in the City. Most everyone is familiar with Babe the 1995 film about the intelligent pig who could talk to other animals on his farm, whose cuteness and courage ultimately led to his winning a sheep-herding contest and the hearts of his audience (both on screen and in theatres). As co-written and produced by George Miller, Babe was an enormous success with critics and moviegoers alike and a sequel was quickly green lit, this time with Miller not only writing and producing, but also directing.
This seemed to be a recipe for more phenomenal success and, while Babe: Pig in the City received almost as much critical acclaim as its predecessor (landing on many critics’ “best of 1998” lists), the film almost entirely alienated the audience of the original film. Why? Babe is an excellent movie about a charming pig who warms hearts and saves his farm. Babe: Pig in the City is a surrealistic nightmare that takes place in a dark Metropolis that amalgamates most of the real world’s major cities and features street gangs composed of angry dogs, a depressed, aged clown played by Mickey Rooney and a family of unfriendly circus primates. We even witness our favorite talking piggy in a spiked leather collar. Did I mention that the plot only happens because Babe accidentally trips Farmer Hoggett, badly injuring him and sending him to the hospital, which causes the farm to face repossession by the bank? Not exactly all rainbows, is it?
That said, it’s still an excellent movie, even though the franchise ended handily right then and there. While Babe made a profit of over $220 million, Babe: Pig in the City (which tripled the $30 million budget of the first film) experienced a loss of over $20 million, largely due to these darker (yet, still amazing) elements.
Who is to blame (or credit) for the differences in this strange sequel? Does the name George Miller sound familiar outside of the Babe films? It should. Miller is the creator and director of all three films in the Mad Max series. Yes, Mad Max the saga of a post-apocalyptic vigilante battling evil marauders in the dead deserts of Australia and Babe, the Sheep-Pig have the same papa. Miller’s darker, Mad Max-like inclusions in Babe: Pig in the City may have sunk the franchise financially, but this didn’t destroy Miller’s career, even as a creator of family-oriented films. His next two directorial efforts were the animated penguin dance film Happy Feet (2006) and its much less drastically divergent sequel Happy Feet Two (2011). Of course, the next film Miller has planned to create is Mad Max: Fury Road (set for a 2015 release). I wonder if Max will be teamed up with a talking pig in this fourth film.
Horror still holds the crown for the highest number of aberrant aftermaths. Amityville III: The Demon (1983) avoided the name “Lutz” (the central family in the original Amityville Horror) but made direct reference to the real-world Defeo murders in spite of the fact that the second film (a prequel) renamed that family to “Montelli”. The studio indicated that the film (originally entitled Amityville 3-D) was “NOT a Sequel to The Amityville Horror or Amityville II: The Possession”, however, let’s take a closer look at this here horror flick. The Amityville Horror (1979) was released independently, and was produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff. Both Amityville II: The Possession (1982) and Amityville 3-D were released by Orion Pictures and both were produced (or, at least, “Presented”) by smiling Dino De Laurentiis, once again. Both feature the same Demon and both work damned hard to avoid the name “Lutz”. So is it a sequel? To Amityville II: The Possession, I’d say, sure as shootin’, albeit in a drastically divergent way. Is it a sequel to The Amityville Horror? Not legally, no.
Further “sequels” in the “series” involve artifacts auctioned off from the house (in spite of the fact that the house was blown up at the end of Amityville 3-D), including a haunted clock, a haunted dollhouse and a haunted lamp, for heaven’s sake. Perhaps the most humorously divergent film with the name “Amityville” attached to it is 1990’s The Amityville Curse, which was not set in the house with the famous fan-shaped windows, but in some completely unrelated house that also just happened to be haunted and also just happened to be situated in the village of Amityville on Long Island, New York. Real Estate agents must have a hell of a time selling houses there.
Moving from the real Amityville to the fictional “Amity Island”, 1983’s Jaws III (similar to its Amityville sibling, also originally released as Jaws 3-D) relocates all of the action from the setting of the first film to SeaWorld in Florida and recasts the major roles, eliminating every face we knew except the shark’s (in spite of the fact that this is a new shark). After the failure of that film, Jaws: The Revenge (1987) completely ignored the events of the third movie, recast the roles again and competed directly with 3-D to see which film could suck more. The clear winner? Jaws: The Revenge, one of the worst films ever made.
Staying in the water, Piranha II: The Spawning (1981) may be James Cameron’s directorial debut, but I can’t imagine that Piranha (1978)’s director Joe Dante ever expected or intended his title fish to take off from the water and fly like birds. Similarly, after the werewolf lore of 1981’s The Howling and 1985’s Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf was firmly set in stone to the joys of horror fans everywhere, the second film’s director followed this success with Howling III: The Marsupials (1987), which explains that these “werewolves” aren’t the creatures of the night we once thought they were, but actually are more closely related to koala bears and wallabies. We even get to see the birth of two tiny marsupials as they crawl up into their mother’s pouch (without even the benefit of the full moon).
Of course, there are many more examples of drastically divergent sequels and not all of them have resulted in the demise of or turn-for-the-worse for their respective sagas. So let’s end this installment of The Next Reel on a happy note. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) is the second theatrical release from the Star Trek franchise, however the second film hardly looked or felt anything like the first.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was a sterile look at the future with light colored jumpsuits, pristine space suits, a ship that shrugged off battle damage and an incredibly slow plot. While the film was a financial success, critics and audiences complained that the motion picture was too sedate and boring and Paramount feared that fans might not return for more sequels if the first film’s successes were due solely to its status as an “event”. Thus the white jumpsuits and clean interiors were eschewed in favor of more Earthy and military uniforms, a more fallible Enterprise and a more action-based, but no less cerebral, plot.
In actual fact, The Wrath of Khan is not a direct sequel to The Motion Picture but to an episode of Star Trek (1966) called “Space Seed” which introduced the dangerous villain Khan Noonien Singh. This choice was made by the new producer who was also responsible for most of the aesthetic changes to the series. Harve Bennett was a television producer who claimed that he could make five films for the cost of The Motion Picture. While featuring mostly the same cast as The Motion Picture, The Wrath of Khan went in a completely different thematic direction for an edgy story that centered around a Moby Dick like chase between Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Khan (Ricardo Montalbán). The first film had focused on the Enterprise crew facing off with a faceless computer with a grudge.
Star Trek II was an immense success that made back almost nine times its budget at the box office (The Motion Picture managed to earn back three times its budget) and launched the true Star Trek film series as well as the series-within-a-series colloquially known as “The Star Trek Trilogy” (rounded out by 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).
Gene Roddenberry’s original idea for a direct sequel featured the crew (presumably in the same jumpsuits) time travelling to prevent the Klingons from saving President John F. Kennedy. Luckily, the Trek creator was “kicked upstairs” to the role of an advisor with little creative control. The drastic divergence of Star Trek’s first movie sequel truly led to not only the overall success of the saga but the return of Star Trek to the small screen, again under the hand of Roddenberry. In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), the jumpsuits and built in communicators returned, young blue-eyed officer Willard Dekker from The Motion Picture was replaced by young, blue-eyed William Riker for The Next Generation and Dekker’s sexy, psychic love interest Ilia from The Motion Picture was replaced by Riker’s sexy, psychic love interest Deanna for The Next Generation. Sometimes even a drastically divergent sequel can’t keep a bright idea down.
Sure, drastically divergent sequels are generally the death knell for a saga (or, at least, their relegation to the direct-to-video market), be they good sequels or bad. Luckily there are a few noteworthy exceptions. So, until the cast of the rebooted Star Trek films encounters Über-Jason Voorhees and his army of Halloween III robots on one of the planets Riddick always finds himself stranded on, in a house far-too-reminiscent of the haunted mansion in Amityville, occupied by a talking pig and two Highlanders and guarded by a vengeful shark, I’ll see you true-believers in The Next Reel.