Can a barely recognizable sequel save a franchise? Or is it doomed to mark its epitaph?
Above: Uber-Jason from Jason X (2001)
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.