Can a barely recognizable sequel save a franchise? Or is it doomed to mark its epitaph?
Horror Holds the Crown for Aberrant Aftermaths
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.