The objective of this article is to not be an in-depth cataloging or inventory of every horror sequel ever, but rather an observation from someone who has seen their fair share of horror sequels and wishes to comment on it.
When we entered the 21st century, the shape of film to come was not based upon the ability to tell a complex story within a singular film. It seemed as though the groundwork was being laid down to build franchises. To tell longform epics over the course of multiple films. We stretched the bounds of the trilogy early with The Lord of the Rings, seeing as those films average 3 hours a piece. The Harry Potter adaptations had a relatively 1:1 blueprint to follow with a film for each book (two for the last one). Soon, any Young Adult novel that had more than three books to their names were getting greenlit before the checks were even signed. And who could have predicted that a film about cars going fast would spawn seven sequels (with more to come) and a spin-off? Then there was the booming superhero market, where it was no longer a “franchise” but an entire cinematic universe, with certain characters getting their own set of films alongside the massive team-up ones that were meant to be the focal points.
I don’t mean to rail on the proliferation of film franchises; I do feel it would be a disservice to not point out that horror films had been building franchises for nearly half a century before mainstream Hollywood figured out the formula for maximizing profits beyond a trilogy.
Adapting an existing IP to film with the expectation of producing multiple entries means that room to play around with the story is quite narrow. You alter too much, you risk alienating the core fans who will drive much of the word-of-mouth and could sink the hope that this film plays well with the source. However, you don’t make enough changes to entice a broader audience, you’ve got a film that will only play to a very small market, meaning you won’t see the profit necessary to retroactively justify having made the film in the first place. That can also mean the possible cancellation of the entire franchise before the series even had a chance to right itself. Think the attempts at building new fantasy franchises out of His Dark Materials and The Chronicles of Narnia. Apparently, there was a third Narnia film made, so that’s news to me.
Original IP means that if you make a mistake, you can correct it in the next film, continuity be damned. Of course, even now modern franchises often play fast and loose with timelines and plots (looking at you Marvel Cinematic Universe or any other comic book movie).
Thirty years before the superhero film genre truly saw it’s dominance, horror films had a long history of pumping out sequels that were far from necessary in effort to give the fans what they wanted: More kills, more blood, more gore, more sex, more mindless entertainment.
A Carpenter Who Would Be A King…
The story around the 1978 Halloween was that director John Carpenter did not envision the story being continued in a sequel, let alone kickstarting a franchise both beloved and derided by fans and critics alike. The film was a financial success for an independent release, thus fulfilling the requirement then unknown that a sequel must be made. The studio implored Carpenter a sequel must happen – the public was expecting it and those with the money (and therefore the power) demanded it. There was just one problem: Carpenter didn’t want to tell the same story again. He had conceived the Halloween name becoming an anthology series of films, telling a different story each year, in different styles. In order to get his wish, he had to meet the studio part way and concede to a direct sequel. Halloween II was served up three years later and was darker and bloodier than the first. When I speak of these two films, I draw a parallel to Green Day and say that Halloween II is the Insomniac to Halloween’s Dookie. Both were highly-anticipated follow-ups to two pieces of pop media that defied expectations and have been largely celebrated while also ushering in a new wave in their respective mediums. And both were rather abrasive compared to their predecessors. A little rougher around the edges, a wee bit more distorted, but no less fierce or relenting. To say there was pressure for both to deliver is an understatement, and what we got were rawer tastes of the same flavors, which isn’t a bad thing – it just means that art can often be a reactionary thing, especially in the face of tastemakers who want to see if you were more than a flash in the pan.
Carpenter proved that he wasn’t, even if Halloween II isn’t as tight as the first, with a style that feels more like a cut-rate giallo (I suspect that Deep Red was a heavy influence as there are a few things that I’m sure Carpenter cribbed from that film). Granted, Carpenter wasn’t in the director’s chair for this one, so really you have someone else attempting to emulate a distinct style so that everything looked seamless and time never passed. But what Carpenter committed to the screen was in his mind a definitive conclusion to the Michael Myers saga, escalating the tension, the gore, and the actions of the characters. Things feel more chaotic, and I’m sure that’s a reflection on Carpenter’s attitudes towards studio influence on his vision bleeding through from the script to the screen. In the fiery end, the studio got their wish and kept their promise, granting Carpenter permission to transition Halloween into an anthology title. There was just one major white-faced problem with this: No Michael Myers.
Halloween III was an ambitious (to say the least) attempt to change course. Entering more sci-fi/thriller territory, the departure from straight slasher could be seen as jarring, especially to audiences expecting more of the recognizable villain they’ve known through the first two films. Halloween III: Season of the Witch was released just about a full year after II in 1982 and basically killed the franchise upon arrival. Of course today III is well-regarded as a cult film, especially if you can disconnect it from the overall Halloween franchise and take it as its own film. Which it pretty much is at this point. An anomaly after-the-fact. Halloween would lay dormant for 6 years. In that time, the subgenre that it had perfected the blueprint for would blossom into its own beast and soon eat itself when executive producer Moustapha Akkad decided to revive the corpse. By then it would be too late.
I say Halloween perfected the slasher subgenre because prior to its release, you had maybe fewer than a handful of titles that could fit that description. Also, almost immediately, imitators popped up in its wake ready to be the next Halloween. Similar to the phenomenon when Die Hard was a smash and studios were looking for the next “Die Hard on/in X” to reap the same rewards. The most prominent of imitators to pop up was a little film called Prom Night. Oh, you thought I was going to say Friday the 13th? I suppose we could include that film, too. Really, I want an excuse to pivot to a lesser-talked about film and the franchise it spawned (yes it did – three sequels and a remake to its name).
Prom Night was released in 1980, one of the earlier first-wave slasher films as it was centered around a themed night/event (prom), featured high schoolers as the main characters (including Jamie Lee Curtis), and a mysterious killer stalking them and killing them one by one. It really didn’t do much to break new ground or be exciting. It also had to combat the fact that its titular night was loaded with disco music and by 1980, disco (or at least the watered-down sanitized pop version of it we think is disco) was as dead as teens in a slasher film. Still, it was able to get a sequel. Seven years later. And not at all related to the original other than that the events of both occur in the same high school. Honestly, I think Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is an underrated film and it’s a shame not enough people talk about it. I don’t think anyone really talks about Prom Night in general other than when mentioning Halloween rip-offs. That kind of reputation can chase people away from seeing a film that did well to try and be different, even if it wasn’t wholly original.
Prom Night II is less a slasher in the style of Halloween or Friday the 13th and more a psychological/supernatural horror film in the vein of Carrie and the emerging latest horror series A Nightmare on Elm Street. The plot involves murder, revenge from beyond the grave, possession, and the culture clash of the 1950s and the 1980s. It’s… fine in terms of plot. For style, it is fun and slightly campy. I think if you had to remake any 80s horror film, have it be Prom Night II but I wouldn’t trust anyone today to do it justice. Then again, that a film like Prom Night II was made and released at all towards the end of the 80s horror explosion speaks more to a studio’s willingness to greenlight anything that might make a buck as opposed to greenlighting something that could be seen as bold and daring. This was a film released well after the original was at the front of anyone’s minds when talking about slashers that could use a sequel to reinvent or revitalize the original.
If by the mid 80s there was any early slasher film people were demanding a sequel to that wasn’t Halloween or Friday the 13th (as they were pumping those out like clockwork), it was Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which finally got a sequel some dozen years later, and boy did they get it. Whereas the first Chainsaw film is a grindhouse masterpiece, packed with tension and gorgeously grotesque set designs, Chainsaw 2 is the epitome of 80s horror excess, a neon-lit fever dream soaked in gore.
Tonal shifts are commonplace in horror films and their sequels. Sometimes you can get away with making the same film twice (looking at you Friday Parts I and II) or light variations on a theme (*cough* Friday Part 3D *cough* Final Chapter *cough cough*), but audiences aren’t dumb. As much as we looooove seeing “teenagers” have fun sexy times in the spooky haunted cabin where a series of gruesome murders have been occurring on a near-annual basis and why hasn’t the county shut this place down?!, it can sometimes feel stale. It gets old fast.
The Friday series realized this early on but still dragged its feet as slow as its lumbering killer stalks teens for slaughter. Their true first stab (heh) at changing things up was with Part V: A New Beginning. It was all there in the subtitle. This wasn’t going to be your ordinary everyday Friday film. No, we’re going to see something bold, something fresh, something that is going to make you scream for more! Instead, they gave you Roy and they realized they had fucked up. I’ve come around on Part V over the years. Actually, Part V was the very first Friday film I had seen in full and not just an edited version that was airing late at night on the Spanish language channel (back in the 90s, I think I saw a lot of the then-modern horror films on Telemundo and Univision versus any other method). I have to say, for a horror film made by someone who used to work in the porno industry, it shows and while it’s not great, it is bad in the way that makes for a fun watch. Of course, what’s fun for most is torture for others.
Part V was also the first film to reuse a character from the previous film without killing them off in the first fifteen minutes. Tommy Jarvis, who was played by a young Cory Feldman in Part IV, is now played by some goober who would later start a production company for religious films and we follow his journey as he grapples with the trauma experienced from the previous film. Well, sort of. For a film touting a new beginning and following an established character from a previous entry, Tommy really doesn’t do a whole lot beyond standing around shirtless and hallucinating Jason. He’s relegated to side-character and only occasionally gets to be a badass like when he slams one character through a table or straight-up karates another in a vacant lot. Other than that, wet farts all around. Part VI is the true return to form for Tommy Jarvis, played again by a different actor (Thom Mathews of Return of the Living Dead fame). This entry also introduces another tonal shift in the Friday series, relying on action pastiches, meta-humor, and supernatural elements as this is the film that brings Jason back to life as an undead killing machine.
The “Jarvis Trilogy” in the Friday series is representative of how experimental they were willing to be, for better or worse. Part IV kept to its roots of “teenagers” having their sexy times, but it also gave us characters we wanted to root for. Part V was a bold if flawed attempt to try something different while still using the same template that had worked pretty well for the last four films. Part VI was a panicked shuffle back to the status quo, but with enough tweaks to the format to make it feel fresh. Point being, Friday the 13th is probably the most reactive franchise in horror films. The first two films are carbon copies, but the second film swapped out killers. The third film alters the formula slightly, changing the pretense but not the format. By the time Part IV rolls around, they have a tried-and-true plot that is something akin to modular furniture: you can swap out pieces here and there to make it look different, but you’re still going to have the same comfortable seating that hugs your ass just right. Either way, when they realized they made a boo-boo with Part V, the studio execs were quick to yell “PSYCH! HAHA!” and revert back to what worked.
So by 1988, the Friday series had six films to their name and was set to release their seventh. In contrast, the film they were inspired by, Halloween, had only three films with a fourth entry looming. Six years will have passed since Halloween III and seven since the last appearance of the franchise’s main player, Michael Myers.
Returns, Revenge, and Curses…
There’s an anecdote I’ve heard about the Halloween films Parts VI-VII that they took their respective subtitles of Return…, Revenge…, and Curse… from The Pink Panther franchise. As to how true that is, I don’t know, but it sure is funny to think about.
I don’t know how many times I have seen all of the Halloween films that follow the Jamie Lloyd timeline. If I’m being honest, they’re not terrible; they’re just incredibly late to the party. That the fifth Halloween film would be released the following year means that there was renewed interest in the franchise as well as the new characters and their story. However, considering that it wouldn’t be until 1995 that the sixth Halloween film would see release, with studio interference and production shenanigans, I think it is safe to say that confidence quickly waned in resurrecting the franchise when they did.
The common line of thought is that towards the end of the 80s, the slasher subgenre had begun to play itself out. Numerous imitators had risen and nearly all were indistinguishable from each other. Not to say that there weren’t new slasher films that became cult favorites or other horror films that made a name for themselves, but if you look at the bulk of releases from just the big names and watched them all in a marathon sitting, chances are you’d fail to recall what scenes were from which entry or franchise. Ideas were running thin. Halloween wanted to continue the family drama it established in Part II and with Friday the 13th Part VIII, Jason was out to sea and then wandering the streets of Vancouver. The less said about the fuck-a-doo wackery of A Nightmare on Elm Streets end-of-decade films the better.
I have mixed feelings about what the 80s did for horror in general, not just the slasher. Granted, the slasher film changed the game in terms of violence and gore. Slashers pushed the boundaries set in place by the MPAA as well as a filmmaker’s sense of morality. This allowed other horror films to feel more comfortable with explicit content. I don’t think we would have had the likes of Re-Animator, Evil Dead, Evil Dead II, The Lost Boys, or even films like The Terminator or RoboCop without the films that came before them seeing what they could get away with in a mainstream feature. Either way, once the 90s rolled around, the slasher was pretty much dead. Nightmare would only manage two releases, with one of them being a work of metafiction that feels like Wes Craven taking a test-drive for Scream. The Friday series was sold off to another studio who released one film in 1993 and let the series rest in a shallow grave for nearly a decade. Only Halloween tried to keep things going with the aforementioned Curse coming out in 1995 before changing course for a third time with the post-Scream Halloween: H20 (Kevin Williamson had a hand in the screenplay, likely injecting some of that same self-aware dialog into the film). It did what Return did, renewing interest that was quickly snuffed out by the time the next sequel was released (ironically, the eighth film subtitled Resurrection all but killed the franchise).
The 90s were a harsh time for established slasher foes, who were seen as out-of-date relics. No one was retreating to the woods to get doped up and have sex. The collective angst of the youth proved that even the darkest of nightmares were nothing compared to conformity and society at large. And who cares about some slow lumbering jerk in a jumpsuit waving a kitchen knife in the background when there was confirmed sexual assaulter in the White House? Slashers were never meant to survive the 80s. They embodied too much of the “live fast, die young” ethos of punk rock. They just forgot to die young, like so many punk rockers of the 70s were wont to do (then again, you can’t kill Iggy Pop).
Did I Have a Point?
No. Not really. I think a lot about horror films and how they’re connected to each other, not just what they’re trying to say about life and social issues. I thought this would be a fun exercise to reflect on the longevity of horror films. I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover every single horror franchise that came out in the 80s, and I neglected to mention other horror films that predate the slasher boom that spawned countless sequels or loosely connected films (the Universal Monsters and Hammer Horror being the staples of long-running horror film series). If I had the proper motivation, I’m sure I could write several articles on the evolution of horror and franchises but I preferred to write something condensed that did not require as much intense research on my part (not that I wouldn’t want to do more research, but I’m budgeted for time). Regardless, I find it fascinating how much life some of these films had over a decade or beyond.
Shamelessly, I focused on Halloween as the prognosticator of horror films because, well, for better or worse, that film really did instigate a paradigm shift in not only horror films but independent films as well. It’s success caused studios everywhere to look for the next version, hoping to ape its success or at least create their own cheap to produce IP that could be mass produced until it is no longer profitable.
Horror is unending. The best horror is a reflection of the times in which we live. It is a perversion of our social experiences. There was a bit of a bust in the early 2000s but I would say the outlook is healthy given the releases within the last 10 years or so, with many creators looking back to older horror films for inspiration and utilizing a modern lens to frame a story that’s contemporary yet timeless. As to whether we need longstanding franchises in the 21st century, I’m not going to say yes or no. We have seen reboots stutter or stall without much demand for future installments. Meanwhile, the Halloween franchise seems to be outlasting its contemporaries in that department, having opted to reroute the timeline once more with a direct sequel in 2018 and two more lined up for 2021 and 2022. Then again, Halloween’s sequels pattern suggests that these next ones might not live up to hype. Then again, I am willing to be so very incredibly wrong on such an assessment and admit I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Incidentally, for the next Pop Optics entry I will be reviewing and riffing The Exorcist III.