Dave’s Cultamania: Horror franchise mis-steps
For a movie studio, having a successful movie with a multiple franchise sequels is like adding toppings on a pizza. Sure, a plain cheese and tomato base will still taste good, and people will still happily buy it – but producing a subsequent range of extra ingredients, each with their own increased cost, will raise profits and keep the product fresh in the mind of the consumer – all while enabling the maker to continue to generating new products.
There is no genre of movie that is as closely linked with the ‘franchise’ tag than the horror genre, with almost every moderately successful horror movie receiving its share of sequels/prequels/re-imaginings. From Universal and its run of Frankenstein movies in the 30s/40s, Hammer and it’s multitude of vampire movies in the 60s/70s, the various slasher series in the 80s, and the contemporary success of Saw and the Paranormal Activity franchises over the past decade – sequels continue to be big business.
This approach can have its pros and cons though. While there are definite examples of innovation and originality within movie franchises (James Cameron’s Aliens and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare being perfect examples), it’s fair to say that most are at-best slightly altered copies of the original movie, adhering to Hollywood’s favourite mantra of “give em’ more of the same – and charge ’em for the privilege!”
But sometimes a franchise produces a movie so bad that even the link to the more successful movies that it followed, can’t save it. These movies will normally either kill the franchise off entirely, or result in this entry being subsequently ret-conned and a future sequel/re-imagining attempting to wipe it from the viewer’s memory. If we want to use the pizza topping analogy again, we could definitely say that these movies are the anchovies of their respective series.
I’ve always had a soft spot for these terrible sequels/prequels – mainly because I love watching shit movies, laughing at their ineptitude and then complaining about them (the phase of moving established horror movies into space for a random sequel is a particular favourite of mine – but that’s for another article). So here’s a few memorable horror franchise mis-steps – feel free to watch them yourself if you want to suffer, and tweet me with your own suggestions…
Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1989)
Honestly, this could easily have been a few paragraphs about A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge instead – both it and Final Nightmare regularly trade the title of the worst of the ‘Elm Street’ franchise in internet polls and reviewer retrospectives. But as bad as Part 2 was – with its pointless shattering of the Elm Street mythology rules (Freddy just randomly jumps in and out of the ‘real world’ without any real explanation), terrible demonic budgie puppet, and not-so-subtle gay and BDSM undertones – for me ‘Final Nightmare’ will always be the lowest point of the saga (just to note, the incredible Part 3: Dream Warriors and Renny Harlin’s remarkably inventive Part 4: The Dream Master are my personal highlights of the Elm Street sequels).
Directed by future Tank Girl helmer Rachel Talalay, the movie is simply way too cartoony for a mainstream horror franchise like Elm Street. Like Freddy’s Revenge it makes little attempt to adhere to the core continuity of the series: Freddy just appears anywhere he fancies, victims die in the dream world but then miraculously disintegrate in the real one, Freddy suddenly develops a daughter even though promotional material from earlier movies state that he was childless (which apparently drove him to abuse other children). Isn’t it the job of a Line Producer to stop this kind of shit from happening?
The main selling point of this movie seems to be the shabbily tacked-on 3D (so bad they actually make a pair of 3D glasses a plot point!). Prepare yourself for some of the worst 3D effects this side of Jaws 3 – the flaming skulls that look like sperm is a particular low-light. Throw in some pointless celebrity cameos by 80s comedy superstar Roseanne Barr, her then husband Tom Arnold, and also Elm Street alumni Johnny Depp, which only help to cheapen the film and remove even more of Elm Street’s horror trappings (although the irony of alleged 80s coke-fiend Depp appearing in an in-movie anti-drugs advert, is pretty hilarious – although I’m not sure if the irony was intentional).
This is also the movie in which the comedic quip-throwing Freddy officially jumps the shark. Yes, he had essentially become the James Bond of horror cinema over the course of the previous four sequels, and his pre-murder puns had become a massive part of the success of the franchise – but at least in the other movies they were part of the context of each of the victim’s storyline/dream sequence, were normally followed by a thoroughly gore-filled death, and most importantly were delivered with the menace and evil delight that you would expect from a sadistic child-killer.
In this incarnation his quips feel wholly out of place, and seem more about throwing in some random pop-culture reference in an attempt to gain a few laughs (the Nintendo ‘Power-glove’ section is clunky at best, and the terrible Wizard Of Oz parody which introduces Freddy into the movie is just cringe-worthy), and Freddy only succeeds in killing a small few of the children (normally in cheap, censored-to-shreds sequences that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Looney Tunes cartoon). It only succeeds in ripping away whatever little remaining threat that Freddy has as a character and makes him appear limp in his fights against the group that he should be terrorising easily.
Robert Englund appears to be phoning-in his performance in this movie – and to be honest with this script, I don’t blame him. Gone is his playful and yet extremely sinister mannerism of the previous movies, replaced by someone who obviously can’t wait to get this movie over with and to get on with his career. At least Englund had a skilled writer and director like Wes Craven to help provide the suitable swansong as Freddy in New Nightmare.
Speaking of a bad swansong, the movie’s biggest crime is in how they finally kill Freddy off. For a movie that is marketed around the fact that it is supposedly the last of a critically and financially successful franchise, you would think that they would make the end special – give our villain the send-off that he deserves (or at least one that matches or betters any previous deaths suffered in the series: ignored, burned, buried, exploded from within, stretched by souls, etc…). Instead, Freddy suffers the indignity of getting his ass handed to him in a 10min fight with his social worker daughter (she just happened to develop serious martial arts skills over the course of the movie, and also had a secret stash of ninja weapons laying around the orphanage she works in), gets stabbed by his own glove, and then gets impaled by a stick of dynamite which blows his his body apart and his head tumbling toward the screen in a shocking 3D optical effect.
They follow this with a 30 second cut-scene in which the victorious daughter calmly and smugly states “Freddy’s dead” to her smiling co-survivors, and they share a chuckle before the screen fades to a typical generic hard-rock accompanied credit sequence. There’s no shock or reflection over the horrific scene that they have just witnessed (including fucking flying demonic skulls!!), no sadness or remembrance over the hundreds of innocent children that have lost their lives to Freddy (some being the supposed friends of these smug douchebags). The only thing that this ending succeeds in doing is making Freddy look like an absolute joke.
I hate this film – even more so than Part 2 or the disastrous 2010 remake, although they’re both terrible in their own ways. New Line should have treated this franchise better when it came to supposedly ending it – it left a bad taste in the mouths of the fans which led to the undeserved commercial failure of the excellent ‘New Nightmare’ a few years later.
Just don’t forget your 3D glasses if you want to experience this movie in its full shitness.
Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000)
So for a moment let’s pretend that we’re executives in Artisan Entertainment (now part of Lions Gate) during 1999. We’ve just revolutionised the horror genre by unleashing The Blair Witch Project on an unsuspecting world – and in the process introduced the movie masses to the previously underutilised concepts of documentary/found-footage/reality-style horror (only Peeping Tom and Cannibal Holocaust had previously used this style effectively, but these cult hits had been long forgotten by the mainstream cinema-goer) and viral internet/guerrilla marketing (both consequences of the low budget available to the filmmakers to both make and promote the movie). The film has been a smash success both cinematically and on home video, and so we’ve made an absolute fuck-ton of money – so what do we do now? Attempt to rush out a sequel ASAP so we can cash in on the success, of course!
But there’s a big problem: the original’s filmmakers want nothing to do with it (other than token Executive Producer credits), and no-one in the studio (or in Hollywood as a whole) has a definitive idea on how to effectively continue the story while using the same filmmaking technique that made the original fresh, inventive and, most importantly, genuinely scary. And so clueless studio execs decide to take the Blair Witch concept and lazily fit it into the same trite 90’s horror movie template that every other studio was fishing out at the time (i.e. Scream/Urban Legend type ‘teen’ horror).
What arrived was Book Of Shadows, a glossy Hollywood mid-budget horror, with no established stars (the only actor who may be recognisable to current viewers is Jeffrey Donovan, who went on to find success in the cult TV spy show Burn Notice), and only small sections of the hand-held/found-footage camera work that made the original so unique.
It actually starts out well enough, with clips from various TV personalities and reviewers discussing how scary the original was, mixed with supposedly real interviews from people living in Birketsville (the setting of the first movie). But all this quality prep falls to shit when the movie loses its documentary style, and becomes a simple ‘pack of no-personality douchebag characters go looking for the Blair Witch, and then everything goes weird’ type of film. Terrible acting (honestly, the snot running out of Heather Donahue’s nose in the infamous scene from the original had more talent and emotional range that this cast), terrible special effects (a total crime, seeing as the original had absolutely no effects and no actual sightings of the witch but still managed to produce infinitely more tension and better jump-scares), and a plot so weak and nonsensical that even I, a seasoned bad movies watcher, actually uttered the words “what the fuck was that?” as the credits rolled when I saw it for the first time. A bad movie, yes – but to be honest, not even a fun one.
Let’s hope that the soon-to-be-released new sequel from Adam Windgard (the director responsible for two of the most original horror hits from the past few years – You’re Next! and The Guest) will be able to revitalise the Blair Witch franchise. If the red-band trailer is anything to go by, the tension of the original looks to have made a come-back, and with hints of the gore that is expected to get a movie over with the more hard-core tastes of modern horror fans – this could be a success to the same level as the recent Evil Dead sequel.
Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
I’m sure that any reader with a decent knowledge of horror movies would have expected me to be writing about Exorcist 2: The Heretic right now. John Boorman’s 1977 big-budget sequel to the celebrated original is notorious as being one of the biggest commercial and critical flops in cinema history, and also having one of the most overblown and downright confusing plots ever (an absolute crime, as the premise of the original was so simple yet massively effective).
But in-all-honesty, The Heretic still has quite a bit of merit. The cast is exceptional: Richard Burton is at his majestic best in the lead role of Father Lamont, sadly one of his last great roles (The Wild Geese being another big favourite of mine), Louise Fletcher turns in another excellent performance to follow on from her Oscar-winning turn in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and Linda Blair gets a chance to flex her now-matured acting muscles in one of her last mainstream roles before she disappeared into the 80s horror/exploitation scene. The film also looks stunning, with its uptown cool New York setting contrasting perfectly with the beautifully shot rural African scenes. Finally, there are some generally scary and unsettling scenes that fit in with the Exorcist concept. To me, these make a decent if strange movie – the same cannot be said for the Exorcist: The Beginning.
The story behind this prequel is as terrible as the movie itself. After the Exorcist franchise floated around in development hell for a number of years, the idea of a prequel telling the story of Father Merrin (the ‘exorcist’ priest from the original movie) and his initial battle with the demon the ended up possessing Reagan, was first proposed in the early 2000s. When the initial director John Frankenheimer sadly fell ill and subsequently died prior to filming, the project fell into the hands of Paul Schrader, the admired screenwriter of such classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Schrader, a big fan of the original and with a few directing credits, envisaged the new movie as a dark psychological thriller, exploring the concepts of lost faith and grief, while moving away from the horror confines of the rest of the series.
He pressed ahead with the movie, which was completed under the name Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist. But when the finished product was presented to the studio, they were deeply unhappy – the movie’s pace was snail-like at best, it was extremely dialogue-heavy, and most importantly for a movie in a celebrated horror franchise, it was not scary in the slightest. The studio went into crisis mode and took the unprecedented step of shelving the movie as it stood, firing Schrader as director, and bringing in Renny Harlin to salvage some sort of finished product that the studio would be happy to release. They shouldn’t have bothered.
Harlin was one of the most sought after directors of the early 90s, with blockbusters like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger under his belt (he was also the original director of the ill-fated first script of Alien 3), but whose profile had been dented by the box-office disaster-piece Cutthroat Island (a vanity exercise for his then-wife Geena Davis). While the fun Deep Blue Sea had gone a little way to resurrecting his reputation, saving the Exorcist prequel was to be his biggest challenge, and one he hoped would return him to the Hollywood big-league. He cut Dominion to shreds, re-cast and re-filmed large sections of the movie, and added in studio-demanded ‘scary’ bits and gore scenes.
The movie, now retitled Exorcist: The Beginning, was released to almost universal critical scorn, and failed miserably at the box office – forcing both the Exorcist franchise to be put on hold for the foreseeable future, and for Harlin to scale back on his Hollywood film career (he now directs Jackie Chan movies in China almost exclusively).
To call the movie a mess is an understatement. Whereas Dominion spent an age delving into Merrin’s past and how his experiences during World War 2 had caused a crisis of faith, Harlin simply puts emphasis on one overly dramatic Schindler’s List rip-off of a scene in which Merrin witnesses Nazis killing innocents in a small Dutch village, and which Merrin suffers regular flashbacks of. There’s no further explanation of it, no dialogue to put it in context, just this scene repeated over and over and over again. It should have been a powerful and pivotal moment in the movie, instead it’s just an uncomfortable stop gap until the next pointless jump-scare.
Other bewildering moments include (spoilers!) a young boy being eaten alive by some pathetically animated CGI hyenas just for the sake of splashing some gore on the screen, a upper-class twit of an English army captain blowing his brains out (again, pointless gore) because his prised collection of dead butterflies and moths suddenly come back to life and flutter a tiny bit, and just prior to the climactic battle, the previously supposedly faithless Merrin suddenly dons his full exorcist priest gear in a stupidly dramatic montage scene that Schwarzenegger would be proud of (think the beach scene in Commando only with a priests robe and some holy-water instead of a million assault rifles).
But the piss-poor piece de resistance is the films ridiculous ‘twist’ during the final battle – a twist so bad that even M. Night Shyamalan would consider it a step too far. The whole movie is spent establishing the fact that a little African boy has been possessed by the demon Pizuzu, and that through this boy, a curse has been unleased on his village and its inhabitants. It’s the same little boy who has previously been shown in The Heretic – so far, so good at sticking to continuity. But then suddenly during the course of the final exorcism, with absolutely no proper explanation at all, we discover that the boy isn’t the person who has been possessed all along – it’s been the bloody female love-interest with whom Merrin has been interacting with the entire movie! This was never mentioned or even hinted at before, and contradicts everything that we learned over the course of the previous three movies. To me, this smacks of the studio wanting to re-create the original by having a female in essentially the same demonic make-up design as Linda Blair did. It’s as bewildering as it is continuity shattering.
Dominion finally saw the light of day in 2005, and while it received a slightly warmer critical reception (not least from the author of the original, William Peter Blatty, who loved it); unfortunately it too was a box-office bomb. The franchise has lain dormant ever since, and I seriously doubt anyone will tackle the subject until it receives its inevitable Platinum Dunes remake by Michael Bay.
Recommendation: Watch Exorcist 3: Legion instead.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Last but not least, let’s discuss a movie that I hold a lot of affection for, even though I admittedly find it an extremely difficult watch. It’s a movie that could never live up to the hype or the reverence in which the original is held by horror fans, but has a lot of positives because it doesn’t really try to. Although I consider it a good movie, I’m simply including it here as it’s a movie which almost destroyed the mainstream credibility of the franchise, mainly because it was seen as being so extreme.
A movie that had been in planning for over decade, Tobe Hooper wanted to exploit the success of the original by producing Chainsaw Massacre 2 as early as 1976, but he found sourcing the required funding difficult, and so moved onto directing projects written by others including the TV adaption of Stephen King’s ‘Salems Lot, and the Steven Spielberg-produced blockbuster Poltergeist.
It was the success of Poltergeist that brought him into contact with the Canon group, the moderately successful Israeli-American studio responsible for various cult and exploitation releases (including the 80s projects of action stars Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris). They threw money at Hooper to produce a Chainsaw Massacre sequel, which he agreed to under the proviso that they would also produce two other projects of his: the vampires from space epic Lifeforce, and the kitsch remake of Invaders from Mars. Both were produced on decent sized budgets, and both bombed – but Canon didn’t care, they thought they had a potential horror classic in Chainsaw Massacre 2.
What they didn’t know, was that the decade following the original Chainsaw’s release had seemingly mellowed Hooper – he no longer wanted to sustain the bleak, white-knuckle tension of the 1974 original, instead he envisaged Chainsaw Massacre 2 as a dark comedy. When delivered, Canon were enraged with how different the feel of the movie was – and while they ended up releasing the movie without demanding changes, it constituted the end of their working relationship with Hooper.
What can I say about Chainsaw Massacre 2 other than it is an almost a full 180 degree turn in tone from its almost perfect predecessor. Gone is the bloodless and tension-heightening tone of the original, replaced with an almost cartoon-like mixture of gore-stained horror and the slapstick black comedy that Hooper had intended to include. But somehow even with this new supposedly ‘fun’ tone, it’s a movie that a lot of people (including myself) can’t bring themselves to watch that often.
Perhaps it’s the genuinely despicable characters (all of the heroes and villains are basically horrible people, besides Stretch); perhaps it’s the abrasive sound mix (with the grinding white-noise of the various chainsaws mixed with the almost relentless screaming, and the pounding rock/punk soundtrack) or perhaps behind the dark humour is just an extremely ‘harsh’ movie which enjoys ramping up the discomfort for the viewer (Chop-Top delivering hammer blow after hammer blow to LG’s skull while laughing hysterically, Leatherface’s sexualised torture of Stretch with his chainsaw, LG’s genuine sorrow at seeing his reflection and the damage that has been done to his now-skinless face, etc…).
The sheer amount of gore in this film is startling – with SFX master Tom Savini creating some incredible and inventive practical effects (no CGI required) – a face being flayed off, a head sliced in half, a chainsaw through the guts…no punches are pulled. The re-invention of Leatherface’s mask is also exceptional – with a ton of subtle touches (the different skin colours that have been harvested and sewn together, his red-raw chapped lips, etc…) adding to the visual impact of the character.
The acting is absolutely bonkers: Dennis Hopper, through a supposed combination of copious amounts of whiskey and cocaine, simply chews up the screen – he really should have been in this more often, even though Hooper commented on how difficult he was to deal with on set; Bill Johnston manages to give hulking killer Leatherface some character and range (even though the height of this range involves simulating the rape of a female victim with his chainsaw, and then pretending to jizz in his pants); and future horror veteran Bill Mosley introduces the world to Chop Top – simply one of the most unpleasant characters in the history of modern horror. I challenge anyone not to whoop with approval when the character finally gets his comeuppance at the hands of Stretch in the films climax.
While there were two extremely low budget direct sequels in the 1990s, both tried unsuccessfully to return to the harsher feel of the original before disappearing into obscurity (although the terrible Chainsaw 4: The Next Generation later received a small amount of publicity due to the early 2000s success of then unknown stars Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger). It wasn’t until the Platinum Dunes remake in 2003 that both the Chainsaw franchise and the slasher horror genre as a whole received a well-deserved boost.
Chainsaw Massacre 2 is definitely one to watch, but prepare yourself for an decidedly uncomfortable experience.
- Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning (1985) – Part 4 successfully killed off Jason Voorhees for the first time, the producers thought it would be a great idea to put a random disgruntled ambulance driver in the hockey mask for Part 5, and had him mimic Jason in killing a load of identikit annoying teens for the sheer fun of it. It was shit, the fans revolted, and Jason was resurrected for Part 6. Worth watching for a few decent kills though.
- George A Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007) – Also known as Romero’s lazy attempt to jump on the cheap found-footage bandwagon. It’s a bland and empty zombie movie, filmed on hand-held camcorders, with zero scares, abysmal low budget effects, and a whiny sour-faced lead character that I spent the entire movie wishing would get eaten. Watch the first 4 ‘Dead’ movies instead.
- Leprechaun Back 2 tha Hood (2003) – The one where Warwick Davis’ villainous imp has his pot o’ gold stolen by some LA ‘youths’, and goes on a murderous rampage to get it back. Highlights (lowlights) include the Leprechaun getting stoned and killing someone with the bong, a terrible leprechaun rap, and plenty of references to using the stolen gold to secure “ghats, drugs and hoes”. Plus no Jennifer Aniston – a crime in itself.
- Hellraiser 4: Bloodline (1996) – The movie that tries to tell the history of the Lament Configuration puzzle box that serves as a gateway to hell in the franchise. Actually not too bad a film in its own right, it unfortunately suffers from a massively reduced budget than its predecessor Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth, and also from studio interference which removed much of the historic scenes which elaborated on the nature of the box and its effect on hell, instead shoe-horning a ton of empty scenes with Pinhead (because the studio thought that the character was the lynchpin of the franchise), and some woeful new cenobites. A missed opportunity.
- An American Werewolf in Paris (1997) – A travesty of a sequel to the much-loved horror-comedy classic An American Werewolf in London, in which John Landis attempts to rehash the original without any actual ‘horror’ or ‘comedy’. Only with added CGI werewolves – because, you know, Rick Baker’s practical werewolf effects in the original were so crap (Baker won a well-deserved Oscar, and the effects still look incredible to this day). Part of Landis’ abysmal 90s output (Beverly Hills Cop 3, Blues Brothers 2000, anyone?!).