Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tried and Failed? Tried and Died.: The Non-Glamourous Life of Sequels

(From the Archives: This is a revamp of a post I wrote back in 2004, that for some reason is still one of the most popular on-line articles I've ever written.)

I spent entirely too much time reading reviews of Jaws - The Revenge this morning (If you've never read it, Roger Ebert's take brings tears of laughter: ). What made passing the time this way both an enjoyable and sad experience at the same time was that I had seen all four of them multiple times. I must've watched Revenge alone on cable at least four or five times. Jeez. This is not the week for me (Note: I haven't seen it since then).

All New! More Dennis Quaid than previous Jaws movies!
I must admit that the third installment was the one I saw least. That fact was easily explainable by what happened the first time I saw it: The third Jaws film was originally shown in 3-D. Everyone remember the brief return of the 3-D craze in the 80's? If you don't, be glad you've forgotten or missed it. The problem with most early 3-D films is that once you take the 3-D aspect out of them, the interest diminishes exponentially. The primary reason for this is that the story usually ends up more built around the effect so the shot composition throughout the film becomes very bizarrely stilted. Every object and motion starts to be directly and obnoxiously coming out from the movie at the audience. The newest wave of 3-D has the opposite problem: things that weren't meant to be 3-D are suddenly saddled with it unnecessarily.

The only fun in watching the third Jaws is to see just how bad the effects could get without the 3-D. There are several shots where the shark is supposed to be coming at you, but without blue and red glasses it seems to just be hovering in space and looking not at all menacing. The other classic moment is the shot of the scuba diver trying to claw his way out of the shark's mouth. I repeat: SHOT FROM INSIDE THE SHARK'S MOUTH.

The thing that kept circling around my head was: How many movie series that get past a second sequel have any kind of dignity by a fourth (or fifth)? I've noticed that usually by a third most of the magic is gone...the saddest is when they drag everyone out for a fourth way after the fact. (Here's looking at you Lethal Weapon series.)

I just chose this for the Further Adventures moniker.
From what I remember, we should all be thankful
there were no further Further Adventures.
To start with you have to make an important distinction in sequel movies. There are three categories:

1. Continuity Sequels: These are movies who feature the same characters in a usually epic story going from one film to the next. Star Wars is a good example.

2. Further Adventures of...Sequels: These sequels involve the same character/s from one adventure going on to the next, and does not have to be in order or have any direct story elements from previous films (accept for certain important moments like the death of a spouse). Take James Bond or Indiana Jones for example.

3. Sequels that Center around a Villain: The most common of these are slasher movies like Friday the 13th where there's usually no story or character continuity other than more people lose their lives because of a villain.

4. The Random Sequels: Sequels who share nothing but a name and usually a genre. The best example is Halloween III which had absolutely nothing to do with it's Michael Myers related predecessors. And then there's internet favorite Troll 2. European exploitation is positively riddled with these things (see: Django related movies)

There's more variations of course, and certainly these four categories overlap from time to time.

I know the motivation is money. I know that anyone could give an example of a sequel or two that was successful or almost as good as the first. Mostly, however, you have to wonder, who honestly goes in thinking they're going to beat the odds and make the sequel that pans out. The real oddities are the sequels to movies where you don't know anyone who saw the movie or liked the movie for it to get a sequel. And the worst are usually the straight to video sequels, especially the ones that fall into the fourth category and are just renamed to follow something successful.

The worst case scenario is a movie so beloved you feel compelled to see the sequel...just because it exists. If it's only one sequel, and it's bad or at least not as good as the first, then it just drags down the original. If there are multiples, if you can push the distaste far enough out of your mind, it usually makes the first movie that you loved look even more shiny. I'm not sure how or why it works that way, but it always seems to.

Let's take one of my favorites: The Howling.

Still one of the great horror posters.
The original, made in 1981, was helmed by creature movie auteur Joe Dante, at least half-written by John Sayles based on the novel by Gary Brandner, and had effects by a young Rob Bottin (competing with Rick Baker's American werewolf at the ripe age of 21). So it had quite a good bit going for it. Is it the greatest movie? No, but it's more effective and well-crafted than many horror movies (and certainly better than any of it's sequels). The plot concerns a reporter on the trail of a serial rapist/murderer who after a scare that leads to his capture is sent to a retreat where the inhabitants are a bit more than they seem. Fair enough.

The First Sequel: The Howling II (aka The Howling II: My Sister is a Werewolf) (1985). Now I was young the first time I saw this, but the "my sister as a werewolf" thing should have been warning enough. The fact that the main villainess name is Stirba should've been the final nail in the coffin. This was the first Howling movie Phillipe Mora was responsible for, and about the only smart move he made was capturing a teen boy audience with werewolves and Sybil Danning's oft-bared chest. This was probably one of the worst leaps from movie one to movie two.

The Second Sequel: The Howling III: The Marsupials (1987). Now Brandner wrote four Howling novels (I read two of them), but these sequels don't have...pardon me...a damn thing to do with them. As I said, Philippe Mora did two, and this was his second. There wasn't much in improvement. Now it is better than II...sort of. The concept is interesting in proposing the whole alternate evolutionary line for werewolves. That's where it ends. The rest is just bad. Worst of all, the movie takes a moment for one of the characters to trash Bottin's werewolf effects from the first movie. How this budgetless goof fest got the nerve, I'll never know.

The Third Sequel: The Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988). Ok, for a moment, we almost stepped back up. Director John Hough partially returned to the source material, and started off well enough. Unfortunately, with no budget, the pacing suffers from too much boring story per werewolf scare, and the werewolves end up being pretty weak when they arrive. However, with an obviously sincere desire to steer the series back to its roots,  it almost got back a touch of dignity. This lasted a nano-second.

(Anyone appalled I lasted this long?)

The Fourth Sequel: The Howling V: The Rebirth (1989). At this point only an idiot would realize that anything with a werewolf in it was being slapped with a Howling title. You would think that some people would run like hell from being given the name whether it was straight-to-video crap or not. This one is way off the beaten path. A group of strangers gather for a Ten Little Indians style murder mystery whose big twist is that the murderer is a werewolf. I doubt I could sit through this one again, but as a teenager it was actually vaguely entertaining. In the end thought, with it's varied background cast plodding their way through the "plot", it ends up being as Joe Bob Briggs said best, "it's "Gilligan's Island" with a body count."

The Fifth Sequel: The Howling VI: The Freaks (1991). Here's where I gave up. I had trouble convincing myself to watch it at the time. Again, decent premise in one really broad stroke: werewolf vs. vampire. This was long before Underworld, and even longer before Twilight. However, the actual plot:  werewolf  circus freak vs. vampire is something less than spectacular. This movie also featured quite possibly the crappiest looking werewolf of the whole lot (and that's saying something). The really sad thing is that with millions of dollars and state-of-the-art effects, Underworld didn't manage any better than Baker or Bottin's work from decades before.

"Look upon my crapiness and tremble!"
Ok at this point I did give up, but...

The Sixth Sequel: The Howling VII: New Moon Rising (1995). I don't know if I need to do much research past the first review (on a bad movie site where they love these things) which said, "Worst Werewolf Movie Ever." Considering there aren't many good ones, that had to be a mark of distinction. Not to mention that just beating out The Howling VI for that distinction is quite a landmark.

I could've sworn there was a Seventh, but I can't find a listing for it. You can't tell me that everyone gave up after this treasure trove of masterpieces. (Apparently, in 2011, there was another attempt at reviving the name with an Anchor Bay produced sequel, The Howling: Reborn.)

If this doesn't prove my aforementioned premise (it's in their somewhere) that the sequels can be so bad as to make the original look like cinematic gold, I don't know what does.  Most of the 80's slasher films don't even have a drop off this bad. (Although, Jason Takes Manhattan, where 10 minutes of the movie actually appears to take place in NYC...).  In the end, I guess the point is much like the old cliché, "if you don't have anything nice to say...", and that if there's really no reason to haul a flagging premise back in front of a camera, then just let it go.  Money's one of the primary motivations to do anything, but do you really want to have your name on this cinematic detritus?  If you have any doubts, read the Ebert review from above again.