Guest post by Billy Russell
Sequels are largely terrible. Most sequels are created specifically to cash in on the success of something that was original and money is the prime motivation for its creation, not artistic expression. But sometimes, just sometimes, you’ll catch a part two or even a part three that captures the spirit or the original or expands upon it in new and unexpected ways and you’re left with something special.
These are my favorites…
Evil Dead II (1987)
Sequels to comedic horror movies are usually mediocre-to-awful. Ghostbusters 2 has some good bits but is mostly limp and lifeless. An American Werewolf in Paris is… well, it’s a product of the 90’s, probably one of the most 90’s movies ever made, so it’s either awful or terrible but worth watching depending on what day of the week it is.
The Evil Dead, the original splatter film, was laced with pitch black humor and never took itself too seriously. It was, surprisingly, a run-away hit. It even premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and got some pretty decent reception. Stephen King sang its praises, and in the early 80’s that was a huge deal. Based on the merits of its storytelling, it was dismissed by an English court and never labeled a “Video Nasty,” despite how disgusting it was. The sequel, Evil Dead II, armed with a bigger budget and a larger focus on the comedic aspects of demonic possession, could have been bad. It could have been very, very bad. Oh, the directions it could have gone: Softening its edges, for one thing; spoofing the original, low-budget material as an attempt to re-write history and say that the unintentional laughs were very much intentional; trying to take a disgusting subject and make it have a mass appeal.
Evil Dead II didn’t do any of that. Because of copyright issues, it couldn’t feature recap footage from the original and instead opted for remaking the first movie in the first 10 or so minutes and once those are out of the way, the second story begins right where the first left off. And the results are jarring in its shift in tone. The original ends with Ash, played by Bruce Campbell, being run down by “the force,” the unseen demonic entity that possesses the characters with murderous rage, and the second one picks up with him being flung through the forest like some sort of macabre version of The Three Stooges (Sam Raimi loves his Stooges, just check out the “Fake Shemp” credits throughout the series).
He survives the ordeal and must spend a second night in the horrible cabin, with a new cast of characters and a new set of awful creatures to contend with, including his own severed hand that has a life of its own. The special effects are brilliant in their practicality and the sheer inventiveness and audacity of this movie is mammoth. Evil Dead II is a perfect movie to see when you’re a teenager. It understands the mindset that you have when you’re that age and how badly you want to see something that’s blood-soaked and overall pretty cynical but with a bizarre sense of humor.
As a teenager, I had the trilogy on VHS and on some weekends I used to like to sync it up so that as the first movie ended, I would pop in the second tape already prepped to the “demon-ramming” part of Evil Dead II and when that movie was over, I’d pop in Army of Darkness right as Ash was falling from the sky so it would be like one long, seamless movie that had a couple reel changes in between. It was with some disappointment that when I watched the movies this way, I’d miss Bridget Fonda’s cameo in AoD.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
I don’t think that it’s hyperbolic, exaggeration or even incorrect to say that Dawn of the Dead is as good a sequel as, say, The Godfather, Part II. Horror movies, in general, get a bad rap because it’s art that’s in bad taste. But, in the immortal words of Roger Ebert in his review of Dawn, “Nobody ever said art had to be in good taste.”
Intestines are strewn liberally across the screen and the bites that zombies deliver to human survivors looks terrifyingly real. Flesh is torn and blood spews from the wounds. The humans deliver as much carnage as their undead counterparts: They shoot, club, machete and maim their aggressors with glee. The humans may be worse, because the zombies at least just want food. The humans are motivated by material gain and throw around racist epithets before blasting into rooms with guns drawn and all too happy to see humans and zombies alike die in their hail of gunfire.
Dawn of the Dead is a great commentary on humanity by showing it at its purest and what it would be doing when the rules of the world had been stripped away. Make no mistake: Even though Dawn of the Dead is a “zombie movie” and “disgusting horror movie” that doesn’t mean that it isn’t incredible. Good art is sometimes hard to sit through. Your reward for making it all the way through is an intelligent commentary, some great laughs and some seriously tense violence that explodes at unexpected times.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
I’ve heard this movie as a verb before, to go “wrath of Khan” on someone’s ass. I’ve even heard it referred to in a filmmaking context, that the second chapter in a promised series of movies will definitely, go, “wrath of Khan” this time around.
What makes Wrath of Khan so unique is that it followed a huge, hugely budgeted Star Trek: The Motion Picture which was, somehow, despite all of the money and talent poured into it, pretty much boring. If you loved the original “Star Trek” television series, you probably enjoyed the cerebral ride it took you on. It was interesting, but it was also sort of sterile. It was a G-Rated adventure that was suitable for all ages, but was too involved for children and too conflict-free for adults (with the exception of the horrifying transporter-gone-wrong sequence… those poor bastards).
Harve Bennett, the producer of Star Trek II went into an audition of sorts to actually begin production on the sequel. Based on the disappointment suffered from the first—though visually amazing but disappointing—film was asked, “Can you make it for less than forty-five-fucking-million-dollars?” He said that where he came from, he could make five movies for that price.
Nicholas Meyer helmed Wrath of Khan’s direction and took the sequel into a wholly different territory than its predecessor. The plot re-introduced a villain from the original series and just went to balls-to-the-wall action. It had everything from horrifying alien bugs penetrating the human ear, to espionage to a totally, seemingly anyway, winless war for the crew of the USS Enterprise. Things actually do seem hopeless, because the villainous Khan is so good at what he does. Ricardo Montalban acts the holy hell out of Khan and even when he delivers cheesy Shakespearean lines, it sounds so damn sincere. The whole movie is a Space Opera, anyway, so oft-quoted quips just come with the territory.
Star Trek II is a Star Trek film for the non-Trekkie and the devoted-Trekkie alike. It’s a ton of fun and everything that’s at stake is accessible enough for everyone to understand. This is a great movie, almost like a WWII submarine flick in outer space… Das Boot commanded by Captain Kirk.
Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is such an iconic film that created a franchise of brilliant Alien films. You can just hear the ambient noise of the ship. You can feel the terror of looking for the horrible creature that you just know is hiding in the air ducts. You can feel the dread when one of the characters thinks they’re safe when that beast slowly slinks from the shadows and makes them its victim.
Alien’s formula was irresistible to low-budget films because all you really need is an atmospheric setting, a single monster that is barely seen and a whole lot of reacting and screaming. It was copied and cloned endlessly since it first premiered, so how in the hell do you follow that up with officially-sanctioned sequel that contains as many screams and uncomfortable, queasy thrills?
You hire James Cameron, hot off the success of Terminator and allow him to take the sequel into an entirely different terrain: Instead of focusing on the gut-wrenching tensions of being stalked by a single alien, why don’t we move the action to the planet that the eggs were found on in the first movie and have a platoon of well-armed “space marines” fight an endless amount of them?
Stan Winston slightly augmented the creature design to make it easier for actors to move in, so that they could use contortionists make their movements seem otherworldly and legitimately alien. Though they cycled through a finite amount of suits available during production, the great editing on the film gives you the illusion that a countless number of these xenomorphs are after our heroes. Sigourney Weaver (who was nominated for an Oscar for her role), Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein give amazing performances and James Cameron supplies them with dialogue that probes into each individual character so we’re given a real scenario with likable people that we desperately want to see make it out okay.
The movie’s biggest asset is in how it takes its time to set up the action before plunging into non-stop action. Not a single shot is fired, nor an alien actually seen, into well into an hour into the plot. The action is deliberately paced so that we know who’s who, and what’s what, before the inevitable happens.
Speaking of James Cameron and sequels…
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The first Terminator was so good. It was a star-making vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Forget Conan; Conan was awesome but if that had been his only role, playing heroics in Italian productions, he would have been like an Austrian Lou Ferrigno. I hate to oversimplify his role in Conan: The Barbarian, because it was actually really awesome and showed a transformation from a piece of shit dude into a hero and it well done, but the role of the Terminator, the ruthless killing machine, really clinched it for his destiny into stardom.
What I liked best about T2 was building the false sense of alarm that Arnold was returning in the role of the villain. The movie’s entire media campaign was amped up to reflect this. Everything he seemed to be doing in the first twenty minutes or so of the movie seemed so villainous—attacking people and taking their clothes, probing for questions. But at a twist, in the middle of the first act, he is in fact the savior, fighting another Terminator, the T-1000, an even more diabolical creation than himself, to save the life of John Connor to eventually win the long war of human versus robots in the future’s battlefield.
Terminator 2 is probably a perfect action movie. It has brains, wit and good dialogue. Generally speaking, action movies bore me. Once the action starts in most movies, it’s nothing but a series of quick edits, explosions and non sequitur lines being shouted like, “LOOK OUT!” James Cameron proved to be a master of action with this movie. Yes, his previous works were great, but when helming THEE most expensive film of all time (which he did once again twice over since then) it’s a lot harder to ramp up the set-pieces and live up to your own expectations.
The special effects from well over twenty years ago still hold up today. Some of the CGI looks a bit corny, but it’s used tastefully. Most of the effects were done practically with stunt doubles and prosthetics and they’re some of the best ever produced.
Terminator 2 works as a standalone movie, too, much to its benefit. Even though the first Terminator is really good, you can pop this in, totally uninitiated, and enjoy it just as thoroughly as you would, had you never seen the first installment.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Sometimes making a good sequel to a movie seems like an impossible task. I mean, I can’t even imagine the amount of pressure George Lucas had when he had to actually follow up with Star Wars. To even do the first movie justice seems, to me, impossible. Star Wars was an incredible movie, it had EVERYTHING. It had romance. It had adventure. It had amazing costume designs and sets. It had a great hero AND a great villain.
The Empire Strikes Back goes in a darker direction and has the plucky set of heroes (except for Han, who is an awesome, stone cold killer) deal with some real, serious hardships, including a dark ending. The Empire Strikes Back also introduces us to Yoda, one of the most memorable characters in film history. Even though her is merely a puppet, his animation and voice (voice provided by Frank Oz) give him extraordinary life. Yoda, provided care of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, doesn’t even seem to be a special effect; he seems to be as real as the humans in the story and the phenomenal effects that take us back in time, to a galaxy far, far away.
Every bit of hope presented to us in the first Star Wars movie is up for debate as Empire shows us the price that we must pay for freedom. New characters are introduced who harbor secret, ulterior motives. New villains, even more devious than Darth Vader himself are introduced, but have motivations we can all understand—namely, money.
The most popular film of all time had a lot to live up to and The Empire Strikes Back did so by subverting expectations and taking the audience for a much darker ride than was previously expected. Still intact, though, was the sense of wonder and imagination of a world in which interplanetary travel was as common as a teenager hitching a ride in the 1950’s.
The Road Warrior (1981)
I’m going to be honest here, and possibly contrarian, but I thought that Mad Max (1979) kinda sucked. I’m sorry. I grew up on The Road Warrior and when I finally watched the original Mad Max I was surprised that the plot involving a certain murder was something that only happened in the last 20 minutes of the plot. I always thought that the movie was going to be a revenge-drama but it turns out that every single thing you read about the first Mad Max is a spoiler. That, which shall be unnamed here, happens so late into the plot, you should curse every review you’ve read so far.
The Road Warrior begins with a dusty apocalypse set in the Australian outback with Max, played by Mel Gibson, traveling along with limited gasoline and his trusted dog by his side. He is attacked by a traveling group of gangsters who seek as much gasoline as they can carry. Max is, against his will, forced to fight for a town that carries a vast amount of gasoline that wants to pack up and move to a safer area of the Australian Outback.
Max balks at this and find himself fighting against the baddies in a final scene that is one of the most amazing chase scenes ever committed to celluloid. A lot of characters you grow to like will die and a lot of deception will be thrown at either side of the good/bad spectrum.
The Road Warrior is one of those rare sequels where I think it really trumps the original. Sequel or not, The Road Warrior is one of the best action films ever made and is what’s responsible for Mel Gibson’s long-lasting career. If it weren’t for this, there’d be no Lethal Weapon or Braveheart or… Chicken Run or Passion of the Christ.
Mel Gibson’s had a wild career, due in large part to his love and addiction to alcohol, and his pretty-boy image forever tarnished. Still, though, The Road Warrior is one of the very best action movies ever made and, I would say, the template for most post-apocalyptic movies that would be made in year, even decades to follow.