The sequel is something to be treated with suspicion. More often than not, especially in modern cinema, the sequel is a cash-in on a successful stand-alone film, possibly even the first step in that most hideous of terms: the franchise.
That said, some of the greatest films of all time are the second volumes. The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back and, eh, Evil Dead II each far exceed their originals, and offer far more depth, colour and imagination. The worlds hinted at by the first volume are greatly improved by the existence of a sequel.
Here, we’re not looking at films that had bad sequels. I’m sure Transformers II didn’t do much to improve on the original, but I’m equally sure that there weren’t many people who left having been seriously mis-sold on the story. We’re not talking about films which simply had stupid sequels.
Neither are we looking at films which have been written out of the public consciousness by the selective editing of a determined culture. Saturday Night Fever is never really tarnished by the memory of Stayin’ Alive, and the legacy of something like The Karate Kid didn’t really take much of a hit from the sequel.
Instead we’re looking at films which could and should have been bona-fide classics; real all-time great pieces of cinema. Or they would have, had it not been for their sequels, which hang around them like over-bearing parents, ready to embarrass and act as a reminder of their short-comings. The sequel didn’t extend the legacy of the original, it killed it.
One final point. Most of these films are relatively modern. There’s a simple reason for that, and that’s because it’s a relatively modern phenomenon to tack-on additional material to your original story. Although screen trilogies go back as far as Karloff’s Frankenstein, it was only in the mid-70s that sequels and extended riffs on the same theme became par for the course. That’s reflected in the list.
Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)
John Carpenter has always only made works of absolute genius or complete drivel. In the late 70s and early 80s it was mostly the former. Halloween is a genuinely scary, hugely innovative film, which defined a genre. In Michael Myers, Carpenter created a monstrous antagonist, capable of scaring audiences even when he appears in broad daylight. The film featured one of the most iconic posters ever produced, and borrowed heavily from films like Psycho, the point-of-view horror of Dario Argento and even elements of “it’s not what you can see” horror from Jaws. The soundtrack was superb as well.
How it should be remembered: This one is slightly unfair, because Halloween is quite correctly remembered as a classic horror film. It isn’t, however, given the credit it is due. Think of how often there are horror film festivals celebrating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Wickerman. Halloween was every bit as influential, if not more, but doesn’t have quite the same cult status. It should be in the top five horror films of all time.
The sequels: Not only was there a law of diminishing returns on the follow-up films (in particular Halloween III, which didn’t even feature Michael Myers), but Rob Zombie’s remake and the Freddy vs Jason franchise haven’t helped either. What all of the subsequent films miss is that Michael Myers wasn’t scary because he was a monster, he was scary because he was a human being driven to mass murder by those around him. That was far more scary than a modern-day Frankenstein creation.
While the intentions were obviously good in remaking the film, Rob Zombie fell into the trap of trying to modernise by borrowing from the horror films of the day. His Halloween is explicit where Carpenter’s was subtle, overtly violent where Carpenter implied violence. While Rob Zombie scared audiences with “bangs”, Carpenter realised that it was the anticipation of the bang which was really effective.
American Pie (1999, Chris and Paul Weitz)
Why? The very fact that you are wary of this one proves the point.
For some reason we always under appreciate comedy and horror. Check the lists of the all-time greatest films and you’ll struggle to find films that are purely comedic or horrific, there has to be a psychological edge to them (Woody Allen’s work), some sort of ennui running through the whole thing (Wes Anderson’s work) or a political base to the whole thing (Dr Strangelove).
American Pie was funny. It refreshed the teen-comedy genre, had a series of memorable characters and featured a number of set pieces that anyone who has seen it can recall.
How it should be remembered: It should have been one of those films that defined an era in American cinema, alongside The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project. Films like Porky’s became cult classics, and this should have been offered the same fate. While it was crude, it had heart and, but for the sequels, could have been a modern take on The Brat Pack films of the mid 80s, and remembered with the same affection.
The sequels: The main problem with each of the (seven and counting) sequels was that they were all the same. They all featured essentially the same template of characters, the same scenarios and criminally, the same jokes. Scenes that were fresh and surprising were flogged to death by their repetition in every other version of the film. It doesn’t matter how good your joke is, it gets tiresome after you’ve heard it seven times. Essentially, you can’t fondly remember something if you’ve never been allowed to forget it.
The Matrix (1999, Wachowski Brothers)
The Matrix did almost everything right. Not only did it introduce the Western world to the incredible fight choreography of Yuen Woo-Ping, it touched on pop-philosophy without trying too hard to be clever. It had read Descartes and Lewis Carroll, understood them and incorporated it into an action film. The soundtrack was great, it looked unlike anything we’d seen on screen before and it even managed to play on Keanu Reeves’ gormless charisma. After a decade of films influenced by cyber-punk and drug-culture, this one topped them all.
Granted, loads of it was lifted from Ghost in the Shell and The Invisibles, but if you are going to go thieving, steal from the best houses.
How it should be remembered: As one of the best action films of all time. Yuen Woo-Ping had been doing amazing things with fight scenes for three decades prior to The Matrix, but only afterwards did he get the recognition he deserved. That was only one of several game-changing moments which arrived with this film’s release.
Bullet-time became almost ubiquitous in action movies, from Underworld to Nightwatch. The CGI was unlike anything we’d seen before, and went a long way to condemning The Phantom Menace that summer. More than any of that, this was an intelligent blockbuster, which could be read on a number of different levels. Not only did it look and sound amazing, but there was plenty of scope for debate on the nature of being. There were just the right number of questions left unanswered…
The Sequels: …and then the sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, attempted to answer them in the most heavy-handed way possible. Master programming? Lazy biblical references? The rave scene? That whole bit with the Architect? After the subtlety with which the original approached its subtexts, there seemed to be a rush to cram in as many “high-brow” references as possible in the latter two films. It was so much of a let down that even the presence of Monica Bellucci didn’t help.
Or, put it another way, here’s Grant Morrison speaking to Suicide Girls website: “It was just too bad they deviated so far from the Invisibles philosophical template in the second and third movies because they blundered helplessly into boring Catholic theology, proving that they hadn’t had the ‘contact’ experience that drove The Invisibles, and they wrecked both ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’ on the rocks of absolute incomprehension.
“They should have kept on stealing from me and maybe they would have wound up with something to really be proud of – a movie that could change minds and hearts and worlds.
“In the end, I was glad they got the ideas out but very disappointed that they blew it so badly and distorted all the Gnostic transcendental aspects that made the first film so strong and potent.”
Ocean’s Eleven (2001, Steven Soderberg)
Why? There are few examples of remakes far out-stripping the originals, and fewer still of modern re-visitings capturing the essence of the era better than a work of the time. Ocean’s Eleven did just that. It managed to out Rat-Pack the Rat-Pack with an all-star cast, a superb (highlight that, superb) soundtrack and a feeling of cool that you can’t fake.
How it should be remembered: Soderberg’s version should be remembered as one of the key points where Post-Modernist cinema went beyond its boundaries. As one of the key proponents of depthless, dialogue driven, almost plot-less American cinema in the 1990s, Soderberg understood where the medium was at the moment.
Films like Pulp Fiction perfectly encompassed what the post-modern movement in cinema did so well. It was all about the cool and it had ironic casting of well known faces, which required your prior knowledge to “get the joke. Plot wasn’t as important as character, or perhaps “character”, and there was much more of an emphasis on how it all looked, sounded and felt (without really “feeling”) than anything else. This was mash-up film-making.
Soderberg had pioneered this kind of stuff in Sex, Lies and Videotape. As a result, he know how to reverse it. His Ocean’s Eleven has the cool soundtrack, the witty dialogue, the sharp characters and the stunning visuals. It also has depth and heart. On its own Ocean’s Eleven should have been the Big Budget The Royal Tenenbaums.
The sequels: In a recurring theme here, we get tired of the same characters, and their need to constantly place themselves in danger stretches the tethers on our suspension of disbelief.
Leaving aside the problems with plot, there’s a very fine line between cool and self-confident before crossing into self-parody and knowing smugness. By Ocean’s Thirteen it was a case of cramming as many celebrities, guests and cameos as possible into the film, indirectly destroying what the first film did so well.
A feature of post-modernism is the obsession with celebrity (just ask Warhol), and in Ocean’s Eleven Soderberg managed to play on that to go beyond (or perhaps step back?) from all-out pastiche. The first film was an ensemble cast, the two sequels were just ensembles. There was no mirror being held up to celebrity, just a starry-eyed acceptance of it.
Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003, Gore Verbinksi)
Why? At a time when Blockbusters were getting more and more serious (Return of the King was released the same year), Disney decided to make a film out of one of their theme park rides. Rather than the disaster it could have been, Pirates of the Caribbean captured all the sense of adventure that 1930s audiences must have felt when they saw Errol Flynn on screen.
Not only were the characters larger than life, the action sequences thrilling and the one-liners fresh, but this was the revival of a genre that hadn’t really seen the light of day in 50 years. And, of course, there was Johnny Depp at his finest. For a particular generation, it was Monkey Island come to life.
- Look behind you, a three-headed monkey.
How it should be remembered: As one of the great action films of recent decades. It’s easy to forget, but Depp’s Jack Sparrow was originally a thrilling creation, before the sequels (and numerous Halloween parties) turned it into a cliche. He was given free licence to swagger and swashbuckle. If further proof were needed, Depp was nominated for an Oscar for this role. It’s hard to picture now.
As a standalone film, perhaps even alongside the first sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean deserves to be remembered as an equal (if parallel opposite) to Lord of the Rings or the Bourne trilogy.
The sequels: As with several other films on this list, the sequels only served to make us forget why we loved certain characters in the first place. The second sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, was actually very good, and did build on the characters of the first film. From then on in, it was all downhill.
An aimless, over-lengthy third film introduced too many new characters, gave Orlando Bloom too much time to act, and pushed the film into too dark a place for Depp’s Sparrow to keep things ticking over. Even the main character had become cliched and tired by that point. Still, audiences loved it, it made a billion at the box office, and we’ll probably get another one yet.
As with several other films on this list, if you want to make characters with lasting appeal, remember. Absence genuinely does make the heart grow fonder.
Saw (2004, James Wan)
Saw is a dark, twisted thriller, and despite one particularly startling scene, it never descends into the kind of torture-porn nonsense that became so fashionable in the mid 00s. It’s a tight, low-budget, almost neo-noir take, with one of the best finales in cinema of the last decade. The casting is superb, with Cary Ewles and Danny Glover perfectly deployed with a knowing nod to the audience, and the premise of the film is dark without ever going beyond the realms of possibility. Key to it all, faced with the options of shock or suspense, it always went for the latter.
How it should be remembered: Saw should have been remembered on-a-par with something like David Fincher’s Se7en. It wasn’t a proper horror film, but a morality tale featuring a villain who displayed some sort of twisted logic.
The Sequels: In the original film, Jigsaw’s puzzles are only part of the picture. They feature prominently, but are only hinted at, in much the same way as some of John Doe’s hideous creations are in Se7en. Leaving things to the imagination was key.
In the sequels there was an increasing tendency towards shock for the sake of shock. It was Willitblend.com on a massive budget. From the tense, thoughtful opening film (made on a budget of $1m) we were left with a woman getting her head pulled apart by a bear-trap, in 3D on a budget of $17m.