Carlo's Corner: Sequels Don't Suck (Unless They Do)
Here’s a thing I recently read on Twitter:
"Creed (2015) is a masterclass in a late franchise sequel being better than it had any right to ever be."
I realize this is a figure of speech, but these kind of stock phrases should really come with an expiration date. Who conditioned us to pre-emptively assume certain movies are less deserving of our time? Some of my favorite movies are sequels, man! There might be a cheapness to cashing in on previous success, but I prefer to go on a case-by-case basis. Like, what if I’d listened to “people,” (or worse yet, IMDb ratings) and never gave Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) the light of day? I’d have missed out on one of my favorite horror movies just because y’all nerds didn’t appreciate the exclusion of your precious "Booger Man," Michael Myers.
While I haven’t talked about them extensively I do love horror movies a whole bunch. It’s a genre that lends itself particularly well to sequel-itis, so maybe I’m a bit biased in favor of that entire concept. The thing with horror is I feel that there’s less pretense of making a “good" movie. Meaning that from the onset there’s more freedom to fuck around and come up with all kinds of crazy shit that would otherwise be deemed “in poor taste.” One of my favorite things about exploitation cinema in general is its anarchistic streak. Like making a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), widely acclaimed as a masterclass in suspense. You can just hear people’s butts cramping up at the audacity and yet, someone did it. And I'm here to say they did it well.
Psycho II (1982) is the brainchild of screenwriter Tom Holland and director Richard Franklin. Holland and Franklin weren’t just any two guys, though. Australian-born Franklin was a student of Hitchcock who'd already had moderate success with thrillers such as Roadgames (1981), and Patrick (1978), while Tom Holland was about to hit big in the coming years with cult favorites Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988). His script managed to impress Hitchcock’s daughter enough to receive her blessing, and it even swayed Anthony Perkins to reprise his role as Norman Bates. Psycho II opens on Norman Bates’ release from the mental institution he’d been locked away in for the past 22 years since the events that transpired in Psycho, and it sees him trying to ease back into society. He gets a job at a local diner, is allowed to move back into his old place, and just when you think everything is going fine and dandy, he starts getting mysterious notes signed “Mother.”
Sure, it’s no Hitchcock, but why would it have to be? Is that legacy so sacred that no one else is allowed to go near one of his creations? Hell no. Don't put the Psycho on a pedestal, man. Not even when young Norman Bates is talking about Facebook relationship statuses on the Bates Motel TV show and your body falls dead on the ground because your mind couldn't stands no more. You get over it, who cares, Psycho is still Psycho and it’s great. And so is the sequel. It’s 100% a product of its time so yeah, it’s a tad sleazier, but it’s also surprisingly clever. With DP Dean Cundey and composer Jerry Goldsmith rounding out the crew you know it looks and sounds amazing as well. And let’s not minimize the return of Anthony Perkins. Good old, middle-aged, wonderfully over-acting Anthony Perkins.
What about Psycho III (1986)? Surely they pushed their luck with that one? Yeah, maybe a little, but I kinda like it. It's worth noting that Perkins himself took up the reigns for the third installment. I'd also say it’s about 20% sleazier than Psycho II, and about 80% less clever. And yet, while indeed flawed, irredeemable it ain't. Perkins still knows how to steam a good ham, and he manages to come up with some beautiful (if derivative) shots.
As for the final installment, Psycho IV (1990), it's just a very cheap, made-for-TV movie that's almost exclusively told in a string of flashbacks, starring E.T.’s Elliott as young Normie and Olivia Hussey (of Black Christmas fame) as his mother. One thing that makes horror movies effective is a fear of the unknown, so the incestuous tendencies of the Bates family are something I’d rather leave up in the air. Humanizing what's meant to frighten us is like explaining a joke. You completely take the sting out of it. Demystification.
Demystification. Like you might see in Alien: Covenant (2017). The only purpose Ridley Scott’s latest entry in the Alien franchise serves is trying to artificially re-ignite a fling. At least Prometheus (2012) intrigued us with shimmers of some lofty new mythology, but people were all “Hey goober, where’s the aliens?” and of course Ridley has to be A Good Studio Boy™ and listen because his rebellious days are a thing of the past. I suppose Alien: Covenant works okay enough “in a void.” But I’m not in that void, so I can only approach it as someone who loves Alien (1979), respects how it changed the landscape, and looks for movies that aren’t afraid to show you something wild and unexpected. In fact I saw it right after a screening of Alien, and it ended up making Covenant seem even more like a non-self-contained remake. Sure, all the elements are technically still there and everything looks sort of right, but at this point it’s like Ridley Scott propping his birthday party up with the remains of Jerry Goldsmith, Dan O’Bannon, and H.R. Giger, singing “Happy Birthday To Me.”
A sequel attempting the same tricks is a lot like a stand-up comedian carrying over jokes to a new show. I’m sure this is a draw for someone who isn't as involved, but repetition doesn't exactly spark my neurons. When I went to see Creed with an old buddy of mine, both of us huge Rocky fans, he didn’t seem very impressed, saying how he “missed the old Rocky music.” Whereas I was up for anything, and came out blown away at how it managed to create something fresh within an existing franchise, yet still easily able to hold its own. So no, Creed wasn't better than it had any right to be. It was exactly as good as it earned to be.
Other interesting sequels that were trashed because people like the taste of paper: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), Alien3 (1992), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Godzilla VS. The Smog Monster (1971), Predator 2 (1990), Rocky V (1990).