Ah, sequels. These days, they pop up everywhere — theaters, television, video store shelves — but once upon a time, they were viewed as an undignified exercise, suitable mainly for pulpy matinee flicks. Like horror movies, for instance — which is why, as Rob Zombie’s sequel to his Halloween reboot, the fittingly titled Halloween II, arrives in theaters this weekend, we decided now would be a great time to give the Total Recall treatment to some of the more noteworthy second installments in the history of good old-fashioned eye-coverin’, goose-pimplin’, edge-of-your-seat cinema. Pull the shades, dim the lights, and join us as we count down 10 of the most critically respected horror deuces a film fan could ask for!
It takes a lot of chutzpah to add a chapter to one of the most iconic films in history — either that or you’ve got to be, ahem, crazy — but all things considered, 1983’s Psycho 2 didn’t turn out too badly; it boasted the return of the original’s star, after all, and although critics were generally less than thrilled to be revisiting a story that seemed to be wrapped up pretty neatly in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 original, a surprising number of them were willing to concede that the sequel exceeded expectations (Vincent Canby of the New York Times, for one, praised its “exuberantly macabre craftsmanship”). Taking advantage of the long gap between installments, Psycho 2 returns a supposedly rehabilitated Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) to the inn where he committed his crimes in the first film — with predictably bloody results. Fittingly, given the Psycho-inspired wave of slashers raking in box office coin during the early ’80s, Psycho II was one of 1983’s biggest hits, soundly defeating The Sting 2 in the year’s battle of the long-delayed sequels — and earning Perkins the chance to make his directorial debut with 1986’s slightly better-received Psycho III.
Now here’s how you put together a sequel that surpasses its predecessor: You make the original (in this case, 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses) an object of such seething critical scorn that there’s literally nowhere to go but up. After Corpses earned back its budget despite taking a savage beating from critics (it currently stands at 16 percent on the Tomatometer), a sequel seemed pretty much unavoidable — but what nobody outside director Rob Zombie’s immediate family suspected was that the second installment, 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects, would be such a substantial improvement. And okay, so maybe 55 percent on the Tomatometer isn’t really anything to write home about, but bear in mind that we’re talking about the sequel to a gore-splattered movie about a murderous family of psychopaths whose gleeful tagline was “this summer, go to Hell”; in that context, anything above, say, 25 percent would have been a shattering success. As Bob Grimm of the Sacramento News & Review wrote, “It’s an exceptionally well-done sophomore effort from a man who made one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. That’s a pretty decent accomplishment.”
Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t think a studio would want to greenlight a sequel to a movie about a shades-wearing vampire buster unless it was looking for a hefty tax writeoff. However, 1998’s Blade racked up over $100 million in worldwide grosses, and with years of Marvel comics to draw on for stories (not to mention Guillermo del Toro behind the cameras), it’s unsurprising that the 2002 sequel was not only made, but that it raised the critical and commercial bar set by its predecessor. Actually, given that Blade II‘s storyline revolves around a vampire war fought with UV grenades, maybe it is a little surprising, but in the end, what mattered to critics — and the audiences who helped it rack up $155 million — was that the movie was fun. Michael Szymanski of Zap2It.com reflected the views of many of his peers when he wrote, “The story is thin, the plot is predictable, but Wesley Snipes carries this comic book character off with enough clever humor and self-indulgent pathos to carry it off.”
Six years after the original Gremlins delighted children of all ages (and helped inspire the creation of the PG-13 rating in the process), the Joe Dante-directed scamps returned to theaters — original stars Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates in tow — for Gremlins 2: The New Batch, a surprisingly subversive sequel that took fuzzy little Gizmo and his leathery offspring, set them loose in a Manhattan high-rise, and tossed in a dizzying barrage of pop-culture satire targeting everything from Rambo to Donald Trump. Given complete creative control by the studio, Dante decided to turn Gremlins 2 into a satire of sequels themselves, in the process earning the appreciation of critics like About.com’s Fred Topel, who called it a “brilliant postmodern horror-comedy.” Audiences, unfortunately, were either ill prepared for the sequel’s tonal shift or had simply moved on after the long delay between films; The New Batch earned a mere $41 million in the States, failing to recoup its budget and preventing the existence of a third Gremlins. Still, it’s difficult to find too much fault with the movie that inspired Gregory Weinkauf of the New Times to write, “Simply: This is Christopher Lee’s 200th film. He plays a character called Dr. Catheter. I love movies.”
The vast majority of horror movies come with endings that either suggest or beg for a sequel — but Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later told a story that actually deserved one. Though Boyle’s work on Sunshine prevented him from helming 28 Weeks Later, he remained behind the scenes for this second installment, which follows the struggle to keep the virulent Rage virus from spreading beyond Great Britain onto mainland Europe. Complicating matters is the discovery of people who carry, but exhibit few symptoms of, the virus — and who can then unknowingly pass it on to others. Though not all critics deemed Weeks a success (Big Picture Big Sound’s Joe Lozito wrote it off as “more of the same, with decidedly mixed results”), the majority applauded its visceral thrills and timely subtext, such as Lou Lumenick of the New York Post, who called it “an exciting, well-directed thriller that, while providing more than enough action and gore to satisfy genre fans, also offers the political commentary that has characterized zombie movies.”
1996’s Scream revitalized the horror genre by satirizing its fossilized conventions — so for its inevitable second installment, what could be better than sending up the many inferior slasher sequels? Following the “rules” of horror sequels — bigger body count, bloodier and more elaborate deaths, and never assume the killer is dead — Scream 2 served up loads of stylized violence while adding to the original’s tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. From the film-within-a-film (Stab, directed by Robert Rodriguez) to the many cameos and references to its stars’ real-life projects, it proved that horror sequels could be smart, funny, packed with gore, and outrageously successful at the box office — much to the appreciation of critics like Film Blather’s Eugene Novikov, who wrote, “I truly hope that Scream 2 proves to all of the doubters that horror movies are not all the same. They are not all equally bad, and by God, they are not all equally good. However, they don’t get any better than Scream 2.”
After George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead added subversive political subtext to the zombie horror subgenre — and turned an absolutely ridiculous profit in the process — you’d think studios would have been lining up to make a matinee franchise out of it, but things didn’t work out that way. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that Romero started thinking about a sequel, and when he shopped his screenplay — which brilliantly posited that the undead would probably really dig hanging out at the mall — it took the involvement of fellow cult auteur Dario Argento to secure financing. Of course, once it reached theaters, Dawn of the Dead proved immensely profitable as well as critically sound, racking up $55 million worldwide and earning the praise of scribes like Roger Ebert, who applauded, “Dawn of the Dead is one of the best horror films ever made — and, as an inescapable result, one of the most horrifying. It is gruesome, sickening, disgusting, violent, brutal and appalling.” The rest is zombie history: Romero’s Dead series now stands at six successful films, with the latest, Survival of the Dead, set to debut at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Part remake, part sequel, 1987’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn expanded on the low-budget promise of Sam Raimi’s 1981 original, adding a series of lunatic set pieces and a heaping helping of pitch black humor to the first installment’s tale of a group of Michigan University students who unwittingly use the Necronomicon to unleash a sadistic evil spirit. Wickedly over the top, Evil Dead II was far from a theatrical hit, but it rescued Raimi from the studio purgatory of 1985’s misbegotten Crimewave, kicked off the cult of star Bruce Campbell, and provided the basis for the third chapter in the series — and one of the definitive cult films of the ’90s — Army of Darkness. In the words of DVD Clinic’s Scott Weinberg, “Evil Dead 2 is a grade-A masterpiece of morbid mayhem. Find me a horror geek who doesn’t agree and I’ll take a chainsaw to a body part of your choice.”
Frankenstein director James Whale resisted Universal’s entreaties to helm a sequel for years — and then fussed over multiple iterations of the script before finally settling on a story, lifted from a subplot in Mary Shelley’s original novel in which the monster demands a mate. In the end, all that deliberation paid off: 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein went down as one of the greatest horror films of all time, earning the coveted 100% Fresh rating on the Tomatometer and cementing the neck-bolted wonder as a cornerstone in the studio’s stable of classic monsters. Future installments in the series would cross the line into outlandishness or abject silliness (1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, for instance), but Bride retains the white-knuckle chills of the first Frankenstein, as well as its touches of subtle humor and pathos. Empire Magazine’s Simon Braund chalked it up to what he called “Whale’s erudite genius,” writing, “He sculpts every nuance of self-parody, social satire, horror, humour, wit and whimsy into a dazzling whole, keeping every one of his fantastical plates spinning until the tragic, inevitable finale.”
It seems absurd now, but for a time, execs at 20th Century Fox weren’t interested in a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien — they didn’t think it had been profitable enough to justify a second chapter — and even after James Cameron’s persistence earned Aliens a green light, a pay dispute between Sigourney Weaver and the studio almost threw the whole thing off the rails. And even after it officially got started, the production had more than its share of bumps in the road; everything from on-set strife to the sequel’s tonal shift (“more terror, less horror,” to paraphrase Cameron) had the potential to render Aliens just another unnecessary sequel. The end result, of course, was quite the opposite: Ripley’s action-packed return captivated audiences, dominating the box office for a solid month, and earned a perfect score from critics, who showered it with praise as both a terrific follow-up (Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader said it “surpasses the original,” while Combustible Celluloid’s Jeffrey M. Anderson called it “everything a sequel should be”) and a solid chunk of sci-fi in its own right (Empire Magazine’s Ian Nathan declared it “truly great cinema”). Subsequent chapters in the quadrilogy weren’t as well received — by audiences or critics — but Aliens remains, in the words of Needcoffee.com’s Widgett Walls, a fine example of “what happens when you take a premise, soak it in a combination of adrenaline and kerosene, then light the sucker.”
Finally, we leave you with a horror sequel that didn’t make the cut — Leprechaun 2: