Bright Lights Film Journal

A Sequel Too Far: The Case of the Multiplying Movie

“A Hollywood Satan is a persistent devil”

There is a simple, plain logic to sequels. Capitalize on the prodigious success of the original movie. Sometimes the box office success of a movie is modest, but within that lies a greater audience waiting to break out. The logic carries another step. If the sequel is successful, make a third. And a fourth. Until, finally, the series of movies has gone a sequel too far.

Well, maybe the logic is not so plain.

Not all successful original movies get sequels. Based on the list at the Internet Movie Database, I give you the top ten grossing films that, as of May 2006, do not have a sequel: Titanic (1997), E.T. (1982), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Forrest Gump (1994), Independence Day (1996), The Sixth Sense (1999),  How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), The Incredibles (2004), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Bruce Almighty (2003). I took this list from the top thirty-eight grossing pictures in the United States. This means that the other twenty-eight had sequels or were sequels themselves. And from the aforementioned ten, the animated features could potentially spawn a sequel.

As for the occasional sequel that commands better box office than the original, you have Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Mequadrupling International Man of Mystery (and Goldmember, right, collected eight million more than Shagged). Shrek II nearly doubled Shrek‘s hefty take. Usually, the opposite happens. Lara Croft: Cradle of Life barely had half the total of Tomb Raider. As we are so often told, fewer sequels surpass the originals’ critical reception. Aliens (1986), The Godfather, Part II, The Empire Strikes Back would be a few exceptions. These three films also made much money, and movie studios demanded more of the same. It is difficult to think of a single ballyhooed third installment, unless you are a Return of the Jedi fan or want to include the Bond series’ Goldfinger. George Lucas could not resist more Star Wars sequels, whose banality is crushing from the scripts to the computer-generated battles to the pitifully sulking Anakin Skywalker (future Darth Vader). Alas,Alien 3 could not terminate the series, even with Ripley dead! She gets cloned for Alien Resurrection.

This last development, among others, prompts me to focus on the tendencies of sequels and observe their death throes, perhaps even identify a law of movie sequels or, even better, its opposite, exceptions to the law, the movie quirks that defy reason and leave us with a thought that, yet again, the inevitable has happened.

For some moviegoing folk, any sequel is a sequel too far. Yet “a sequel too far” seems inevitable. Restraint exists in very few souls in the corporate movie world. It seems nothing more than a form of justice when a sequel bombs and few are left holding profits.

Yet we should understand the economics of Hollywood: a successful movie must be capitalized on as often as possible until it no longer makes money. The illusion perpetuated by film producers is that the audience wants if not demands more of the same. Hence we get Speed 2, Blair Witch Project 2, Predator 2, and Miss Congeniality 2, whose originals had nothing left to give their heirs except the “possibility” of making money, which BW 2 managed, although nowhere near the record rate of its progenitor.

Actually, the mere mention of movie sequels creates an issue of definition. Frankenstein and Dracula reissued themselves in many forms until they eventually met in a movie together. Indeed, this might be one of the signs or laws of the sequel too far (or the sequel that should not have gotten this far). Alien vs. Predator is the most recent example (for those who lost count: four Alien movies went against two Predators). A few years ago, Freddy Krueger squared off against Friday the 13th‘s Jason — incredibly, this was after Jason had gone to Outer Space (Seven Nightmare on Elm Street s against Ten Friday the 13ths). Unfortunately, the nightmare of sequel reproduction has not ended because these two “versus” movies made a profit.

Just when you have found plausible patterns, up pop sequels that are prequels and, more disturbingly, the sequels that are anything but. Halloween III: Season of the Witch has nothing to do with the Halloween movies before or after. This could be the reason I like it, as I find Michael Myers, like Jason Voorhees, very uninteresting. Another anomaly would be Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, which might be the superior Freddy film.

However, the basic logic prevails despite all the twists and turns. Indeed, the making of a sequel from a profitable movie might be one of the surest things we can depend on. When a sequel arrives at the movie complex, we know without thinking why it is there.

There will not be a Hudson Hawk 2, Heaven’s Gate 2, Speed 3. And inexorable economic motivation propels the pseudo sequels based on characters like James Bond, Nick and Nora Charles, Simon Templar, Mr. Moto, Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, and Harry Palmer.

The last named, in fact, brings out another route for sequels: television. Patton (1970) spawned The Last Days of Patton (1986); The Dirty Dozen (1967) produced Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission (1985). Note the passage of time. Lee Marvin barely lived to reprise his Colonel Reisman role. The economics of sequels moving to television is a bit obscure, except that we can be certain that the accountants figured that these sequels to two immensely popular films would make money. They chose the safest avenue for a sequel too far.

Then there is the case of the aforenamed Harry Palmer, Michael Caine’s character in The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and Billion Dollar Brain. Unlike Bond spoofs like Casino Royale and Agent 8 and 3/4, the movies made from Len Deighton’s tense spy thrillers presented Caine’s spy as fallible and his spymasters as corrupt and unscrupulous. The government blackmails Palmer into working for them; he does not do it for the greater glory of his country and the free world. These films were an antidote to the Bond spectaculars and did not seriously try to compete with them (Harry Saltzman, one of the producers of Bond films, produced the Palmer films).

By 1968, Deighton had written four or five novels and a Palmer series seemed probable. The third installment, Billion Dollar Brain, was made and never heard from again (the DVD arrived at the beginning of November 2005). In thirty-five years, I had only caught Billion Dollar Brain on television once. Yet, while the movie series disappeared, it did not die. Two Harry Palmer television movies were made in the mid-1990s: Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg, when Caine had the star power to resurrect the character.

It is not impossible for unsuccessful movies to get remade, like Bedtime Story into Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, nor for sequels to outlive themselves. An order to the sequels universe can be found and clung to. We can feel safe and rest on our assumptions.

Until you consider The Exorcist sequels.

When Exorcist: The Beginning appeared in 2005, it had been fifteen years since Exorcist III (1990, right). Who remembers how it ended? I remember George C. Scott as the star, the return of the deceased Father Damien Karras from the first movie (Jason Miller), and a mercifully brief appearance by Patrick Ewing, playing an Angel of Death. Wisely, the makers of The Beginning figured all the audience had to remember was the 1973 film.

Yet, if one relied on a sequel “statute of limitations,” the non-success of Exorcist III should have put an end to this particular Satanic series. And the wisdom of producing a prequel rapidly dissipates as the first version of The Beginning, directed by Paul Schrader for $30 million, was scrapped by the producers. Instead of shortening their losses, another $50 million was spent remaking the thing, now directed by Renny Harlin (he had some early directing success with Die Hard II but in recent years has secured five Razzie nominations for worst director). It ultimately made $40 million in the United States and, after world box office is included, perhaps initial production costs will have been covered — but according to Hollywood accounting, a film must gross 2.5 times its cost to break even.

In the midst of this recent debacle, one last wrenching of the principal law of sequels must be remarked.

The Exorcist series of films should have ended after the second one, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)! It was released four years after the first. As the recent Exorcism of Emily Rose has shown, there is a built-in audience willing to watch “exorcism” movies (its box office will double The Beginning‘s, perhaps because of Emily‘s religious polemics). However, director John Boorman, with Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz(1974) his recent films, was probably not the best choice to make a sequel to one of the greatest box office triumphs of the 1970s. In fact, the tortuous production history of The Beginning could have been less so had the producers realized that Schrader, like Boorman, was more auteur than action director, who would inevitably dwell on the psychologically rich Father Herron and ignore scaring the bejabbbers out of film audiences.

What did The Beginning‘s makers fail to notice? Exorcist II may not have been a box office bomb, but it has become one of the most reviled movies from the 1970s. The next Exorcist did not appear for thirteen years, and III was directed by the author of the book, William Blatty. This meant he was personally going to revive a franchise that had died. In fact, he wanted audiences to forget that II had been made. Funny, though, II outgrossed III by several millions, and that is not even allowing for inflation. Yet The Heretic has traumatized subsequent reviewers who routinely bestow 1.5 stars on it; put in relative terms, this would be the same rating for late Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris movies.

One nearly suspects the devil possessing a producer every decade or so to make another Exorcist film, despite the poor critical and box office results of all the sequels. Not only was Exorcist: The Beginning a sequel too far (partly by being a prequel), it had been revived so many years after it had died for a new generation of fans, an amnesiac generation. These fans, however few of them there may be, will now have second- and third-hand knowledge of a truly scary movie more than thirty years ago, but still be unnerved by the sequel too far that doubled itself. They will never be sure which is the real “beginning,” nor which of The Beginnings will be used fifteen years from now as the source for another sequel. The Exorcist sequels have become a law unto themselves and cannot be counted out. A Hollywood Satan is a persistent devil.