Monday, October 31, 2011

Just in time for Halloween: 11 of the better (best?) horror sequels in recent history.

I've tried to do some kind of list every Halloween but stumbled into a bit of writer's block this year.  When you've already written about the worst horror films your wife has made you watch, the best direct-to-DVD horror films and the plain-scariest theatrical horror films in the last twenty years, there's not as much room to play as you might think (best remakes?).  So allow me a little latitude, as I run down ten of the better (best?) horror film sequels in recent memory.  It is ironic that while no genre is more likely to produce sequel-spawning franchises, so few horror sequels are actually any good.  A caveat... this list will not include arguably two of my favorite horror sequels as I've already written about them extensively elsewhere.  If you can't already guess which two I'm referring to, read up here and here.  And now, in glorious alphabetical order (with the exception of the 'number #1 pick')...

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Breakdown (2009) - Between this, House of the Devil, and the upcoming The Inkeepers, it is clear that Ti West is a straight-A student of the 80s horror genre in all its myriad forms.  While this heavily compromised entry will likely end up near the bottom of its highlight reel, it's still a surprisingly solid homage to the school dance-massacre sub-genre.  The violence and gore are copious, the special effects are old-fashionedly icky, and it contains at least one great 'dramatic' scene.  There are billions of movies where the awkward male lead is somewhat cock-teased by an assuming 'dream girl' who thinks nothing of somewhat unknowingly flirting with the nerd while still running off to the dance with her no-good boyfriend.  This is one film where said nerd (Noah Segan) explicitly calls her (Alexi Wesser) out on it, and it does so without making her into a villain in the process.

Evil Dead II (1987) - I'm not as obsessed with Sam Raimi's trilogy of terror as other genre fans happen to be, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate the craft at work in both the genuinely unnerving original film and the bawdy and over-the-top comic sequel.  The film, which basically stars Bruce Campbell in a one-man show, is groundbreaking in the way in combines gruesome horror with slapstick comedy.  It also paved the way, for better or worse, for sequels that were basically bigger-budgeted remakes of the original (Desperado, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, etc).  It may not be The Godfather part II of the horror genre, but it's a pretty solid bit of comic horror.

Final Destination 5 (2011) - It has been a dreadful year for theatrical horror films, so it is almost by default (and the fact that I have major issues with the finale of Insidious) that this inexplicably delightful entry in the long-running franchise is the best theatrical horror film of the year so far.  What a shock, following the un-watchable The Final Destination, that this fifth entry is not only the best sequel in the series, but perhaps the best part V in horror film history.  The ingredients are the same as always, but the characters are ever-so slightly more developed and sympathetic, while the death scenes are eye-poppingly (in one case, literally so) spectacular and fiendishly clever.  Toss in maybe the best death in the whole series, plus a doozy of a finale, and you have the recipe for a top-notch entry in a generally sub-par series.

Friday the 13th part VI: Jason Lives (1986) - I will admit that true fans of the series will probably prefer The Final Chapter or one of the first two entries, but this is the very first one I saw and it remains arguably my favorite.  I distinctly remember laughing out loud at least twice and thinking to myself, at the tender age of nine, "Are these movies supposed to be funny?".  The death scenes are appropriately grotesque and the film takes the cake if only for the great moment where one young camper asks another "Well, what were you going to be when you grew up?".

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) - It may be cheating to pick a sequel that really isn't connected to the franchise for which it is named after, but so be it.  The film is forever loathed and underrated due to the fact that it has nothing to do with Michael Meyers, Dr. Loomis, and friends.  But taken on its own, it's still one of the creepiest and most out-there original horror films of the 1980s.  It is less a gore-drenched slasher picture than an R-rated Scoobie Doo episode of sorts, with Tom Atkins and Stacey Nelkin investigating how a random homicide inside a hospital leads to a world-changing supernatural plot.  And while it doesn't revel in violence and gore, it delivers the R-rated goods when required.  The third act absolutely delivers, the fiendish scheme is one for the ages, and you will never, ever be able to get the Silver Shamrock theme out of your head for the rest of your days.

Hostel 2 (2007) - It's a weird conundrum as while this film is superior to the 2006 original, it does contain a single moment that is both unfaithful to the tone of the series and is one of the more loathsome bits of pointless savagery in recent years. Thus, I must note my distaste for the protracted and highly distasteful Heather Matarazzo murder scene (which, aside from being a textbook example of misogynism in horror films, violates the series's otherwise realistic and earthbound tone) and move on.  Other than that extended bit, the film works splendidly as an examination of how otherwise normal people could find themselves in a place where they would pay in order to be able to torture and murder another human being.  Despite the series's reputation as 'torture porn', the majority of the violence (again, excepting said Elizabeth Bathory homage) is, like the original, relatively muted and often offscreen or implied.  As a character study of the evil that otherwise normal men and women do, it works.

A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987) - I was tempted to include A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge if only because I believe the film is often unfairly dumped upon.  But while I do think the film is underrated, in the end the fact that it's a big metaphor for a young man's unwillingness to accept his own homosexuality isn't enough to completely forgive its narrative faults (also on its side, the scariest Freddy make-up this side of Wes Craven's New Nightmare, plus a controversial moment where Freddy enters the real world and racks up a record body count).  The very best traditional Nightmare On Elm Street sequel remains the third entry.

With Chuck Russell directing and Wes Craven returning to produce, this straight sequel to the 1984 original does a number of things very right.  First of all, it changes the rules just a bit, telling the extended dream sequences from the point of view of Freddy instead of the doomed teens.  As such, the film is allowed to become a special effects fantasy nirvana, something that separated it from the other major 80s franchises and their comparably cheap and realistic slash-and-kill stories.  There are a number of classic kills and even if the heightened humor led the way to the series's descent into pure camp, the balance is just right here.  The return of Heather Lankencamp and John Saxon, plus Craig Wasson given credibility to the proceedings, makes this a more intelligent and thoughtful horror sequel than most of its 80s ilk.  Put simply, the focus is as much on the intelligent and rational adults as the sympathetic and likable kids.  Freddy may be slowly becoming the star, but the focus is still on those being hunted and the picture achieves just the right balance of special-effects fantasy and genuine horror.

Saw VI (2009) -  As I wrote back in 2009, the only thing rarer than a franchise that actually makes it to six movies is a franchise where the sixth film is actually the best of the series (a touchstone only shared by Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). This astounding comeback film temporarily regained its footing by returning to its roots. By putting Tobin Bell back on the center stage, using the health insurance industry as an antithesis for John Kramer's philosophy, and actually creating tension, suspense, and the possibility of survival in each Jigsaw trap, this sixth entry was easily the best film of the series.  And thanks to a narrative that actually makes Jigsaw's victims sympathetic, traps that make sense, and a refusal to apologize for Jigsaw's outright villainy (none of this 'He's trying to HELP people!' garbage), it stands on its own as a bloody-good horror film.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) - I have long argued that this Jonathan Leibesman-helmed prequel is a criminally-underrated horror gem.  Point being, it may have some silly 'birth of Leatherface' bits in the first act, but it remains a genuinely scary and sad horror film.  The film bluntly, but effectively, uses its time period to craft an ironic parable of sorts.  The four doomed kids are taking one last trip before the men of the group are sent off to Vietnam.  While they wrestle with whether or not to dodge the draft, they of course encounter a domestic battlefield that is every bit as dangerous and ultimately fatal.  The kids (led by Jordanna Brewster) are genuinely sympathetic, so you actually don't want them to die. Adding to the tension is the fact that, without going into details, most of the victims stay alive for a large portion of the movie, creating tension and suspense as opposed to an assembly-line body count.  The violence is gruesome and realistic, while the film rightly highlights not Leatherface but R. Lee Ermey's murderous patriarch as the primary representation of evil.  Whether or not this series needed a prequel, this mournful and openly sad horror film is genuinely scary and works both as a genre exercise and as a distinctly American tragedy.

Wrong Turn 3 (2009) - The original basically reinvented the grind-house horror genre after decades of slasher-film dominance.  I have no harsh words to say about it, only to mention that the direct-to-DVD third installment in unexpectedly good.  I have little love for the 'cannibals slaughter reality show contestents' first sequel, but this Declan O'Brian-helmed installment works.  The plot basically concerns the lone survivor of a prior rampage running smack-dab into a crew of escaped criminals and the two cops (Tom Frederic and Charles Venn) they have taken hostage.  What follows is a generally intelligent and relatively tense battle of wills as the 'good guys' have to survive both the murderous criminals as well as the cannibalistic mutants who are picking them off one-by-one.  The film cleverly solves the problem that plagues any number of 'and then there were none'-type horror films.  Making the victims a bunch of convicts allows the audience to take more pleasure in their violent demises, yet robs the viewers of the sort of sympathy that creates tension and suspense.  By placing three sympathetic characters in the midst of the carnage, the film gets to have its cake and eat it too.

And, if I may say so, we come to the very best horror film sequel of all time.  It's an easy choice, really.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) - It's hard to believe that this film is 20 years old.  Harder still to believe that, with the arguable exception of David Fincher's Se7en, it has yet to be topped in the sub-genre (adult serial killer horror film) that it more-or-less 'invented' (just as Michael Jackson 'invented' the moonwalk).  What makes this film stand so high above those that followed in its wake is its mythology.  And it truly is a myth, a dark fairy tale for grown ups with two very scary big bad wolves.  Everyone remembers Anthony Hopkins's Oscar-winning turn as Hannibal Lecter, but equally chilling (and certainly more realistic) is Ted Levine's creepy and unnerving turn as Jamie Gumb, better known as Buffalo Bill.  Jonathan Demme's film loses some of Gumb's character bits from the novel, including a now-cliche back-story (abandoned by his prostitute mother, alcoholic, etc) and a wonderful final line, but the skin-crawling realism of Levine's work still shines through.  Equally as unheralded is Scott Glenn's complicated turn as Jack Crawford, whose relationship with Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling (truly one of the great screen heroines of our time) constantly straddles the line between implicitly paternal and accidentally patronizing.  The film achieves greatness because it is so much more than a rote 'catch the killer' entry.  It is a fiercely feminist crime drama that uses its genre trappings to create a modern myth that still remains one of the finest horror films ever made.

And that's it for this season.  I'm sure I've left off some of your favorites, so tell me all about it below.  Happy Halloween, folks.

Scott Mendelson


corysims said...


Thank you for giving credit to Freddy's Revenge. I've longed believed that it was a more terrifying version of Freddy than the original and the sequels that followed, except for New Nightmare. I've always believed that, although Dream Warriors is a straight sequel to the original and a good one, it is the film that began the "clown version" of Krueger. The one liners got hot and heavy in this film and they never let up after.

Contrast that to Freddy's Revenge where Freddy's not joking around in that film. He's truly terrifying from beginning to end in that film. Maybe because it was the first Elm Street film that I saw but Freddy's Revenge is the one I watch the most besides New Nightmare.

Thanks for the love of "you got the body, I've got the brain."

Stephen M. Totten said...

What were your issues with the finale of Insidious if you dont mind my asking?

Brandon said...

And once again, you and i are the only 2 people in America not afraid to admit the love for TCM:The Beginning. But then again, character depth and likeability seem to be negatives in the horror genre nowadays


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