For a director, crafting a successful sequel can be a daunting prospect. It’s a precarious balancing act, weighing the expectations of the audience against the desire to innovate and expand on the original. But it can also be an exciting time. A good sequel can be bold, adventurous and willing to take familiar characters and conceits into dangerous new territories. Sometimes a good sequel is just about throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Here are our picks for second instalments that really pushed the envelope. Not content with simply regurgitating the tried and true formula of the original, these films all took the opportunity to expand and explore.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an iconic piece of grindhouse grot. Visually gritty, with a sense of oppressive heat that radiates through the screen, it’s a sweaty, sensory assault that leaves viewers desperate to take showers even today. When Tobe Hooper came to direct the follow-up to his creation a full 12 years after the original, he must have known that sticking with the formula would only be read as pastiche. Instead, he dialled everything up to 11 and took the murderous Sawyer family on a riotous road trip into the heart of absurdity.
Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper), uncle of the victims from the original movie, is hunting the murderous clan down as they wreak havoc up and down the highways of Texas. The whole story is careening towards a chainsaw-on-chainsaw battle in the family’s corpse-strewn lair underneath a Wild West amusement park. It’s campy, daft and irreverent, and it takes a confident director to make such a huge tonal shift and trust that the audience will follow where he leads.
Released in the same year as Paranormal Activity, Spanish offering Rec was at the spearhead of revived interest in the found footage genre. With its visceral thrills, shocking twist ending and realistic setting, it instantly rocketed onto many horror fans’ top 10 lists.
Released in 2009, just two years after the original, Rec 2 upped the ante by placing kids in the firing line. Starting a mere 15 minutes after the climax of the original, Rec 2 follows a team of SWAT police accompanied by a Ministry of Health official (secretly a priest with knowledge of the occult goings-on that have infected the apartment building). It also follows a group of teens who have broken into the building with a camcorder, hoping to catch something gnarly on video.
With multiple camera angles giving us a window on the action, Rec 2 is a less claustrophobic and hectic take on similar events than the first movie. The frenetic panic in the action scenes is just as intense as the original, but filmmakers Jaume Balgueró and Paco Plaza also take the opportunity to flesh out their world. We get more background and a deeper exploration of the themes of catholic guilt and alienating, atomised apartment life than we got in the original. The way the film dives straight into the action and intersects with the original plotline is creative and fun, and means that the films can be watched back to back without too much of a lull between the climax of the original and the action of the sequel.
For many, Gremlins 2 is the archetypical off-the-wall sequel – taking every element of the original and dialling it up to eleven, before ripping the knob off, hurling it into the sea and inviting Hulk Hogan to come and scream into the camera. This is all, of course, by design. Director Joe Dante deliberately set out to make what he termed an ‘anti-sequel’, a deliberate parody of the emptiness of franchise greed. Gremlins 2 moves the action from small-town USA to a ludicrous luxury office building, and it’s not just the setting that reeks of excess and indulgence.
Dante attacks the legacy of Gremlins mercilessly. He includes a film critic character who describes the original movie as being less enjoyable than a root canal (before being assaulted by gremlins who choke him with celluloid film). He also has characters openly mock the ‘rules’ of the Gremlins universe and employs multiple fourth-wall breaking devices. Perhaps most memorably, the film creates the illusion that feral gremlins have stormed the projection booth and are now destroying their own film screening.
Dante returned to the film extremely reluctantly, having sworn off ever revisiting Gremlins. He only agreed to do it in return for a shedload of cash and complete artistic freedom. The resulting film has a subversive, punk-rock streak. Dante was never interested in the franchise potential or merchandising rights of his creation. He just wanted to burn it all down in the most entertaining way possible.
Shot 23 years after the revolutionary original, there are still quite a few fans who have no idea that this sequel even exists. It’s a shame as, despite not quite measuring up to its predecessor, this is an interesting and novel take on the story. Anthony Perkins returns as Norman Bates, now apparently recovered, having spent the intervening time in a mental institution. However, it isn’t long before Bates begins to hear instructions from his long-dead mother, and his fragile grip on reality is pushed to the limits.
Perkins’ performance as Bates is exceptional. He has the stuttering, gangly awkwardness of his original performance, but now with added conflict and guilt over his past actions. There’s something uncanny about his boyish aspect, neatly reflecting the sense that his growth was arrested for many years after his incarceration and lengthy rehabilitation.
The film is campier and gorier than the original, with stage winks to the audience whenever a prop or line from the original is shoehorned into the plot. The story is also a little convoluted, relying on some clunky twists to keep the action moving. However, it is well worth a watch for the uninitiated, and takes the saga of the Bates family in new and entertaining directions.
Evil Dead 2
We could hardly have a horror list without including Sam Raimi‘s cult classic. The debate rages over whether this is a true sequel, playing out as more of a remake of the events of the first film. With more comedic trappings to blunt the nihilistic edge of the original, Evil Dead 2 has a manic energy that instantly wins over its audience. Bruce Campbell‘s Ash returns to the cabin in the woods with his girlfriend (Denise Bixler), only for ancient demons to ruin their romantic getaway.
The joy that Raimi obviously feels about his craft is infectious. The effects in Evil Dead 2 are all charmingly analog, from puppetry and Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion monsters to undercranked comedy sequences that wouldn’t look out of place in a Buster Keaton movie (albeit a particularly gory one). The whole film is a masterclass in cinematic storytelling, doffing its cap occasionally to Raimi’s heroes like Murnau and Melies. Splatterpunk gore and delirious high-octane action combine to create an electrifying experience that far surpasses the grindhouse thrills of the original.
When James Cameron picked up the Alien franchise from Ridley Scott, he decided that the next instalment was to be a very different beast from its predecessor. Where Alien was a claustrophobic sci-fi horror movie, with an unstoppable monster stalking its helpless victims through the corridors of the Nostromo, Aliens is more of a space marine action thriller.
It remains true to the clunky, VHS-era aesthetic of the original, with every piece of tech looking like you just fix it by removing a cartridge and blowing into it. However, it shifts the pace and scope of the original, as well as evolving the alien as a horror icon. The alien is no longer a threat to the humans that first encounter it, but is now a vicious, invasive species, a potential existential threat to all of human life. This effective upping of the stakes is handled expertly by Cameron, and leaves this sequel as one of the true shining examples of how to handle a successful follow-up.