Just in time for the Halloween season, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has returned with Leatherface. However, like it has once before, the series is jumping back in time to tell a story before the events of the original film. Then, in July 2018, The Purge series will be returning to the big screen, this time heading back to the very first Purge event. The art of the prequel is coming back into style in horror films, I suppose you could say.
So what’s the deal with prequels? Are they craven cash grabs, films living off nostalgia to squeeze one more entry in a franchise out of any good forward momentum? Or are they the clever tool of a smart filmmaker, intended to reveal secret surprises and reframe the histories of characters the audience thinks they understand?
Why not both? This is a list of prequels, split into the categories of Gems Cash-Ins, and a final category called Surprises, where we note some interesting prequels that are a little off the beaten path.
THE STANDOUT GEMS:
While Annabelle: Creation is an enormous theatrical hit, already earning over $300 million worldwide, this recent release is definitely more than a Cash-In. With origins in the universe of The Conjuring, producers improved on the original Annabelle film by bringing in Lights Out director David F. Sandberg, and it was a smart move. The question is, with that kind of profit, where does the series go now?
In similar fashion to the previously mentioned Annabelle: Creation, producers of the moderately successful but poorly received Ouija decided to make a prequel by bringing new talent to the project. Oculus director Mike Flanagan crafted Ouija: Origin of Evil, a smart, effective horror film with compelling characters that more than made up for the empty scares of the original. While there may be nothing interesting left to do with the franchise going forward, this second outing actually justified the series’ existence.
Who would have figured that travelling back into the VHS days of young Katie and Kristi, as well as focusing more on the never-before-seen parents, would revitalize the found footage horror series Paranormal Activity? Practical scare tactics and the brilliant use of an oscillating camera made Paranormal Activity 3, from Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, almost universally the favorite film of the long-running series.
The elements that make the Final Destination series popular, from the bloody and chaotic opening action sequence to the Rube Goldberg machinations of Death as it collects the people who escaped their fate, are consistent from film to film. So why does Final Destination 5 stand out? Well, aside from expanding the mythology in an interesting way by adding the element of “borrowing” more time by giving Death other lives, the movie is (SPOILER ALERT) a secret prequel that only reveals its surprise at the very end! I won’t spoil it, but it’s worthwhile enough to justify it as a good prequel.
The Alien franchise started incredibly strong, and even though the immediate follow-up was a huge success, the series had diminishing returns throughout its run. It would take the return of the originator of the series, Ridley Scott, to bring wide interest and appreciation back to the series. Though both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant have their detractors, Ridley is clearly passionate about the series, and no one can argue that the prequels were effective big-budget horror storytelling.
After the first Insidious left with a huge cliffhanger, the sequel dove right back into the story of Josh Lambert and his family, concluding a thrilling story about the bonds of family. However, given it was a success, a new installment was necessary, and the Lambert family story was complete. The series nimbly decided to follow the (now dead) Elise in her past exploits for Insidious: Chapter Three, showing audiences the origin of her investigative team and business. The formula seems to be working, as the fourth entry in the series, also a prequel, is headed to theaters in January 2018.
With the huge critical and financial success of The Silence of the Lambs (not to mention all the Oscars), it was unlikely a follow-up film could capture the original’s magic. The next film, Hannibal, tried and failed, with a Gothically over the top storyline. Red Dragon, however, was a prequel that worked to a degree. Though not a perfect film, and by no means the equal to the Hannibal TV series, it is still a worthwhile journey into the past of a horror icon.
The first Ginger Snaps was a smart female take on the werewolf myth with complex roles for its three lead actresses. The film was a surprise hit, and the production company immediately greenlit two sequels to be shot back-to-back. The second film, though mostly unnecessary, is entertaining and hearkens back to the classic sequel The Curse of the Cat People with one of its protagonists a spectral presence. But the third film, Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning, oddly leaps back to the early 1800s for a prequel that, while good, has the two lead characters from the previous films living in the past with the same names and no explanation as to why they are there or how the films connect.
The Exorcist is one of the most beloved horror films of all time. No one would expect a sequel to be its equal, but the second film was a huge critical and commercial failure. William Peter Blatty, the writer of the book and the original film, returned for a third film that returned the series to form in 1990. The series went dormant for fourteen years, and no one complained; then, someone decided to reactivate the property and make Exorcist: The Beginning, about young Father Merrin. The history of the troubled production that led to two vastly different cuts of the movie is well known, but neither film ended up being a film worthy of the franchise title.
The first Paranormal Activity was a bone fide horror smash hit, so it was no surprise that it would spawn a series. The third film found a clever way to use a prequel to deepen the mythology. However, Paranormal Activity 2 was the first prequel in the series, jumping back a short time before the first film and essentially retelling the same story with the sister of the character from the first. More cameras, more family members, but basically the same. Thankfully, the next film improved greatly.
The first Cabin Fever was a dark but humorous infection horror film that did well at the box office and put director Eli Roth on the map. It also created an easily reproduced template for a direct-to-video franchise, which is exactly what happened. The next film in the series was directed by Ti West (then re-edited by the producers), and it continued the “randy teens try to get it on while their flesh slowly dissolves” vibe of the first. The world is basically doomed at the end of the second, so for the third film, Cabin Fever Patient Zero, they go back to the origin of the disease, and somehow it is still about randy teens having sex and watching their skin melt.
Produced by Sam Raimi, directed by the talented Pang Brothers, and starring Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, the original The Messengers was poised to be a big hit film. It was not. That didn’t stop the owners of the rights from trying to continue the story. But, without a budget to afford Stewart (or even co-star Dylan McDermott) again, they made a nearly unrelated prequel called Messengers 2: The Scarecrow. Not even Daryl Dixon himself, Norman Reedus, could salvage this confused and unnecessary film.
Though 2007’s Vacancy was directed by Predators director Nimrod Antal and starred Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale, the movie wasn’t a highbrow film; it aimed to be a claustrophobic little gorefest about a couple marked for murder in a snuff film-producing motel, and it succeeded. Then in swooped the cash vultures to pick clean the bones of the film. A prequel, Vacancy 2: The First Cut, answered all the important questions, like: how did the lucrative snuff film business start? Well, see, they already had pervert cameras in the room, and then a serial killer showed up, so they hired him!
There is enormous love and good will for the Tremors franchise, primarily because the first film is a fantastically funny horror-comedy. In my interview book The Anatomy of Fear: Conversations with Cult Horror and Science Fiction Filmmakers, Tremors co-writer S.S. Wilson paraphrased Universal’s opinion on Tremors sequels: “Guys, we have to have another Tremors! We could sell an empty box called Tremors!” Well, the box wasn’t empty for Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, but the trip back to the old west to show the origin of the Graboids was light, and the narrative was barely connected to the others except for the return of Michael Gross as Burt Gummer’s ancestor, Hiram Gummer. Maybe it was because the creators were spread thin simultaneously writing Tremors: The Series for The Sci-Fi Channel.
What is it about the old west and horror franchises? Leprechaun went to the hood, but From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter went back to the early 1900s in Mexico. Imagine a movie with Michael Parks, Danny Trejo, and Orlando Jones that still isn’t as memorable as it would have been to watch those three actors just have a conversation at a table. This is it. Director P.J. Pesce is a direct-to-video repeat offender, also making Smokin’ Aces 2: Assassins’ Ball.
Don’t you wish you knew more about the previous owners of the Amityville house? No? Same here, but the producers gave it to you, anyway. Amityville II: The Possession is based on a nonfiction book purporting to tell the story of the original killer in the notorious house. It’s greatest sin is not that the film contradicts the opening of the original. It’s just that the movie is really bad; it was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award in 1982. Spoiler alert: the house survives.
The Alien vs. Predator comic had prepared audiences for years for the inevitable film crossover, and there are defenders of Paul W.S. Anderson’s fairly tame and underwhelming film. What nearly no one defends is the one that came after it, Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. Picking up after the events of Anderson’s film (but still taking place years before Prometheus or the rest of the Alien franchise), a Predator ship crashes in the Colorado woods, a Predator-Alien hybrid pops up, and the Alien vs. Predator franchise dies a slow, choking death.
Cube Zero isn’t that different from other interesting, high-concept series that had two entries and then went back in time after running out of new ideas (Ginger Snaps, another Canadian production, did exactly this). The quality of the film is higher than others, but the thing that makes it surprising is that this ever even became a franchise. How did a gory Canadian thriller that takes place in a single room become a series? All three entries are worth seeing, and the circular nature of the final entry concludes the trilogy well.
One of producer Val Lewton’s most effective low-budget horror films, The Seventh Victim is about a woman searching for her missing sister who stumbles across a Satanic cult. It’s also secretly a prequel to Cat People, perhaps Lewton’s most famous film. Cat People, about a woman who fears she turns into a cat monster, had its own official sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. But The Seventh Victim, released in 1943, has the supporting character of Dr. Louis Judd, who appeared and died in Cat People in 1942, a year earlier. The only explanation: The Seventh Victim is a secret prequel!
1961’s The Innocents, based on the novel The Turn of the Screw, is classic beautiful black and white psychological horror of the highest order, with a script from Truman Caopte. 1971’s The Nightcomers, on the other hand, is the prequel story to The Innocents, and it is violent, overtly sexual, and gleefully sadistic. Also, Marlon Brando is in it. Somehow, they both work; Brando’s appearance and the frank nature of the sexuality give it a Victorian Last Tango in Paris feel. A brilliant story told in two wildly different styles, both worth checking out.
Sure, they took out the great practical effects and replaced it with mediocre CGI. Sure, the suspense scenes in the film are just thinly veiled versions of the ones from Carpenter’s 1982 film. But you know what? The Thing from 2011 is actually kind of good. The script by Arrival writer Eric Heisserer is taut, and it was one of the first of the decent remake/sequel cycle that tried to have reverence for their predecessors, a cycle that included Dawn of the Dead and The Crazies. Plus, who doesn’t want another horror movie starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead?
Sometimes, sheer audacity will get you on a list of surprising prequels, and Hellraiser: Bloodline is certainly audacious. It is a sequel to the series that takes place in 1996. It is also a prequel that takes place in 1796, telling the story of the creator of the hell-opening puzzle box. Oh, yeah, and PINHEAD IS ON A SPACE STATION, the same year that Leprechaun also ventured into space. It was Clive Barker’s return to the franchise, it has an Alan Smithee directing credit, and it was the last Hellraiser film released to theaters. If you haven’t already seen it, aren’t you at least a little curious now?
Oh, boy. What a narrative mess the Puppetmaster franchise is. Chronologically, the first film is the fifth film, the third film is the first film, and the tenth film takes place between the prologue of the original film and the rest of the original film. There’s no way you followed the timeline in that last sentence, nor will you likely follow the chronology of this series. It makes the Surprises list because, in a franchise with thirteen entries, five of them are prequels to the original, and one of them takes place in an alternate dimension. This conversation makes me tired…
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is on the Surprise list because it’s a horror sequel to a non-horror film. Okay, okay, I know the movie is actually just a very dark action-adventure movie based on the old Republic serials about evil cultists and witchcraft. But, I mean, come on. Eating monkey brains and live snakes cut from a mother snake’s belly, an army of hypnotized child slaves, a room covered floor to ceiling with bugs, and a dark magic practitioner wearing a skull helmet who removes people’s hearts while they’re alive to watch the hearts beating in his hand? Hmm, sounds pretty horrific…
THE VERDICT: Horror prequels, like any subgenre or style, have great and terrible entries. Horror fans shouldn’t want them to stop being made. We should just hope we get many more like Annabelle: Creation and a few less like Cabin Fever: Patient Zero.