Exploring the horror trilogies that you didn’t even know were horror trilogies
It’s always exciting when one of your favorite films—horror or otherwise—announces not only a sequel, but that they’re turning out a trilogy with the material. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Omen III:The Final Conflict, and even the recent, Insidious: Chapter 3 are all momentous occasions in horror, for better or worse. And where would we be without Leprechaun 3 having never graced our eyeballs? Horror fans are excitable people and it’s just thrilling in general when you learn that a trilogy is happening and that a certain story is going to get extended. That being said, trilogies do run the certain risk of ruining the legacy of the original film, and as much fun as it might be to own a fancy Psycho or Poltergeist boxset, a lot of people will be quick to tell you the problems with Psycho III and Poltergeist’s third installment.
That’s why the idea of a spiritual sequel is often so appealing, where something classic can be revisited but without tainting the original in anyway. The idea of spiritual sequels then extending into thematic trilogies is also nothing new. Directors have been having fun with this idea for a while now, like with Spielberg’s “Running Man Trilogy” (A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can), Gilliam’s “Imagination Trilogy” (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Barry Munchausen), or Oliver Stone’s “Vietnam Trilogy” (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven an Earth) where these directors get to continue following a certain feeling or riding out an inspiration that they weren’t finished playing with. Accordingly, here are the best examples of when these thematic trilogies have been turned to for horror.
Chan–Wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy”
Films: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance
Perhaps one of the better known thematic trilogies out there, Korean director Chan-Wook Park made a name for himself by painting some elegant revenge stories and then continuing to ride that wave. His “Vengeance Trilogy” appropriately explores the topic of vengeance from a number of different angles, but also loss. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance kicks things off with a terribly bleak story involving a deaf-mute who kidnaps a girl to leverage for ransom money to use for his sister’s kidney transplant. Things take an unexpected turn for the worse as this film digs into the unsuccessful angle of vengeance. The piece also shifts the perspective between the ransoming kidnapper and the victim’s father, exploring both sides of their complicated vengeance.
The next film in the trilogy, Oldboy, sees someone being imprisoned for 15 years before then suddenly being released. He then seeks out the person who stole his life away and tries to figure out why this was done to him in the first place. His imprisonment and the aftermath is also his victimizer taking vengeance upon him, too, so the topic again goes both ways by showing the complicated, emotional relationship that we can have with vengeance. Lady Vengeance, the final piece in this oeuvre, looks at a woman being released from serving a prison sentence for a crime that she didn’t commit and is now concerned with exacting vengeance on the real murderer. This is another beautiful story that shows the layered relationship with vengeance that we have, illustrated not only with the inmates that she encounters in prison, but also with the film’s powerful third act. A major deviation is taken where the film essentially becomes a stage play about morality, not unlike The Crucible or The Lottery. It explores the idea of all of the parents of the killer’s victims being able to return punishment onto him, and whether this is right or wrong.
Through these films Chan-Wook Park unequivocally shows that vengeance doesn’t always come from an evil place. All of these stories have something altruistic trying to be achieved rather than these simply being tales of senseless carnage. It shows us examples of vengeance from all sides of the conversation, whether male, female, victim or victimizer. It still manages to present something unique with each passing film, exploring a different aspect of this vengeance each time.
Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers Trilogy”
Films: Suspiria, Inferno, Mother of Tears
A lot of these thematic trilogies contain films that simply relate in tone or vague subject matter but Dario Argento does something a little different here. His trilogy is based upon the ancient triumvirate of witches, The Three Mothers, with each of his films looking at the damage of one of these respective super witches. In that sense all of these films exist in the same universe and could lend themselves to crossover elements, but choose not to for the most part. The idea of these Mothers comes from the “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow” section in Thomas de Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, an obvious inspiration on Argento.
If you’re on this site then you’re likely familiar with Suspiria, but might not have understood the greater significance that it serves in Argento’s filmography. The picture deals with the Mother of Sighs, with the story set in Germany at a famous dance academy. Suddenly a string of deaths begin to happen which prompts suspicion that something more sinister is going on. Argento’s Inferno deals with the Mother of Darkness, with this story being set in New York City as a man searches for his sister, who has gone missing. His search brings him to his sister’s old New York apartment as well as the powerful witch that has taken up residence there. Finally, Mother of Tears (or, The Third Mother, as Argento intended to call it) rounds out his trilogy, with the film seeing completion a shocking 27 years after Inferno. This film—as its title might suggest—is pretty much all payoff. It’s mostly concerned with a showdown in Rome with the final Mother witch from the Ladies of Sorrow, Mater Lachrymarum.
What’s great about Argento’s thematic trilogy here is that each one enriches the universe that he’s building. Suspiria very much feels like a standalone film rather than the first piece of a puzzle—and it is—but it also introduces elements that become staples to the other films in the trilogy, like strong, vibrant use of primary colors, and distorted, expressionistic set design and murders. Inferno begins planting the idea of there being a deeper overarching story going on here with these witches, while still not getting too indulgent. Mother of Tears dives head first into this, focusing purely on this sect of witches rather than some sort of structure going on around them.
“The Three Mothers Trilogy” might thematically be saying less than some of the other trilogies featured here, but it still does create an idea that’s complimented through each film that witches are the ones pulling the strings around the world. This chaos that’s merely hinted at in Suspiria is at the point of Rome being in panic mode by the end of the trilogy.
Roman Polanski’s “The Apartment Trilogy”
Films: Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant
Developing a trilogy around a certain location or set piece is a pretty inspired idea, and Polanski pulls it off quite successfully here. In his “Apartment Trilogy” each of the films depict events that are concentrated to an apartment building, showing the sort of paranoia and claustrophobia that can build in such a space. Each film manifests this confined horror in different ways, whether it be a psychological, supernatural, or unconventional look at the genre. Repulsion is one of the slickest horrors of the mind that you’ll ever come across. The film chronicles the horrors that an unstable woman experiences while staying alone in her sister’s apartment for two weeks. Seeing Carol slowly deteriorate as the apartment becomes a prison to her, to the point of it even resembling her own fractured mental state, is haunting. It’s a great inward look on someone damaged, while also crafting a unique killer in the process.
Rosemary’s Baby is another film that I surely don’t need to tell you that much about. It follows a woman’s pregnancy as she slowly learns that her husband might have made a deal with a powerful cult of Satanists, and that the Devil might actually be the father of her child. Carol might find herself trapped inside in Repulsion because of her mental condition, but Rosemary is stuck inside because of the many people around her micromanaging everything. She’s also very vulnerable due to the big honking pregnancy that she’s going through with her helplessness connecting on a whole other level. It truly feels like everyone is in on this and that Rosemary can never catch a break, which only intensifies the feeling of paranoia here. The trilogy’s shift to more outright horror with a supernatural basis also works well, too. The Tenant interestingly shifts Polanski’s collection of films to a male perspective (with Polanski himself playing the role, no less). The film examines a man moving into a new apartment where the previous occupant has committed suicide. Once he begins his stay there he starts feeling that the other residents of the building are all conspiring to get him. His life becomes increasingly complicated and frightening in the process.
Like Polanski’s other films in the trilogy, much of this brings into question whether the craziness that we’re seeing is actually happening, or if our protagonist in fact has something wrong with them. The Tenant embraces this idea the hardest, still keeping things ambiguous towards the end, trying to mess with your mind as much as its main character’s. Each of these films pushes the boundaries of their main characters and the audience a bit further each time. The threats increasingly move from an internal place outward, with you being unable to trust what you’re seeing just as much as the people in the films, By the time The Tenant comes around, it’s truly Kafka-like chaos that’s built on everything before it.
John Carpenter’s “The Apocalypse Trilogy”
Films: The Thing, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness
The Apocalypse is certainly rich fodder for a film, let alone a group of connected ones, with all of Carpenter’s works in this case highlighting the slow crumbling of the world. This often begins from a personal place, with pillars of humanity like personal connection, faith, and society and culture seeing decimation. Each of Carpenter’s films brings about the end of the world in a totally different fashion, yet similarities track between them all, too, like an overbearing presence of the unknown. There’s also a heavy Lovecraft influence stringing these films together, unifying their respective Apocalypses through this style of monstrosities.
The Thing is a glorious boiled down whodunit of a horror film that has a bunch of researchers stowed away in Antarctica trying to determine which among them is the titular life assimilating entity. And really, if you haven’t seen The Thing yet, stop reading this and put it on immediately. It’s the very best sort of practical horror that has a killer ending to boot. While this film might not seem to have the scope of an Apocalypse to it, there’s an oblique line in the picture about how this creature could roughly take over the earth in three years if it’s allowed to escape. Prince of Darkness meanwhile gets behind the beyond-bizarre premise that Satan is actually an abstract equation that’s currently in the corporeal form of green liquid that’s being held in a special canister. Once this canister of Devil Goo starts to become active, university students are brought in to figure out what’s going on here. There’s a lot going on in this film between science and religion, with the film doing its best to dismantle both. The End of Times devastation going on in this instance is taking place more in a universal Good vs. Evil sense, even if the film is largely stuck in the basement of a church. If this Anti-God is unleashed, the world doesn’t stand a chance at surviving.
Carpenter saves his most nihilistic take on the subject matter for the end, with In the Mouth of Madness. Here Sam Neill’s insurance investigator character is tasked with locating the missing famous horror author, Sutter Cane. This slowly turns into the classic tale of art and fiction becoming so popular that they start to take on a life of their own, with Cane’s work brainwashing and influencing anyone that reads it. Like a “zombie book”, so to speak. In this film the characters are not even trying to prevent the end of the world this time, but rather just escape the town and survive for now. That’s how hopeless and resigned this trilogy becomes.
Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” becomes increasingly bleak with each film, but this also might be because each one falls in a different part of his tumultuous career, where his reputation and viewpoint are perpetually shifting. We start locked in a cabin with this sort of terror in the first film to eventually seeing widespread devastation by the end of the final one. We’re in the middle of watching the whole world fall apart as the movie for Cane’s In the Mouth of Madness sees release. All of these films deal with the same disaster, just from endlessly interesting differing perspectives.
Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy”
Films: Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End
Also known as the “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy,” this bizarre genre-embracing trilogy by Wright is modeled after Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy crazily enough. Each of these films, in addition to featuring Cornetto ice cream in some way, also celebrate a different genre that’s reflected by a different Cornetto flavor, whether it’s a zombie film, cop spectacle, or science fiction outing. Wright’s signature visual style, as well as the themes of the individual against the collective and perpetual adolescence, carry through each of the pictures, tying them together, too. Not to mention the consistent casting of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright in each film.
Representing the strawberry-flavored brand of Cornetto is Shaun of the Dead, due to the film’s bloody and gory core. Shaun of the Dead subverts the zombie genre in a number of delicious ways. It might attack zombie staples with some inspired ideas, but it says even more on the topic of friendship and love, between both a man and a woman and a man and his mate. The next picture, Hot Fuzz, looks at two police investigators who are digging into a string of murders. Hot Fuzz is admittedly more an action film than it is horror. That being said, there’s such stylized violence going on that its inclusion here feels more than justified. Hot Fuzz is really just Edgar Wright pulling the trigger on as many cop clichés as possible, creating a bloody, extravagant masterpiece in the process. Much of the core fundamentals of Shaun of the Dead are carried over, like being outnumbered against a powerful force. The film features the original blue colored Cornetto, representing the film’s cop focus.
With The World’s End, it’s the green mint chocolate chip Cornetto that gets to be featured, with the flavor symbolizing the “little green men” and sci-fi angle that the film plays with. All of the films in the trilogy deal with the concept of friendship and maturity, but The World’s End makes it its priority with the entry’s focus looking at a bunch of long-time friends reuniting to go on a pub crawl. This walk down memory lane is abruptly interrupted by some wildly inventive aliens as the film takes a complete 180 while slamming the pedal down on the crazy. The choreography of the fight scenes here is truly a sight to behold, with the stunts adding upon the art that Wright perfects in his previous two pictures.
Wright’s films work strongly as a collective, carrying the same energy through each of them and involving epidemics that seem to take place on a global scale (okay, Hot Fuzz is stretching that a little). They all manage to smuggle relationship comedies into heavy genre numbers and they all stick the landing with their bizarre mash-ups. As a whole these films help reinforce that as crazy as things may get, there are still fundamentals like friendship that are crucial and will break through in the end.
Lucio Fulci’s “Gates of Hell Trilogy”
Films: City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery
Each of the films in the Italian “Godfather of Gore,” Lucio Fulci’s, “Gates of Hell Trilogy” all essentially set out to tell the same story as they depict a different gate to Hell opening up and the chaotic aftermath (with there also being a very Lovecraft-heavy vibe present here, too). They might feature the loosest connective tissue amongst the rest of the unofficial trilogies looked at here, but they undeniably chronicle a point in Fulci’s career where he’s interested in telling the same sort of story. Each of these films explore the idea of stopping a Hellmouth in different fashions. If anything, the films foster a connection between how nonsensical they are regarding disorder reigning.
Fulci’s City of the Living Dead looks at a priest hanging himself in a cemetery as the means of opening its gate to Hell. Naturally its appearance sees investigation and tries to be shut down before things get too out of hand. City of the Living Dead also introduces the visual style and brand of gore that will be consistent throughout the rest of the trilogy, too (although is also present in a lot of Fulci’s work in general). The Beyond deals with a woman who inherits a hotel that decades ago had a woman lynch mobbed and nailed to the hotel’s wall, thus opening this film’s respective gate of Hell. A lot of The Beyond is just dealing with the horrors of Liza Merril’s new residency and the gauntlet that it puts her through. While feeling a little more isolated than the other films here, it still effectively creates the sense of doom and the trouble that the world is in.
Fulci concludes all of this with The House by the Cemetery, which borrows much from The Shining and Amityville Horror to its credit. This film looks at a family that moves into a house where a young couple was murdered decades ago, in turn opening the gate of Hell du jour for this picture, with something sinister still residing in the basement. While a much more methodical and restrained film than the previous two in this trilogy, it still carries the same sense of dread as you watch people be unsafe amidst their home. The abomination of Dr. Freudstein from the basement, and his many murders, adds to this tension nicely. Fulci’s maggot fascination that is present throughout these films hits a fever pitch with how Freudstein literally has maggots for blood here. There’s also a heavy angle on children having psychic powers, with the film’s inclusion of children at all making it a little more interesting than its predecessors. The ending acts as a beautiful culmination of everything and manages to say much of what the previous films do in their entirety purely within its final minutes. It’s a chilling, different take on this evil idea.
Certainly different than the rest of these trilogies, the “Gates of Hell Trilogy” almost feels like a burst that Fulci had to get out of his system. These films aren’t spread out across the span of his career, but rather were made consecutively across 1980 and ’81, very much seeming like extensions of the same idea. Fulci certainly exhausts the topic, saying a ton on damned domiciles and the unfortunate souls who take up residence within them.
We’re surely far from seeing the end of this entertaining phenomenon, with certain contemporary directors who indulge in horror, like Nicolas Winding Refn or Eli Roth, seeming like perfect candidates to experiment with the concept. But what about you? Are there any horror directors that you’d like to see return to a certain idea and turn a few spiritual sequels out?