Reasons to be Fearful: Part III

(or, “Where is Francis Ford Coppola, and what have you done to him?”)

As Hollywood budgets escalate, the lure of the sequel grows: why risk good money on a risky, new idea, when you can invest in one with a proven track record? The generally held critical opinion is that this is bad, because it’s a short-sighted view which promotes the ploughing of unwarranted and bloated budgets into derivative and hackneyed movies, at the expense of original cinema. Or, put another way, “They’re over-priced, and they’re crap”. While there are plenty of counter-examples available (Terminator 2, Gremlins 2, Drunken Master II and Species 2 were all at least as good as the originals), when you progress further down the line, to a third film, the odds of coming up with quality appear to lengthen dramatically.

There are some cases where the cause is obvious: a new director is quite sufficient to send the most cast-iron franchise down in flames. Exhibit A in this category must be Batman, which Joel Schumacher appears to have made his life’s work to destroy. Say what you like about the first two, they were at least memorable: I can’t recall one single scene from Batman Forever. I admit that Batman & Robin is worse still, being many people’s choice for worst film of the 1990’s, but there’s no doubt when the rot set in.

Even if you keep the same director and star, you can still run into difficulties by fixing what isn’t necessarily broke. For examples, see The Evil Dead and Mad Max trilogies, which show some interesting similarities. Both start off with cheap, hugely profitable openers, followed by sequels which actually come closer to big-budget remakes. Then, realising they couldn’t get away with doing that again, both George Miller and Sam Raimi head for the cinematic hills, opting for other than the simple “…3” title to boot. Although I actually quite like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Army of Darkness, the former replaces hardcore action with a lot of mythic mumbo-jumbo (not to mention Tina Turner!), while Army is a Ray Harryhausen film filtered through the Three Stooges.

Alien 3 – sorry, that’s the almost apologetic 3 – was another destined to be a disaster from the moment David Fincher stepped on board. Previous instalments had been directed by people with experience in the genres: the nearest Fincher had come to horror was working with Madonna. As a learning experience, it’s marginal: compared to the classic horror movie and all-time greatest action pic which came before, it blows chunks and, measured against its predecessors, may be the worst third entry ever. The curse is of particular note here, since Fincher has since proven his talents with Se7en, The Game and Fight Club. In that kind of company, Alien3 seems an out-and-out aberration.

Strike threes…Three’s that triumph
Alien 3
Robocop III
Lethal Weapon 3
Star Trek 3
Hellraiser III
Return of the Jedi
(nominally Part VI,
but one word: Ewoks)
Indiana Jones and
the Last Crusade
A Better Tomorrow 3
Drunken Master III
Scream 3
In the Line of Duty 3
Poison Ivy 3
Er, that’s it…

Speaking of aliens brings me to The Godfather III, since the only explanation for it I can imagine, is that at some point shortly before filming began, Francis Ford Coppola was abducted by ET’s and had his entire talent sucked out through an anal probe. Since his return, the empty husk has been shambling around Hollywood, directing things like Jack. Never work with animals or children, Francis – especially not your own. And, as an aside, I’m sure that Daddy had nothing to do with Sofia subsequently getting to direct The Virgin Suicides. However, going by that, it looks like the bug-eyed monsters got to her early.

Return of the Living Dead 3 seems to buck the trend, being Brian Yuzna’s fabulously kinky eulogy to body-piercing, and a vast improvement on part two. However, don’t forget that Return of the Living Dead was itself a sequel, to Night of the Living Dead. This means Return of the Living Dead 2 was thus the true third part, and it duly blew chunks, allowing Yuzna to escape the curse. The moral of this story is that sometimes you have to look especially carefully in order to see the evidence.

There’s another factor which might play a part, to do with a letter producers feel a particular urge to tack onto “3” titles: “D”. Jaws 3-D, House 3-D, Nightmare on Elm Street 3-D, Amityville 3-D. Now, even at the best of times, it’s a very tricky task to combine the usual requirements, like plot development, with the necessity to have sharp, pointy things coming out of the screen at regular intervals. Indeed, I’ve only seen one which works as a regular i.e. flat movie – Flesh for Frankenstein. For a double-sequel, already likely to be struggling, it’s yet another cross to bear.

The strange thing is, this is all despite the fact that there are logical reasons why they should be better, not worse. By this stage, you should be looking at fully-developed characters, to whom audiences have already been successfully drawn twice. In addition, if a concept is good enough to sustain a solid sequel, then it should be able to squeeze out at least one more before collapsing. Let’s face it, by the time you reach a third installment, the studio is thinking “franchise”. Which may be the problem: after two hits, lazy executives will green-light a third almost as a reflex action, without bothering to concern themselves over trivia like scripts. I suspect you could hand over a hundred pages of the LA telephone directory and get it made, if you scrawled Terminator 3 on the front sheet.

T3 will be an interesting test: looking likely to be Cameron-less, yet with Arnie on board, the odds are not in its favour, if our theory holds true. The Matrix 2 + 3 will also act as a litmus paper: I predict the first sequel will be competent enough, and the second will blow chunks, despite being shot back-to-back in Australia, with the same cast and crew. I believe the third part will focus almost entirely on Carrie Moss’s character, allowing them to call it The Matrix 3: Wholly Trinity. [Sorry…]

In conclusion then: “Sequels suck!”, says a character in Scream 2. This is what passes in the series for wit – but perhaps the most ironic thing is that the lame, tame Scream 3 provides damning evidence for the hypothesis that second sequels suck even more.