When Steven Spielberg was approached by producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown about the prospect of directing a sequel to the first-ever blockbuster, Jaws, he dismissed the idea outright. Spielberg, in his early career considered sequels to be "a cheap carny trick." And he's mostly stuck to that. The Indiana Jones films can hardly be considered sequels, but episodes in the fictitious 1930s-esque serial in which they exist. His only true sequel was The Lost World: Jurassic Park – a film he admits he made strictly for the money. The Lost World represents everything wrong with sequels: it's bigger, louder, and more expensive than the first, yet it brings nothing new to the table. It was a cash-in from the greenlight on, capitalizing on the success of the original without bringing any of what made the first such a special experience.
Sequels get the shaft far too easily. While its true most are cynical paychecks for all involved, there are occasions in which they are written off before a proper evaluation is even attempted. As a result, a lot of genuinely good, sincere films that tried to exist outside of the shadow of their predecessor, or at least complement it, failed miserably, but they were brave enough to attempt something different rather than just follow the same formula. Others stuck to the formula, and while they were more of the same, they were still competently entertaining. Just to avoid the inevitable comments that yell at me for excluding Aliens or The Godfather Part II or whatever Lord of the Rings you care to bore yourself with, readers should take note that this list has specified more of the unsung sequels. For lists that include such films, I direct you to anywhere else on the Internet.
Here's just a small sampling of a few worth seeing, beginning with the cheap carny trick on which Spielberg turns his back:
15 Jaws 2
Jaws was a blend of pure horror, with a second half that shifted more into adventure territory. A lot of the film's more successful scenes happened accidentally; the shark created for the film refused to work in the water, so Spielberg had to resort to POV camera shots and suggestion as opposed to show the beast, allowing your overactive imagination to fill in the nightmarish blanks. The smartest thing Jeannot Swarc, director of Jaws 2, did was nix all that right off the bat. He was told repeatedly by producers and friends to follow the same path as Spielberg: don't tip your hand, don't show the shark. But he knew the shark was out of the bag. So in the film's opening scene, which finds two scuba divers finding the wreck of the first film's Orca boat, he shows the hell out his shark.
The tone of the film is also remarkably different. The first's horror/adventure blend morphed into straight-out horror. 1978 was the start of the slasher film, and the film works very much like one if the serial killer were a shark, picking off a slew of stranded, horny teenagers one by one. What distinguishes it from a generic slasher is the welcome return of lead Roy Scheider, who takes on the role of the crazy old cop no one believes.
14 The French Connection II
The true, spiritual sequel to The French Connection, William Friedkin's gritty cop thriller, was the 1973's spin-off The Seven Ups. Phillip D'Antoni's film contains car chases that top even those of its predecessor as well as the previous record holder – Bullitt. Seven-Ups follows Roy Scheider's Connection character as he leads a group of renegade police officers. The actual sequel tracks Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle as he goes to Marseille to bust the same drug kingpin who eluded him in the first film.
Rarely is a film based so explicitly on a true story is followed by a completely fictional sequel, and one wonders what the real life Popeye Doyle – police officer Eddie Egan - would have thought of his character forced to take heroin. Doyle, in the first film, was an unapologetic racist, misogynist and hard-edged cop. Director John Frankenheimer places the same character in a fish out of water story, where he can't even order a drink without dealing with a language barrier. Perhaps it's not the best sequel, but it's a perfectly good cop movie.
13 Death Wish 3
Death Wish told the story of a pacifist who, after travelling to Arizona to learn guns, gets a dose of bloodlust after his wife is murdered and daughter sexually assaulted by a young hoodlum played by Jeff Goldblum. The story mirrors that of Bernard Goetz, the 1984 New York subway vigilante. The only problem is Death Wish was made ten years prior to the incident.
By the time Death Wish 3 rolled into the theatres, the vigilante subgenre had devolved into self-parody. Michael Winner' utra-violent, silly sequel finds Charles Bronson's vigilante in the midst of a gang war in New York City. The violence in New York has gotten so bad in the film that, after Bronson shoots a purse snatcher in the back, rather than react in horror, onlookers just applaud. The last act of the film is an all-out gang war in a tenement building that reaches extremes of both badasshood and hilarity.
12 A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors
Wes Craven's original Nightmare was planned to have a closed ending. It was New Line producer Robert Shaye who insisted the film end more ambiguously to provide the possibility of a sequel. What followed in part two is one of the oddest, most openly homo-erotic horror films ever made.
For the third film, Wes Craven returned to write the screenplay, presumably to do away with Freddy Krueger once and for all. Dream Warriors focuses on a group of former Elm Street children (the actual street only became an issue in the canon in later sequels. The original used the street as more of a metaphorical stand-in for Anytown, USA) who have been committed to a mental institution due to their night terrors. Nancy Thompson, the heroine who originally conquered Freddy, is now a doctor who treats those with the Freddy affliction. Of the official canon, it's the most thought-provoking and entertaining. Dream Warriors also marks the first film in the series Freddy becomes a killer with a ton of one-liners, making him the Henny Youngman of slashers.
11 Grumpier Old Men
Ever since Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau had the perfect oil and water chemistry that lasted decades. They appeared together in ten films together, eleven if you count JFK in which they share no scenes. And while The Odd Couple II was critically reviled as one of playwright Neil Simon's worst efforts, the sequel to the charming Grumpy Old Men finds the two of them still trading barbs just as well as they did forty years earlier.
10 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III: Leatherface
Tobe Hooper's classic film was followed up ten years later by a tongue-in-cheek sequel with Dennis Hopper, an actor whose daily intake of vitamins and nutrients was cocaine-based. But if you prefer your horror played more straight, Jeff Burr's second sequel isn't as bad as some have claimed. Though the production issues are fairly obvious, it's a darkly serious, violent film that has more in common with the original than any of the other sequels. And like the truly awful Next Generation sequel that occurred a few years later, Leatherface also has an early role for a future star. In Next, it was Mathew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger. In Leatheface, a bat$**t crazy Viggo Mortensen appears as the cannibal family's current patriarch.
9 Damien: Omen II
Sequels are often accused of simply being "more of the same," and Damien is no exception. It's not an unfair criticism. Some of the plot points and twists are directly cloned from the first Richard Donner film. What sets Damien apart from just another in a long line of rehashes (including a made-for-TV remake featuring a female antagonist and an abysmal remake) is how it deals with the now preteen antichrist coming to terms with his existence. The first film ends with a sly, malicious smile from a toddler. Now grown enough to understand humanity, young Damien wrestles with coming of age in addition to the added pressure of the whole son of Satan thing. It's a far cry from Omen III: The Final Conflict, which features a fully grown Damien (Sam Neill) as pure evil once again.
8 Ghostbusters 2
Bill Murray is possibly to blame for the hatred fans of the first film have leveled at this sequel. He has openly bashed it and claims it's the reason he held out on appearing in a possible third film. While its plot – still written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis – finds New York City under yet another apocalyptic supernatural threat is, well, basically the same movie, the charm and charisma each ghostbuster brings to their respective role is still present. In short, what makes Ghostbusters II work is exactly the same thing that made Ghostbusters work. And after the pleasures taken from watching Bill Murray mug and Dan Aykroyd nerd out, who wouldn't go back for more?
7 Halloween III
John Carpenter never wanted a sequel to his seminal slasher film, despite its ominous open ending. By the end of the first film, killer Michael Myers has been stabbed three times and shot six before plummeting off a balcony. However, when his rival Dr. Sam Loomis looks down, he find Michael's body gone, and the killer's heavy breathing is heard as a series of shots ruminate on where he might just be. The point was simple and poignant: evil never stops. When studios demanded a sequel, Carpenter wrote it and thought he definitively killed off his monster. By the end of part II, Michael's eyes are shot out and the camera lingers on his charred corpse after an explosion. The director then planned to turn future sequels into an anthology series, each one focusing on an independent, unique story. The idea would have worked had Halloween III: Season of the Witch not flopped so miserably.
There's no doubt that Season of the Witch is a messy film, with some unresolved and illogical issues and a mad scientist killer whose plot to murder children through ghoulish Halloween masks powered by Stonehenge without any concrete motive. Still, it's creepy atmosphere and eerie, Body Snatchers-esque (the town in which the evil toy factory has the same names as that in Body Snatchers) story makes it an enticing film for horror buffs. Carpenter recruited English writer Nigel Kneale to co-concoct the film. Kneale was a favourite of Carpenter's and he wrote some of the best science fiction films ever made with his Quatermass series. It's not without its problems, but overall, it's a brave attempt to do something different. Neither Hollywood, nor the audience, seemed to care.
6 Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers
When money and producer Moustapha Akkad's greed for it beckoned the killer back to life, audiences were expecting a simple hack and slash. By the time the fourth film in the series rolled around, people were used to pale imitations of Friday the 13th crowding the box office – films whose plots were there in service of only violence and nudity. So it was a pleasant surprise that Halloween IV strove to be something more. Retconning Myers and Loomis' deaths with a few lines of expository dialogue, Return finds the escaped killer coming back to Haddonfield, his former doctor close on the trail.
The film also managed to find a suitable replacement for final girl Jamie Lee Curtis in Ellie Cornell as Rachel, who was unfortunately killed off in the next film, easily the series' weakest entry.
5 Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Guillermo Del Toro's first adaptation of Mike Mignola's comic series was a faithful, serviceable action film. The brilliance of casting actor/Tom Waits impersonator Ron Pearlman was the film's true saving grace. It's a little overlong and silly, but the actor brings his down to earth, blue collar wit to the role, tethering the more outlandish elements of the film to reality.
The sequel did precisely what a sequel should do and excises the fat and expository issues standard with superhero films. Gone is the audience surrogate character, allowing the leads to breathe and develop on their own. But also gone is the required faithfulness to some of the comic's sillier elements. The story, involving an underworld of monsters and deities akin to that of Del Toro's Pan's Labrynth, is much more of a vision unique to the director rather than a straight adaptation.
Pearlman attempted to generate a movement for a third Hellboy film on his twitter account – that is, until the studio basically asked him to please stop. Del Toro has since said the possibility of a complete trilogy is officially dead.
4 Wes Craven's New Nightmare
New Nightmare was the film Craven made just before re-launching his horror credibility after a series of flops with Scream. 1994's New Nightmare isn't a Freddy Krueger film, despite the character appearing. Rather, it focuses on the actors and cast members involved in making the original film, playing themselves and now being terrorized by a demon who happens to have taken on Freddy's form.
It's full of in-jokes for fans of the series, as well as cameos and real life disasters. Filming occurred during a major L.A. earthquake, so Craven filmed some of the devastation – fitting, considering an early scene involves their house invaded by a supernatural quake.
3 Exorcist III
After the disappointing, bizarre John Boorman follow-up to William Friedkin's classic horror film, author William Peter Blatty returned to the franchise to entirely change the focus. Rather than follow possession victim Regan MacNeil any further, Blatty follows Lt. Kinderman (recast as George C. Scott here since Lee J. Cobb had since passed away) on the trail of a series of murders in Washington, D.C.
The murders lead him to a schizophrenic killer claiming to be both his late friend Father Karrras (Jason Miller, reprising his role here) and the series' regular demon. Based on Blatty's own novel Legion, the film was plagued with studio interference and budgetary issues. As a result, the theatrical cut is messy, with a studio-imposed exorcism shoehorned in at the last minute. Fortunately, Shout Factory has recently released a DVD restoring the original director's cut, which is infinitely better.
2 Psycho II
No one could have imagined that 22 years after Alfred Hitchcock made audiences fear their own shower, Universal would have attempted a sequel. Moreover, no one could have predicted the sequel be any good. But Psycho II, directed by Richard Franklin from a script by Tom Holland (Child's Play, Fright Night), exceeds every expectation. The film finds Norman Bates (a still excellent Anthony Perkins) returning to the scene of his crimes after declared legally sane. Under the care of his doctor (Robert Loggia) and newfound friend and love interest (Meg Tilly), all seems to be going well. That is until he begins to hear the voice of his deceased mother once again and bodies start turning up.
It's a clever thriller, directed with great respect to the master of suspense without ever being derivative. In fact, all three sequels to Hitchcock's masterpiece surprisingly find their own unique voice. The third, directed by Perkins, takes a turn into a bizarre pseudo comedy. And Mick Garris' Psycho IV: The Beginning is a genuinely thoughtful reflection of the first film's themes capped off with great performances from Perkins and a young Henry Thomas.
1 Gremlins 2: The New Batch
Producer Steven Spielberg couldn't have found a better director for Gremlins than Joe Dante. The filmmaker had worked his way through the Roger Corman school of filmmaking (essentially B-movie boot camp), had already helmed the horror comedy Piranha (which Spielberg reportedly loved) and the slightly more serious yet still tongue-in-cheek The Howling. His credibility in tow, Dante was set to balance the horror and comedy of Chris Columbus' script, as well as bring along a cache of fantastic character actors like Dick Miller from his Corman days. What resulted was what some consider a new alt-Christmas classic.
But Dante was allowed to really let himself loose in the sequel. The New Batch is essentially a live action Looney Tunes cartoon, including a scene in which the little green mischief makers invade the film and break the fourth wall. It also stands today as a prophetic satire of Donald Trump. John Glover's over-enthusiastic, desperate to be loved cable news owner with a disdain for all things old ("Casablanca – now in full colour, and with a happier ending) Daniel Clamp is a straight up parody of a man who loves to see his name on big buildings.