When Good Franchises Go Bad: Jumping the Shark in the Horror World

By: Sean McLaughlin

 

Since the mid-1970s or so, horror movie fans have been pretty spoiled. No longer were our favorite scary films a one-and-done deal; thanks to cinematic icons like Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, characters began fronting entire franchises which ensured that our favorite killers and psychos would continue to haunt our dreams for years and decades to come. In the midst of all of the bloodshed, however, there is inevitably that one moment where the entire series seems to careen off of the rails and slam headfirst into a tree. The horror equivalent of Arthur Fonzarelli gliding embarrassingly on water skis over a confined shark for the sake of “cool”, even our most beloved chains have suffered this indignity while scrambling to keep the cash cow afloat. Some have since recovered, but most have unfortunately witnessed a point of no return. Here I’ll take a quick glance at some of horror cinema’s most cherished and profitable film franchises, and the exact point where they veered off course (forever, in some cases).

Feel free to add your own suggestions and comments, on any that I may have missed!

Friday the 13th

The producers of the original Friday the 13th movies did a great job of reinventing the concept for the first few go-arounds. First the killer is Jason’s mother, then it’s Jason himself with a creepy bag over his head, then he picks up the iconic hockey mask in the part 3. Where did the franchise become a bit stale? It would have to be 1984’s Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (part IV). Not that it was bad, but this is the film that unsuccessfully tried to kill off the Jason character entirely and steer the franchise towards a new killer. When this didn’t work, our favorite camp counselor-slayer needed to be brought back for part VI. Since this film’s release, Jason’s been to Hell, Manhattan, and even outer space. Poor guy.

Halloween

I can go with the obvious here, and name the release of the Michael Myers-free Halloween III: Season of the Witch as the point where these films went wrong, but skipping over that installment entirely may be the best course of action. The Halloween movies began their slow-ish decline when the sequels began to feel like direct-to-VHS releases (which some actually were), and for me the fourth installment “The Return of Michael Myers” is that breaking point. Again….not to say this film is “bad”, but when the series as a whole begins to lose a bit of its luster with each subsequent film….this is what I have a problem with. Personally, Halloween had a brief renaissance in 1998 when Jamie Lee Curtis (and a cast of young Hollywood “it” kids) returned for H2O, but that was quickly squashed with 2002’s Resurrection and Busta Rhymes’ ultra-annoying Freddie Harris character.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Again, a film this brilliant lends itself to both sequels and imitators. TCM’s problem was the length of time in between the original and the first sequel, simply titled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Twelve years elapsed between Leatherface doing his killer dance in the road and two boneheads drag racing and harassing a radio DJ. Similar to the Halloween franchise, these sequels were banged out and ultimately found a home on VHS, which ensures that quality and style suffer a bit. But Tobe Hooper did hang on to write and direct the first sequel, and one of our favorite horror character actors, Bill Moseley, did light up our televisions….so that’s something.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

This one is easy: the moment Freddy Krueger leap-frogs out of a suburban swimming pool during a raging high school soiree, the Elm Street franchise jumped the shark. This moment occurred in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, a movie that just felt different than the original. Obviously the franchise survived, and ensuing sequels weren’t without their flashes of entertainment (Part 3: Dream Warriors comes to mind), but the overall gloomy feel of despair and conscious futility just weren’t there. Creative mastermind Wes Craven popped his head in on the sequels every few turns, but the “auto-pilot” atmosphere seemed to be too prevalent by then.

Saw

I’m not a huge Saw fan, but I’ll admit that the first film did have its moments of originality and creepiness. Even the first sequel possessed a novel concept (stolen countless times by much lesser movies since 2005) and a pretty cool ending. But then what? John Kramer was on death’s door in the first movie, but managed to survive (and physically THRIVE) for long after its conclusion. Passing his evil genius on to others would’ve been a great idea, had they been inheriting the wonderfully disturbing character of Jigsaw. Instead, they were on their own, glaring flaws and all. Saw III is my pick for the Fonzie moment; it is in this installment that “internal rage” became a cardinal sin, worthy of death. A man just lost his young son in a car wreck, and he’s not allowed to be angry? Not in Saw-land, apparently.

George Romero’s Zombie Films

How do you describe Mr. Romero’s “holy trilogy” of zombie films? Great, greater, very good. Suffering from the same fate that may have torpedoed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre legacy, Romero waited 20 years before continuing the undead goodness, an unfortunate stretch between 1985’s Day of the Dead and 2004’s underappreciated Land of the Dead. Although it pains me to admit, and much to the pleasure of HNN’s prolific Larry Dwyer, I’d have to conceive that the franchise became a bit stale during those two decades of dormancy. He’s still the king of all things zombie, but the opportunity to build on the brilliance probably had a 10-year window.  Land of the Dead, while still enjoyable for horror fans, could be seen more as a reaction to the massive success of the Hollywood-driven “re-imagining” (HATE that concept!) of Dawn of the Dead, the over-hyped mainstream spectacle which brought zombies back to the genre’s forefront. Other follow-ups since that time (Diary of the Dead, Survival of the Dead) were rather uneven and overly-ambitious, and helped to fuel that notion. It’s been announced that Romero will helm the ultimate Night of the Living Dead remake, which is scheduled to begin pre-production soon. Horror music to our ears……

Paranormal Activity

Perhaps I’m in the minority (at least amongst horror movie buffs; mainstream audiences certainly agree with me), but the Paranormal Activity franchise only recently began to fall off. Last year’s Paranormal Activity 4 was easily the worst of the bunch, but the three previous films held up remarkably well for a series that churns out a sequel a year (Saw producers, take note). If you’re looking for light at the end of the tunnel in regards to the PA films righting the ship, abandon all hope now: not only is the improbable fifth installment due out this October, but a “Spanish-themed” film is also on deck. Keep plucking that chicken, Paramount.

Evil Dead

Being a huge fan of what Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and the gang were able to accomplish for horror with so little, I’m STILL waiting for the decline of this beloved franchise. Even the inevitable big-budget remake, which opened last week, seems to be both a critical and a commercial success ensuring that the Evil Dead light will continue to shine bright. What does Mr. Raimi do when actually given a production budget? A little film (technically the third submission in the Evil Dead lineage) called Army of Darkness, which remained true to both the style and the substance of the first two. Perhaps the downfall is still waiting in the wings, as for years we’ve been hearing the rumors about a Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash movie. Groovy? No.

Return of the Living Dead

When the “Michael Jackson” zombie is electrified at the end of part 2, this is the point at which the series goes off the rails. ROTLD was one of the first zombie flicks to incorporate black humor and slapstick into the script, and was by far the best at this devise (unrivaled until the equally-wonderful Shaun of the Dead). This tactic worked and worked well, but when the funny became the ludicrous the bloom was off the rose a bit. Living Dead sequels continue to be pumped out today, with the last few being SyFy channel specials. My how the mighty have fallen.

Jaws

Considered the first “summer blockbuster”, this Steven Spielberg-helmed classic went on to rack up huge numbers at the box office. Based on the novel by Peter Benchley, the massive success of Jaws made the inevitable green-light for a sequel a self-fulfilling prophecy (studios at the time were salivating over finding the next “Godfather Part II”). So what went wrong with this franchise? It would have to be the moment that “Jaws 2” began production. No longer having a novel as its basis, the sequel would also be missing two huge components: the “brain” of Spielberg (who refused to direct) and the “heart” of lead actor Roy Scheider (who admittedly mailed in his performance only to fulfill a contractual obligation to Universal Studios). Truly, a recipe for disaster for both the subsequent films as well as the movie-going audience.

Rob Caprilozzi on Twitter
Rob Caprilozzi
CEO / Owner at Horror News Network
Rob Caprilozzi created Comic Monsters in 2004 and eventually expanded the site in 2009 to Horror News Network. Born out his love for all aspects of horror, Rob still remains hardcore comic fan. You can keep up with him on Twitter @RobCaprilozzi.
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