Sequels are rarely necessary, but that doesn’t mean we won’t watch them, hoping that a follow-up will refine and expand a story in a way that fulfils the promise of the original, rather than letting it down. Any movie fan can list the great and successful sequels, but this is something a bit different.
These aren’t the Godfather IIs or the Empire Strikes Backs. It’s not that these sequels are better than their predecessors, necessarily — and maybe they’re not even quite as good. But they all have something to say and something to add, sometimes by continuing a story that we didn’t know needed continuing, but just as often by taking a sharp right turn and heading off into uncharted territory.
Many of them are movies that audiences avoided because the originals couldn’t be topped. But damned if there aren’t hints of brilliance squirreled away in these cinematic orphans — these sequels we didn’t need and didn’t necessarily ask for. This is a tribute to some less-loved follow-ups that deserve a second look.
Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Val Lewton was a producer who, in a sense, made a bargain unheard of in the history of Hollywood ego, trading prestige for freedom. He took a job as head of the horror department at RKO, and was given only three restrictions: The movies had to be cheap, relatively short, and the studio would provide titles (so, for example, we have a revisionist take on Jane Eyre and scathing critique of colonialism titled…I Walked with a Zombie). Other than that, he had free rein. The apex of this period was 1942’s Cat People, a stylish psychosexual noir directed by Jacques Tourneur that was much more about repressed trauma and existential dread than monsters…but there were enough horror movie trappings to make it a hit.
The 1944 follow-up is a direct sequel, focusing on two of the original’s main characters and their daughter, but in tone, it’s wildly divergent. A ghost story of sorts, the young girl is haunted, literally, by her parents’ past, but the threat is more emotional than physical. It’s a wonderful, and wonderfully humane, treatment of deeply damaged characters, all of whom are worthy of empathy (living or dead). Director Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Haunting, etc., etc., etc.) and company also build some stunning set-pieces, making the most of the film’s barely existent budget. I can only imagine the reaction of 1944 audiences who paid to see a horror movie about curses and cat people only to get a dark but big-hearted, fantasy. Surely the greatest trick Val Lewton ever played.
They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970)
Few people remember that In the Heat of the Night had two sequels, although the long-running TV series of the 80s and 90s might jog a few more memories. Based on the same series of books that inspired the original film, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, and The Organisation continue the story of Detective Virgil Tibbs, back in the city after his run-in with Rod Steiger in the deep south.
This first sequel plays more like a 1970s TV crime drama than it does like something constructed cinematically, but it’s solid enough on those terms, with a great secondary cast that includes Martin Landau as a villainous preacher, Anthony Zerbe as a street hood, and Ed Asner(!) as a pimp (and, honestly, “Pimp Ed Asner” alone is almost worth the price of admission). On another level, it provides a bridge for Sidney Poitier from the classic, iconic, but essentially flawless characters he’d played in the 60s to the more interesting roles that were available to black actors in the 1970s. In In the Heat of the Night, he was a cop who was so good at his job that the white bigots he encounters have no choice but to turn to him for help. Virgil Tibbs is still damn good at his job, but by dropping him in seedy San Francisco, he’s allowed to play a bit more humanity.
French Connection II (1975)
Another oft-forgotten sequel, despite the fact that Charnier, the French drug-dealer from the first film, got away at the end. Gene Hackman is back, and every bit as good as Popeye Doyle as he was in the first film, as is director John Frankenheimer. It’s a good movie! Just not quite as good as the first one, and it suffers from the fact that it continues a story that didn’t necessarily need continuing. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive return from one of cinema’s most memorable characters, and it makes a case for itself by putting a suitably dramatic cap on one of film’s great rivalries.
Grease 2 (1982)
No one is arguing that Grease 2 is a particularly good movie by any traditional criteria — it’s sloppily structured, people burst into song without even the paper-thin motivation that musicals usually provide, and Didi Conn’s legendary Frenchy disappears mid-way through the movie, never to be seen again. Outrage. BUT! None of those things have prevented the movie from becoming a major cult classic, albeit one probably best enjoyed late at night and/or in some type of altered state of mind.
For one thing, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Stephanie runs rings around any other character in either of the Grease movies for sheer coolness (even without being a particularly strong singer), and Pfeiffer left the movie a star even as it utterly destroyed other careers (male lead Maxwell Caulfield deserved better). It also outdoes the original for sheer horniness, even turning a slightly ill-conceived number about bowling into a double-entendre (barely) about gettin’ it on, and that’s before gay icon Tab Hunter later leads his class in a suggestive (i.e., guys pretend to be sperm) dance number on the topic of “Reproduction.” Think of it as Grease’s less polished, weirder, but generally cooler little sister.
Psycho II (1983)
The track record for sequels and remakes of Hitchcock movies is…not at all stellar (ever seen The Birds 2: Land’s End? Didn’t think so). How do you improve on Hitch? Psycho II doesn’t try, but it does pay tribute to the Master of Suspense while also bridging the gap between the era of the 1960 original and the entire slasher genre that developed out of it. The ingredients here are, I think, the key to its success: Director Richard Franklin was a friend and young protégé of Hitch, while Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles reprise their roles from 20+ years prior. Even the Bates house exterior, still standing on the Universal lot, was the same. There’s a clever premise and solid mystery that extends Norman Bates’ story without repeating it (this time, Norman is the good guy…sort of).
It’s tough to compare anything to the original, but the sequel is effective on its own terms and far better than it has any right to be. This was the movie that turned Psycho from a classic standalone into a generally unspectacular franchise, but it hits heights that none of the later iterations even come close to.
2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
The sheer gall. Who in their right mind would make a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic? Not only one the most impressive achievements in American filmmaking, its many mysteries and enigmas have lent themselves to so many different interpretations that no one can even say decisively how it ends. Nevertheless, Arthur C. Clarke, who developed his novel in tandem with Kubrick’s movie, continued the story in a 1982 sequel novel, providing a basis for a new film.
Stylistically, it can’t hold a candle to the original. Not much could. But the result is a surprisingly effective and affecting journey into space by an impressive cast in pursuit of the very mysteries that the first film left behind. It attempts to explain things that didn’t need to be explained, but it also serves as a story of cold-war-era cooperation in the face of cosmic questions, and ends on a note that comes impressively close to matching the epic conclusion of the first movie. Of all the necessary sequels here, this one probably suffers the most from its association with the original — it would probably be regarded as a classic in its own right were it not for those comparisons.
The Colour of Money (1986)
Martin Scorsese’s 1986 follow-up to The Hustler is the only sequel on his resume, but the director’s name in the titles goes a long way toward explaining why it works. That 1961 original is a masterpiece, and the pedigree here is just about as solid, with an electric cast lead by Paul Newman reprising the role of “Fast Eddie” Felson alongside Tom Cruise and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It’s not quite as good as The Hustler, but that’s a pretty high bar. Taken on its own, it’s a well-acted, well-directed character drama that does justice to Newman’s iconic character.
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
The first Gremlins was a comedy, in a sense, but more of a horror film with darkly comic sensibilities (I loved that movie when I was way too little to understand that elements were meant to be funny). Although having a clear ending, it was a massive success…to the point that a sequel was nearly inevitable. Six years later, Joe Dante reassembled much of the original cast and made something that…well, it’s almost hard to believe that it exists. In today’s world in which studios maintain vice-like grips on their franchises, I can’t imagine a sequel to a blockbuster that turns the mostly serious premise of the first movie into a live-action cartoon, satirizing the very movie that it’s meant to follow. Is it essential for audiences who loved Gremlins? Absolutely not. Is it a wildly entertaining middle finger thrown up to our entire franchise-based movie economy? 100% yes.
It was a massive box office flop, with confused audiences staying away in droves. Whereas I saw it twice and still have the novelization.
Exorcist III (1990)
For every horror movie that’s ever been successful, there are 15 studio executives waiting to turn it into a franchise. The Exorcist was a movie that absolutely, 100% did not require any sequels — it told a story, told it well, and that really should have been it. 1977’s disastrous Exorcist II: The Heretic was more than enough evidence of that. Nevertheless, this 1990 return to the well has earned itself a cult status by telling an original story, one that only barely depends on the first movie. That’s perhaps more surprising as the writer/director here is none other than William Peter Blatty, writer of the first film and the novel on which it was based. This one is far more contemplative than is to be expected from a series famous for pea vomit, offering up some solid scares but succeeding more in its quieter, more chilling moments. It helps to have George C. Scott at the head of a solid cast.
The Godfather Part III (1992)
Even Francis Ford Coppola felt that Michael Corleone’s story ended with The Godfather Part II (and how could you ever top that gut-punch ending?). So, when pressured to do a third, he constructed an epilogue…one monster of an epilogue at over three hours long, but still more of a summation than a continuation of the story. Looked at that way, it works far, far better than its reputation suggests. The 2020 re-edit, now titled The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, makes the central thesis more clear than it was in the original release: It’s operatic, and poignant, and occasionally clunky, but it’s about a man who died the day he killed his brother decades earlier.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)
Freddy Krueger was done and dusted. Killed and killed and killed again, and a declining box office took the ultimate toll, leading to a 1991 movie titled Freddy’s Dead, and subtitled (in case you didn’t get the point) “The Final Nightmare.” Despite poster promises that they’d saved the best for last, it sank with fans and critics (it’s pretty terrible), and didn’t make nearly enough money for anyone to be seriously thinking of a revival. Except, apparently, for director and Freddy-creator Wes Craven, who’d largely avoided the franchise following the first film (aside from co-writing part 3).
Throwing out continuity entirely, Craven’s concept sees Freddy manifesting in the real world of actors Heather Langenkamp and John Saxon — going meta long before that was a default mode. The killer is (far) scarier here than he’d been in years, and it feels like the only place that the Elm Street story could have possibly gone with any dignity. It also sets the stage for Craven’s own reinvention of the horror genre just a couple years later with Scream (a great movie which shouldn’t be faulted for inspiring countless imitators). Freddy’s Dead well and truly buried the franchise, but New Nightmare is a pretty damn good epilogue (and makes for a great cap on a trilogy preceded by 1 and 3).
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Endlessly analysed (as well as re-edited), Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner has an outsized reputation, a movie that’s not always as good as the sum of its parts — but those parts are some of the most memorable in American film. Visually, there’s nothing like it, and the chemistry between leads Harrison Ford and Sean Young is electric (if sometimes problematic). It didn’t need a sequel, and any follow-up would be inherently risky: Continuing the story might necessarily require solving some of the riddles that had helped to keep Blade Runner relevant for decades.
Though the finished product was endlessly debated, and didn’t do terribly well at the box office, there’s no question that director Denis Villeneuve is a craftsperson of the first order. While the sequel is a bit more meandering and doesn’t pack quite the aesthetic punch of the first, it’s a worthy follow-up with a style and vision all its own from an incredibly talented director.
Here’s another sequel that we absolutely did not need, but that I’m kinda glad we have. For those keeping score: this is the 11th Halloween movie, the third to be titled simply Halloween, and (at least) the fourth time the series has gotten a reboot. One of those do-overs was the better-than-average Halloween H20, which was also the last time we saw Jamie Lee Curtis. A case could easily made that a new Halloween movie is among the last things we need. Instead, we’re getting a new trilogy built off the back of this one, which jettisons everything since the first movie back in 1978.
The key here is the talent: Blumhouse treated this like a prestige picture rather than as just another cranked-out horror sequel, bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis and adding Judy Greer to the cast and getting the blessing and advice of John Carpenter. It’s a slightly awkward movie, splitting its time between catching up with deeply damaged, justifiably traumatized Laurie Strode (Curtis) and following Michael Myers around as he engages in some more traditional slasher-movie-type kills, but there’s a lot of power in the family dynamic established here between the three generations of Strode women, and at least a bit more mileage in the series if it continues to lean into the stories of those characters.
It’s deeply satisfying to watch Laurie kick the shit out of the guy who all but ruined her life.
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
There are a lot of parallels with that most recent Halloween movie here: a declining film series attempting yet another reboot, this time by bringing back a beloved actress who hasn’t played the iconic lead character in decades. In this case it’s the great Linda Hamilton returning to the Terminator franchise for the first time since 1991’s box office powerhouse Judgement Day, a movie that conclusively and poetically brought the tight two-movie story to a conclusion. Three movies (mostly bad) and a TV series (pretty good) later, Sarah Conner is back(!) despite having already died offscreen. This one wipes all that out, though audiences could certainly be forgiven for having ignored the latest in a series that had become increasingly convoluted and directionless.
It’s too bad. Restoring the darkly nihilistic feel of the first movie, Dark Fate provides a welcome return from the baddest of all badass action-movie characters, and teams her up with a very impressive trio of new characters. The action is some of the most impressive of the entire series, and it just about makes the case for itself as the conclusion of a Sarah Conner-lead Terminator trilogy.
Doctor Sleep (2019)
Despite the ambiguity of that New Year’s Eve photo, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining didn’t feel like it left much unsaid. King famously disliked the movie, though he might have been the only one. When he wrote a sequel to his novel, picking up the story of Danny Torrence years later, and adding to the mythology by introducing others with psychokinetic abilities, it was inevitable that someone would make a movie (for better and worse, that’s just how it goes with King novels). Mike Flanagan had already made a bit of a name for himself with confident thrillers like Absentia, Hush, and Oculus, and he brought that style and solid craftsmanship to Doctor Sleep. But how to solve the King/Kubrick problem? A straight adaptation of the novel would mean diverging significantly from Kubrick’s film…at least as well known and loved as the original novel.
The movie has it both ways, respecting the beats of the book while also working as a sequel to the 1980 film and doing it all relatively seamlessly. The Overlook Hotel, for example, was destroyed long ago on the page, but survived Kubrick’s film, and so we get to revisit those wildly memorable set designs. In that way, and aside from being an enjoyable supernatural horror film in its own right, it represents something of a truce between King’s intentions and Kubrick’s undeniable impact.