Because hating on sequels doesn’t make you a film critic
The reviews are in and, surprise surprise, the 13th instalment of the Halloween series has proven divisive among critics and audiences. Like so many other horror franchises, the series has been one of questionable artistic choices and often diminishing returns over the years; now, with Halloween Ends released in October 2022, it’s apparently been killed off for good – until the powers that be resurrect it again.
It’s a life cycle that has become the norm for horror films. Everything from Friday the 13th to Hellraiser and Saw to Final Destination have become cash cows of questionable quality and integrity, seemingly unstoppable in their ability to be revived despite their shortcomings. But buried in the histories of these often cynical franchise features there are, in fact, countless hidden gems that were unfairly ignored, overlooked or simply misunderstood upon their initial release – such is the curse of a horror franchise being umbilically attached to the monstrosity that created it.
This Halloween, Dazed explores five such works that betrayed audience expectations, were meddled with by studios, or simply fell victim to the stigma of being a sequel at the time of their original release – only to later become cult films in their own right thanks to a re-evaluation of their creative choices and ambitious ideas. Check them out below.
HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1988)
John Carpenter never wanted to make a sequel to his 1978 hit Halloween. After being roped in to write, produce, score and co-direct the good-but-not-great Halloween II in 1981, he definitely didn’t want to make a threequel. The studio came knocking anyway, but the horror icon stood firm: the story of babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and knife-wielding stalker Michael Myers had been told. So instead, a compromise was made. Under Carpenter’s guidance as producer, Halloween III: Season of the Witch was to begin a new chapter of the franchise – under the misguided belief that the franchise could continue as a Twilight Zone-style anthology of stories each set on Halloween night.
The subsequent film, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, did away with the slasher tropes that the original film had pioneered. Instead, this was a supernatural story about an alcoholic father (Tom Atkins)’s investigation into the strange workings of a Halloween mask manufacturing corporation whose television adverts incite strange reactions from children. It remains notorious for being the only work in the 13-film series not to feature killer Michael Myers, nor series regulars Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance.
Audiences felt cheated — and the film bombed so hard that the studio had no choice but to bring Myers back from the dead six years later in the (actually quite good) Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Today, this black sheep is widely acknowledged to be one of the best of the series – thanks in part to its bleak atmosphere and brilliant Carpenter score.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)
Another memorable horror franchise curveball came via the sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – which arrived a full 12 years after the original. In this entry, Leatherface and his cannibalistic family dwell in the caverns beneath an amusement park amidst a smorgasbord of fluorescent lights and chopped-up limbs. They’re here to farm bodies and make chilli – and local DJ Vanita “Stretch” Brock is the latest would-be victim on the menu.
While much of the grim atmosphere of the original low-budget classic was derived from its gritty, low-budget aesthetic, the more economically endowed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 offered something far more camp and carnivalesque. Some positively unhinged performances from Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet) and Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects) match well with the disturbing levels of violence, but this was a considerable departure from the much more authentic vision laid out in the original (which featured remarkably little blood and gore, despite its reputation). Critics were confused, and the film fared poorly on release – though it would later gain a cult following on home video.
The franchise would get progressively worse in the years after Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, despite fledgling stars like Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings), Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar) and Renée Zellweger (Bridget Jones’ Diary) showing up on cast lists. The original sequel has earned its place as a cult classic though, thanks to the pure absurdity and over-the-top nature of its execution.
THE EXORCIST III (1990)
The Exorcist III was not really meant to be an Exorcist film. When The Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty was given the green light to adapt his 1983 book Legion, he had intended to simply call the film Legion. The title change was enforced by the film’s producers who, in spite of the critical and commercial failure of Exorcist II: The Heretic, believed that enfranchising the film would improve its marketability. They also demanded extensive re-edits and re-shoots — including an alternative ending — since there wasn’t enough exorcism in Blatty’s original cut.
The theatrical edit received only mixed reviews and modest box office returns. A new cut of the film assembled in the mid-2010s, meanwhile, delivers a more faithful recreation of the director’s original vision – though much of the original footage remains lost. It’s a moot point because regardless of which version you see, The Exorcist III is an outstanding piece of work that is arguably superior even to the original.
The film concerns homicide detective William F. Kinderman (George C. Scott) as he investigates a spate of demonic murders that curiously match the modus operandi of the ‘Gemini Killer’ (Brad Dourif), who was executed 15 years prior. As the bodies pile up, Kinderman learns of an imprisoned psychiatric ward patient who claims to be the Gemini Killer reincarnated and, in a series of Silence of the Lambs-style interrogations, a terrifying conclusion is drawn.
Deeply atmospheric and genuinely unsettling (it features one of the greatest jump-scares in film history), The Exorcist III also boasts some phenomenal acting, with some critics believing that Brad Dourif’s schizophrenic portrayal of the Gemini Killer deserved an Academy Award nomination. He didn’t receive one, but in recent years The Exorcist III has received a widespread re-evaluation. Today, it should be considered not only one of the greatest horror sequels, but one of the greatest psychological horror movies altogether.
WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994)
New Nightmare isn’t the best entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. That honour goes to Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which stars 18-year-old Patricia Arquette and was scored by Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks); a critical and commercial success in 1987. But, with Wes Craven returning to the director’s chair for the first time since the original, the seventh entry of the franchise does at least try something different. The results would prove quite radical for early 90s audiences.
As is suggested by the film’s innovative trailer – which includes apparent behind-the-scenes footage not included in the final cut – New Nightmare is a film about the making of a new Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The twist is that, in this production, gloved killer Freddy Krueger seems to have transcended into the world of the real – with dire consequences for the filmmakers.
Cast and crew members from the original film, like director Wes Craven and scream queen Heather Langenkamp, appear as fictional versions of themselves to further blur the lines between reality and fiction. Robert Englund even shows up on an in-movie talk show dressed in full Freddy attire, before returning home to paint fine art. And while the film doesn’t fully stick the landing (its box office failure put the franchise into hibernation for nearly a full decade), it is today appreciated as a dummy run for Craven’s 1996 horror sensation Scream, which revisited the self-aware meta-slasher concept with much greater success.
BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2 (2000)
The Blair Witch Project revolutionised horror filmmaking in 1999 by blurring the line between fiction and reality in a way that had rarely been achieved prior, leaving audiences scared shitless. Aided by an ingenious marketing campaign that posited the film as genuine found footage left by three missing documentarians in Maryland, the no-budget production was a smash hit, sparking countless copycats and parodies.
This sequel, rushed into production in early 2000, did away with the found footage tropes. It was instead “a fictionalised re-enactment of events” set in the aftermath of the original, featuring minimal documentary footage, generic characters, and a heavy rock soundtrack including big hits from Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and Queens of the Stone Age. The plot concerns a group of Blair Witch fans who drift into madness after experiencing a blackout in the same woods where the creators of the first film allegedly disappeared. Later, they find that footage recorded on their own video cameras is full of inconsistencies and strange images, leading the increasingly paranoid group to question whether it is their own minds or a more malevolent force playing tricks on them. It won the Golden Raspberry award for ‘Worst Sequel’ in 2000 after being widely panned.
Despite this, VHS and DVD releases leant further into the concept by peppering the film with witchy easter eggs and subliminal messages, as faces appear on windows and strange words appear from bonfires and on gravestones. Already deliberately ambiguous, Book of Shadows was thus transformed into an ambitious (by Y2K standards) and genuinely fun puzzle for viewers to solve in real-time – and those who could were rewarded with bonus footage on the film’s official website.