People go to horror movie sequels for many reasons—genuine interest, idle curiosity, tradition, blind optimism—but they almost never go to be scared. Horror movie sequels don’t just negate the point of the previous movie, the negate the point of their entire genre. They can’t help being increasingly less scary than the originals, and here are some reasons why.
Sure, horror movie sequels can have the same cast, the same villain, the same bunch of blandly-sassy teenage stereotypes as the original movie. But it’s not who’s in front of the camera that counts—that’s why horror films are almost exclusively the domain of stars either well before or well after the peak of their career. Most horror movies are made with an eye towards multiple sequels, but unlike fantasy series, spy movies, or intentional trilogies, they almost never retain a director. This is true whether the movies are relatively cheap and spawn tons of sequels, like Paranormal Activity or the Saw series, or whether they’re more expensive fare like the Sinister series. Even famous movies from big names in horror, like Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street movies have new directors helming nearly every movie. Directors shape the film, so no matter who is on screen, whatever was scary in the first movie isn’t coming back in the second.
What’s the common element between the first two Hostel movies and the first two Evil Dead movies? They both had their directors return for the sequel. What’s the difference between them? A world of notoriety and enjoyment.
Eli Roth likes gore and torture porn, and while there’s no denying he’s good at it, it can’t capture the public imagination for two films in a row. Sam Raimi directed all three Evil Dead movies. The first was a horror movie with some darkly comedic elements. The second was a horror parody. The third was a comedy with some horror elements. There’s just no way to scare people the same way three times in a row, and Raimi kept his movies popular because he didn’t try to do it.
Say what you want about reboots, at least the people who reboot a franchise are trying to make a good movie—a movie that will get people excited and update the core concept. Sequels don’t do that, and sooner or later, that’s so obvious that the light goes out of them entirely. After a certain number of sequels, horror movies just stop being good. That number varies from franchise to franchise, but it always exists. After that point, there’s no recovery. No one looks at the movie as an artistic project. They look at it as a product in which the costs have to stay a specific amount below the expected returns, and that’s it. It might as well be Ikea furniture. All it needs is a poster or DVD cover that makes it look better than staring at a wall for 90 minutes.
What phases does the xenomorph go through? In the movie Alien, no one knew. Each development the monster went through was a surprise that promised a new and mysterious kind of creepy sexualized horror. In the movie Aliens, everyone knew. There were surprises when it came to plot development, but the audience couldn’t experience the same blank terror in the face of the unknown. That terror is a key component of horror films. When we feel it, we’re with the characters, exploring that unknown.
The Alien franchise was smart when it came to sequels. In all the subsequent movies, except the unfortunate prequel, all the characters were as aware as the audience of the stages the xenomorph went through. That meant we didn’t have to sit through the tedious businesses of watching the characters onscreen slowly learn what we already knew. Other horror sequels aren’t as wise; instead of huddling in the confounding dark with the protagonists, we’re sitting in our chairs, amusing ourselves by eating popcorn, and waiting for them to catch up. We can’t possibly be as scared as they are, or as we once were.
Remember when everyone wanted to know more about Boba Fett? How about when we wanted to find out about the origins of Hannibal Lecter, Michael Myers, Norman Bates, The Predator, the Cenobites, and the xenomorph? Did any of those turn out well?
It’s understandable that horror movies want to explain their Big Bads. But once an audience knows the rules of the monster, the only way to introduce mystery and suspense it to take them deeper into the “realm” of the beast. Unfortunately, this skewers every franchise with the age-old movie-monster problem. The vast majority of monsters are only scary when we don’t see them. Many a horror fan’s evening has been ruined by the moment the creature reveals itself in all its glory, and it looks like a guy in a shaggy suit, or a stiffly-moving animatronic head, or amateurish make-up, or a video game still come to life. Having us explore a villain’s backstory is the mental equivalent of the “monster in the light” problem. What we see, or know, can’t possibly be as terrifying as what we imagine.
There are few celebrated heroes in the horror genre. Ellen Ripley is one, although it could be argued she switches, along with her franchise, from horror to action. Ash from Evil Dead has to be remembered, if only because he is played by incomparable chin of the incomparable Bruce Campbell. Most horror franchises destroy heroes, or perhaps they destroy an audience’s stamina and sympathy. Even beloved characters, like Laurie Strode of the Halloween franchise, eventually exhaust our capacity for empathy. There’s only so much we can hear a character scream.
In an initial horror movie, provided it’s any good, we can see heroes as characters working their way through a terrible situation. After a while, we see heroes as meat. They’re are only there to walk their haunches through a scenario and then get a bolt-gun to the head. Or not. We don’t really care.
The previous six items explain weaknesses characteristic of the horror genre. This item explains a weakness characteristic of humanity: we can get used to anything. Horror, to truly scare and disturb, needs to be new. Fortunately horror is a rich vein. There are always new ways to twist the human soul, break the human spirit, turn the human stomach, disturb the human peace of mind, and shatter any given human’s sense of safety. Movies can do that brilliantly. But let a person, any person, sit with a horrifying concept for the 18 months it takes to make a sequel, and the terror they feel slowly drains away. Sure, individual moments can shock, but entire concepts? Never again.
After watching only the trailer for The Human Centipede, I had to walk away from my computer, sick and shaking. I couldn’t even look at the poster for about a week. I didn’t watch the film. They made a third installment of the series this year, and my reaction, on remembering the core concept, was, “Ew.” Every movie that has you retching will eventually merit nothing more than a slight flinch, or even a cheer. Every thought that forces you to go to bed with the lights, you will eventually be able to comfortably think with the lights off. You’ll eventually forget to look under your bed, check your back seat, or keep track of how many times you said “Candyman.” There’s no movie series that can overcome that.