All month long we’re devoting Tuesdays to Halloween Horror Nights, a weekly countdown of different horror movie lists. This week: best horror franchises.
Let’s bitch it out…
The economics of horror films is such that they naturally lend themselves to franchises. When a film costs $1-5 million and grosses $30-50 million, even with a moderate advertising cost, the film ends up in the black. Horror films are also strange in that audiences gravitate to the villain as much, if not more, than the protagonist, which means resuscitating your signature killing machine is a profitable venture. Heck because the actor is hidden, oftentimes it doesn’t even matter whose face is behind the mask!
Now this doesn’t mean that all horror franchises are created equal or that they’re easy to pull off. The simple fact is that some killers lend themselves more naturally to a franchise, whereas others end up in the one and done category (which could be the result of a closed narrative, a director who wants to move on or a studio that refuses to finance additional films). What’s complicated is that with alternatives in distribution and exhibition facilitating easier access than ever before (streaming and VOD), pretty anyone can make a horror film these days! This means that there is a huge glut of subpar quality product, so it is extremely difficult to get audiences to pay attention to your film, which creates a domino effect wherein the first film must work harder to succeed, never mind get a sequel (or sequels) greenlit.
Then there is the simple fact that most franchises suffer a decline in quality the longer they go on (this is not exclusively a horror genre issue, but often horror sequels are made on the fly and for cheap, which means that many franchises end up with lots of subpar entries). Because the profit margin in so low, a dip in quality isn’t usually an issue until the bottom line is detrimentally affected (see: the final films of the Saw franchise). So what franchises are worth your time? Here’s our list:
- The Jeepers Creepers franchise: Clocking in at only two films, this is barely a franchise (a third is planned), but it’s nonetheless a fun one. The villain is memorable and the premise is sound. We just need to see if this one turns into something more.
- The Night of the Living Dead franchise: Two for six? The first two films are Romero masterpieces (I have particular affection for Dawn of the Dead). While three has its advocates, affection varies for the franchise as a whole.
- The Saw franchise: Let’s be honest, the majority of these films are garbage, but the franchise’s revisionist nature allows for endless timeline permutations and imaginative kills.
#5: The Hellraiser franchise
- How many films? 9 (5 in theatres, 4 direct-to-video)
- What’s the premise? Pleasure seeking individuals who mess around with a puzzle box accidentally open a gateway to a dimension ruled by Cenobites, monsters who specialize in S&M pleasure and pain.
- Who’s behind it? Horror novelist Clive Barker wrote the novel on which the first film is based (it is also his directorial debut). The rest of the films are directed by nobodies.
- Which entry is the best? That would be the first (1987) and second film, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988), which essentially tell a single extended story. These films create the visual iconography for the remaining films and deliver, in the one-two combo of Frank Cotton and his sister-in-law Julia, two of the most despicable human villains of any horror franchise. They’re truly awful. I also have a soft spot for the fourth film, Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), which is a mess (Pinhead in space!) but an interesting mess nonetheless due to its century spanning narrative.
- Which entry is the worst? The “shot in 2 weeks and released to a single theater” ninth film is probably the worst, but I would have to watch it to confirm that and I’m not doing that. Number three, Hell on Earth (1992) loses all effectiveness as a horror film when it turns Pinhead into a Freddy Krueger jokester (complete with ridiculous death spree at a nightclub and Pinhead adopting a crucified pose atop a church pulpit). Still, the honour of worst film has to go to Hellraiser: Deader (2005). The film stars Lance Henriksen (phoning it in for the paycheck), a bunch of red shirts and prominently features puzzle box videogames (because it’s 1995?). This monstrosity was set and filmed in Bucharest, where every penny buys you crappy lighting and cardboard sets, but is notable for starring the one and only Kari Wuhrer (my personal nemesis). That alone earmarks the seventh film as the Hellraiser franchise’s worst.
#4: The Final Destination franchise
- How many films? 5
- What’s the premise? This creative take on slasher films eschews a traditional villain in favour of making “Death” the killer. At the start of each film, a group of individuals avoid dying in a terrible accident and are then stalked and killed in creatively morbid ways in the order that they would have died. So far no one has survived more than a single film.
- Who’s behind it? Former X-Files scribes James Wong and Glen Morgan direct and write entries 1 & 3, while genre vet David R. Ellis tackles 2 & 4.
- Which entry is the best? This isn’t a tough one. Arguably the original Final Destination (2000) wins due to sheer novelty factor, which even professional horror skeptic Roger Ebert praised for its ingenuity. The last film Final Destination 5 (2011) also deserves a mention for its decent script, competent execution and last act twist that recontextualizes the events of the film. Considering the fact that the franchise appeared to be DOA after entry #4, this is no small feat.
- Which entry is the worst? That would be the aforementioned fourth film, The Final Destination (2009), which plays out in a tired and uninspired fashion. The acting and CGI are in competition for worst offender in this tale of a day at the Formula One races gone bad. Part 4 is also the first film of the franchise to be shot in 3D, a last chance cash grab that is often a hallmark of a dying series. Negative bonus points for killing poor Nick Zano by pulling his guts out of his ass in a pool mishap.
#3: The Alien franchise
- How many films? 7 (including one nonsensical, not entirely connected prequel and two “vs” films)
- What’s the premise? Final lady Ellen Ripley (the sublime Sigourney Weaver) battles the Xenomorph through time and space as it lays face huggers, chews its way through chests and drips acid all over the place. The best films feature one of more of the titular creatures rampaging around an isolated ship or planet, massacring the human population until only one adversary remains: Ripley.
- Who’s behind it? Famed British director Ridley Scott laid the foundation with the 1979 film (and the much inferior 2012 prequel) while James Cameron, David Fincher and French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet kept the tradition alive.
- Why is it so awesome? Some may quibble with the inclusion of a science-fiction franchise on a horror movie list, but the Alien franchise is, at its core, filled with horror tropes. The first tagline reinforces this concept – “In space, no one can hear you scream” – and even its least horrific entry (1986’s Aliens) still contains any number of scary moments. On the whole, Alien is a superb entry because it strands scary monsters and humans in tight quarters in space and then releases its vagina dentata imagery to induce nightmares in its audience.
- Which entry is the best? Absolutely Scott’s first entry from 1979, which not only introduces the creature, but its human nemesis (in one of the first/most prominent gender swapped roles in Hollywood history). Many would argue with this, however, and name Cameron’s more action-oriented sequel best. That film distills the horrific “haunted house in space” approach of the first film and replaces it with a million times the firepower. Aliens also expands on the mythology of the series with the introduction of the Alien queen around whom the best action sequence of the franchise is constructed (Queen vs Ripley in the hangar dock). My unpopular choice, however, is Alien3 – The Director’s Cut (1992), which is a great, unapologetically gritty film that takes some real chances with both its narrative (Alien at a penal colony) and visual approach courtesy of Fincher’s early, experimental direction.
- Which entry is the worst? It all depends on how you’re defining Alien films. If they have to be official, then the worst is the fourth, which has interesting components (a female robot) and sequences (the underwater alien attack), but utterly collapses in its final scenes (Ripley’s offspring is a white hybrid thing). If you’re not a purist, Prometheus (2012) is the franchise’s resident hot mess. Again there are some genuinely interesting philosophical ideas and jaw-dropping gorgeous visuals, but both are undermined by a lukewarm plot populated by paper-thin, aggravatingly stupid characters. The worst offender, by far, are the AVP film (2004 & 2007) which turn the Xenomorph into nothing more than a killing machine with no personality or motivation. These films do both Alien and Predator franchises a disservice and are aggressively stupid. They’re good solely for sleepy weekends spent nursing a hangover on the couch.
#2: The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise
- How many films? 9 (including one “vs” film with Jason and a lackluster reboot)
- What’s the premise? Child killer / janitor Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund for eight of the nine films) is murdered by the parents of his victims and returns to haunt the dreams of the next generation by killing children in their sleep.
- Who’s behind it? Genre legend Wes Craven wrote and directed the first film, which laid the ground rules for the rest of the franchise. He returned to direct parts three and seven (he also wrote the latter).
- Why is it so awesome? Krueger is an iconic horror movie villain. The series redefined the genre by trespassing into the realm of dreams, turning REM into a literal battlefield. The “no rules” approach to dreamscapes also allowed the series to alter the rules of reality, which unlocked some truly awesome kills and character development.
- Which entry is the best? The first film is revolutionary and protagonist Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) is the gold standard of final girls, but if we’re highlighting the best of Nightmare on Elm Street, I would champion The Dream Warriors (1987) as one of the most creative entries in the series. The focus on disenfranchised children abandoned by their parents in a mental institution adheres to the core values of the franchise, and seeing teens band together within their dreams is particularly innovative. Plus, credit must be given to its magnificent VHS cover, which always entranced me in the video store as a child. Still, I’ll give the edge to Craven’s final entry in the franchise, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), which both reinvents the Krueger mythos and anticipates the meta-reinvention of the genre that occurs with Scream two years later.
- Which entry is the worst? Hard to say. For some the second entry Freddy’s Revenge (1985) is a peculiar detour akin to Halloween 3 (though gay fans champion it for its subversive content). For others the quality of the writing, particularly Freddy’s quips, goes astray in the fifth and sixth iterations. If you want bad, however, check out the dour and relentlessly grim 2010 redo, which takes all of the best aspects of the original film and contributes nothing of its own. While the wisecracking of later entries wears thin, at least they try to do something new with the premise. The new film basically just Xeroxes the concept, updates the special effects and calls it a day.
#1: The Scream franchise
- How many films? 4 (plus one lackluster MTV series)
- What’s the premise? Protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is the Final Girl being harassed by Ghostface Killer in this meta slasher series that makes fun of itself while adhering to all of “the rules” of the subgenre. The series always follows Sid, determined reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Barney Fife-ish policeman Dewey (David Arquette) – a rarity in horror franchises, which usually only keep a protagonist around for one or two films.
- Who’s behind it? The first two and a half films are written by Kevin Williamson, but it is late great genre director Wes Craven who brings all four films to life.
- Why is it so awesome? It’s no secret that Scream singlehandedly revived horror in the mid-90s after the genre was nearly drained dry by cheap slashers in the 80s and early 90s. Besides its place in the history books, however, the series is smart entertainment: the comedy is on point, the kills effective, the killer memorable and the series evolves without phoning it in. Simply consider the travesty that is the MTV series to understand how easily this could have all gone wrong.
- Which entry is the best? It’s hard to deny the sheer effectiveness of the first film, which eviscerates convention with its Drew Barrymore cold open. In all honesty, however, Scream 2 frequently feels like the most fun film: it has the celebrity cameos without going off a cliff (cough Scream 3 cough) and some of the series’ tensest chase scenes, including Gale’s chase in the editing suite and Sidney and Hallie’s (Elise Neal) climb over the unconscious killer in the crashed police car.
- Which entry is the worst? Scream 3 has a few bright spots, including some generally amusing Hollywood jokes and indie darling Parker Posey’s riff on Gale, but overall this entry feels like five scripts accidentally meshed together. The plotting is often nonsensical, the characters less than one dimensional and the reveal of only a single killer is a disappointing departure for the series.
That’s it for our ‘Best Horror Movie Franchises’ list. What do you think of our picks? Are there any other franchises you want to go to bat for? Sound off below and check back next Tuesday for our picks for ‘Best Horror Creature Movies”.