By Ezra Stead
We’re used to movie franchises being victim to diminishing returns, with the sequels to classic films generally lackluster at best (Ghostbusters II, Halloween II), and at worst, utter travesties that threaten to tarnish the legacy of the original (the Matrix sequels, The Godfather: Part III). On rare occasions, though, the second film in a trilogy or franchise (which I consider to be any series with more than three movies) actually surpasses the original in some way. Here are ten sequels that are, in some circles at least, considered better than the films that spawned them, and my thoughts on each.
1. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – this is the one that got me thinking about the topic in the first place, and it’s also the oldest of the films discussed herein. James Whale’s follow-up to his 1931 hit, Frankenstein, ties up the loose end of Victor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) promising his monster (Boris Karloff) a bride to quell his loneliness. It also features most of the iconic images and dialogue associated with Universal Studios’ most famous monster, including Frank learning to smoke in the hut of the blind man he befriends (which was cemented in the public consciousness by Mel Brooks’ spoof of it in 1974’s Young Frankenstein). Bride’s expert blend of humor and pathos, as well as truly chilling moments such as Frank’s hollow, soulless intonation of the classic line, “I love dead,” make it not only better than the original Frankenstein, but also the best of all Universal monster movies.
2. THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974) – this is the prime example most people would use in any conversation about sequels that at least live up to, if not surpass, the original. I’m not so sure. The original Godfather (1972) is a perfect film, and while I can’t really argue that Part II isn’t every bit as good, I’d be hard-pressed to actually say it’s better. The second half, in which we see the rise of Vito (Robert DeNiro) after immigrating to New York, interspersed with Michael (Al Pacino) fully committing to his new place in the family, is possibly more gripping than anything in the first one, but overall, I’d have to say they’re about equal. I’ve never heard anyone seriously argue that Part III is the best, but I’d be delighted to read the argument if anyone actually feels that way.
3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) – there are those who would argue that this is the best of George A. Romero’s original Living Dead trilogy, but I am not among them. I think Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the actual best of the bunch, because if nothing else, it changed the horror genre forever by single-handedly inventing the zombie subgenre as we know it. However, my personal favorite of the three is Day of the Dead (1985). The acting may be the weakest, but the effects are the best, and it has the most interesting concepts: the idea of a corrupt military taking over in the absence of any real government, the infighting of the survivors brought on by fatigue and paranoia, and of course the scientist intent on tapping into the residual humanity of the zombies in order to try and learn how to coexist with them, and Bub (Howard Sherman), the talking zombie with whom he sort of succeeds. Basically, Dawn is my least favorite of the three, which is not a popular opinion, but one I’m standing by.
4. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1979) – I don’t anticipate much argument over this one. Every Star Wars fan pretty much agrees that this is the best of the three films (and there are only three films, just as there are only three Indiana Jones films). I would even go so far as to say that Return of the Jedi (1983) is the second best Star Wars movie, which means that the best film George Lucas actually directed is probably American Graffiti (1973).
5. THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981) – this is probably the only case where I strongly disagree with the common wisdom. Much as I love The Road Warrior, with its crazy dystopian future vision and exciting final chase scene, the original Mad Max (1979) is, to me, the superior film, a lean, mean revenge story with a great boss villain (named the “Toecutter,” no less) and a doozy of a climactic showdown. The Road Warrior is undoubtedly the more influential film, but I’ll always love Mad Max more.
6. ALIENS (1986) – this is a really tough call and, in a way, not even a fair one. The original Alien (1979) is a great horror film, one of the greatest of all time. It is also one of the great science fiction films of all time, an outer space slasher movie that is nonetheless grounded in real, believable science. Aliens, on the other hand, is a great action movie, which is not to take anything away from it. In addition to its many merits as an action film, it also explores many of the themes that made the first one so great, including the duplicity of the Company that sends Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) back to the alien planet, the theme of maternal instinct so beautifully illustrated in Ripley’s relationship with Newt (Carrie Henn) and her final showdown with the queen alien, and the question of humanity addressed by the android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), a benevolent counterpart to Ash (Ian Holm) in the first film. All in all, I’d have to say I like the four Alien films (five, if you count Prometheus) in descending order, with a much bigger drop in quality after the second one. Basically, I love the first two almost equally, and I like the third and fourth almost equally. Prometheus … well, we’ll just see how that one holds up over time.
7. GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990) – this is the only one on the list that I strongly feel is indisputably better than the original. While the first Gremlins (1984) was a winning combination of humor and horror, not to mention a wonderfully subversive Christmas movie, this one really pulls out all the stops to create a manic, anarchic good time. Director Joe Dante was given the kind of free rein that is all too rare for visionary studio directors like him, and he delivered a gruesome, perverse, hilarious film that is consistently way more ambitious and fun than the original. This one has it all: a spider gremlin, a talking gremlin, a winged gargoyle gremlin, a female gremlin, Daffy Duck, Christopher Lee, and a hilarious send-up of the most poignant/funniest moment in the first film: Kate’s (Phoebe Cates) terrible tale of how her father died on Christmas Eve.
8. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991) – this is another tough call, because I just love them both so much (again, there are only two Terminator films; well, I guess we can discuss the third one as the dumb fun that it is, but only the first two really warrant any serious consideration). While Terminator 2 has a beautifully apocalyptic vision of the future and a lot of wonderfully imaginative and still impressive use of CGI, perhaps its greatest achievement is that it always manages to make me tear up a bit when a cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger commits suicide for the good of humanity. However, as great as this movie certainly is, Edward Furlong’s performance as John Conner is a bit too cutesy for my tastes, and there’s also the minor quibble of why the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) is naked when he first arrives in present-day Los Angeles, since it is later revealed that his clothes are really just disguises created by the liquid metal alloy of which he is made. The original Terminator (1984), on the other hand, is a flawless, relentlessly grim action thriller, and the aftermath of Arnold’s first utterance of his now famous catch phrase, “I’ll be back,” is certainly tough to beat.
9. HOSTEL: PART II (2007) – a lot of you probably don’t think either of Eli Roth’s “torture-porn” masterpieces belong in the company of the rest of the films on this list, but for what they accomplish, I think Part II is definitely the greater success. While the original Hostel (2005) felt in many ways like a fairly standard slasher-type horror film, there was a definite standout moment that set it apart from other, dumber fare of its ilk: when the “American client” (Rick Hoffman) discusses his reasons for joining the elite killing club that forms the basis for the film, as well as his thoughts about the methods he might use for his particular victim. Part II expands on these ideas brilliantly, alternating its narrative between the apparent victims, Beth (Lauren German) and Whitney (Bijou Phillips), and a pair of businessmen, Stuart (Roger Bart) and Todd (Richard Burgi), who decide to get involved. The montage in which victims are bid upon on cell phones and other mobile devices would be enough to make this the superior film, but it is also better shot, more intense, and more perversely funny than the original.
10. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) – this entry could just as easily be about Batman Returns (1992), which is in many ways superior to Tim Burton’s first Batman film (1989), but Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight is superior even to those, as well as the rest of his filmography. Standing on the shoulders of all the mythology that has come before, Nolan’s film brilliantly explores the two-sided mirror of good and evil as seen in the conflict between Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger), and Ledger’s performance in particular anchors the film. It is a wonderfully mysterious but still strikingly humorous characterization that eliminates the over-the-top silliness of Jack Nicholson’s performance in Burton’s film, without sacrificing the dark humor so integral to the character. This is the best superhero movie ever made, a film so good I almost wish it was the only Batman movie of this century.
In conclusion, I can’t wait for Anchorman 2.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper, and aspiring stand-up comic who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in New York City.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.