Ridley Scott’s Prometheus hits theaters this week, and since it’s a kinda-sorta-maybe prequel to Alien, it got us thinking about the prequel itself. It’s a peculiar beast, really — the sequel is (for the most part) a crass commercial form to begin with, but a prequel is basically studio executives and filmmakers admitting, Well, we really want to sell you this product again, but we can’t make a sequel for whatever reason, so how’s about a sequel that takes place before the first one? Will you buy a ticket to that?
The results can be enlightening (The Godfather Part II), entertaining (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), or franchise-rescuing (X-Men: First Class). But as with sequels, more often than not, prequels look like a filmed deal, a blatant cash grab that’s low on ideas but high on cynicism. After the jump, we’ve assembled ten of the least inspiring prequels in movie history; we’ll find out soon enough if Prometheus dodges their fate.
Butch and Sundance: The Early Days
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ends with a literal hail of bullets, as the Bolivian army takes out our heroes as they flee from the house where they’ve taken shelter. So that’s a pretty definitive ending, no? But it was one of the biggest box office smashes of 1969, grossing over $100 million (that places it in the top 40 hits of all time, when adjusted for inflation) and making a movie star out of Robert Redford. So why not try to spin another movie out of it? Two made-for-TV sequels focused on lady love Etta Place, but to make a new theatrical film, they’d have to go back to Butch and Sundance’s early years. Drafting the great Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Three Musketeers) to direct was a good idea, but the two stars of the film, Tom Berenger and William Katt, proved to be no Redford and Newman, charisma and chemistry-wise. Reviews were unenthusiastic, and the movie barely earned back a third of its $15 million budget.
Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd
1994 was a banner year for Jim Carrey. Previously known only as “the white guy on In Living Color,” he starred in three low-budget comedies that all turned into monster hits: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective in February, The Mask in July, and Dumb and Dumber in December. Naturally all three were quickly earmarked for the sequel treatment, but Carrey was only interested in reprising his breakthrough role as Ventura (which he did, the following fall). The Mask went forward as The Son of the Mask over a decade later, with Jamie Kennedy and Alan Cumming taking over, while New Line decided to turn Dumb and Dumber into this origin story. “Before the first movie,” the ads announced, “there was high school,” but there wasn’t much in the way of audiences. By the time it hit theaters in 2003, no one was all that interested in seeing unknowns Derek Richardson and Eric Christian Olsen do their Carrey and Daniels imitations, and critics were utterly brutal. But earlier this year, while promoting The Three Stooges, Dumb and Dumber directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly announced they’d signed the original stars to do a proper sequel, which should hit theaters, oh, about 20 years after the original.
Red Dragon/Hannibal Rising
Casual moviegoers may not be aware that The Silence of the Lambs was actually, technically, a sequel; both Thomas Harris’ novel and Jonathan Demme’s film version recycled the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter from Red Dragon, an earlier book that was filmed by director Michael Mann as Manhunter in 1986. But Mann’s film had a very different tone from Demme’s, and a very different Lecter as well (a more introverted Brian Cox). However, after Anthony Hopkins made the character his own, and returned to the role for Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, somebody got the bright idea of going back to Red Dragon, so that Hopkins could play the (slightly) younger version of the character — and presumably so (let’s face it) they could make some more money off the franchise. Thus we have Red Dragon, simultaneously a poor remake and a poor prequel, mostly because the powers that be turned the film over to Brett Ratner, a filmmaker best known for the bland and derivative Rush Hour pictures. Ratner’s artistic impulse in Red Dragon was apparently to make his film ape Demme’s as much as possible (say what you will about Hannibal, it at least had its own weirdo style). But it made money, so another Lecter movie seemed inevitable, and when Harris put out a new Lecter book in 2006, going further back into Lecter’s young adult years, another prequel was offered up. This time, audiences didn’t bite — without Anthony Hopkins, moviegoers apparently weren’t all that interested in Lecter.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Strangely, a few years after the Lecter prequels, another franchise was driven off the cliff by director Ratner — and a prequel was attempted to repair the damage. This time, it was the X-Men movies, which director Bryan Singer left to try his hand at Superman, only to watch Ratner take over and turn the third film in the series, X-Men: The Last Stand, into a jokey, dopey mess. For the next film, Fox and Marvel decided to try a spin-off series of origin stories, starting with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. X-Men Origins: Wolverine put Gavin Hood, who helmed the Academy Award-winning South African film Tsotsi, into the director’s chair, but the results were far from Oscar-worthy; the film made money, but audiences (particularly comic book fans) were unimpressed, and Marvel ultimately decided to try a new Wolverine origin story, The Wolverine, which is currently in production (making it a reboot of a prequel, if you’re keeping track on your handy dandy Hollywood lack-of-inspiration-and-new-ideas flow chart). Meanwhile, the whole series was prequelized, with much more inspiring results, in last year’s X-Men: First Class.
Like Red Dragon, Rob Zombie’s 2007 Halloween was both a prequel and a remake — though in a more jarring, half-and-half hybrid kind of way. The White Zombie frontman had always been open about his love of ’70s horror films, which were a clear influence on his inaugural directorial outings, House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, so he was an unconventional but not outrageous choice for the Weinstein Company’s remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher tale. Trouble was, he decided to take the opportunity to make a Michael Myers origin story, using the first half to expand and fill in the story of Michael’s childhood (which only played into the prologue of Carpenter’s film), and then smashing the events of the original Halloween into the second half of his. That would’ve been tough enough to pull off, since the two halves of the film are so sharply divided that it makes watching the Zombie Halloween feel something like a double feature. But the real problem is Zombie’s limitations as a screenwriter, which cause him to transform the Myers family into a screeching white-trash clan that is far closer to his earlier films than anything near Haddonfield. The results are a mess — but one that horror audiences turned out for, in spite of the atrocious reviews.
When Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing went into production a couple of years back, horror fans were incensed: how dare anyone remake this Carpenter masterpiece (though Carpenter’s film was itself a remake), particularly in the wake of Halloween? Turned out, it was just a title lift; the new film would end just before the Carpenter began, so we’d know how the titular thing got to that Antarctic base, and wasn’t that something we’d been waiting thirty years to find out, hmmm? Apparently not — the 2011 Thing (released the same weekend as another attempt to sell ’80s genre nostalgia, the new Conan) was a box-office bust, only netting $27 million in its entire run and quickly disappearing from the memory of just about anyone who saw it.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
The mythologizing and, frankly, bloodlust of horror movie fans have always made them a target for sequel and prequel-making filmmakers (to say nothing of their eagerness to blow disposable income on opening weekend). As a result, there’s been an abundance of truly terrible horror movie prequels, but there’s a special place in movie hell for 2006’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. The 2003 Texas Chainsaw remake from Michael Bay’s company Platinum Dunes (who are also behind the unfortunate reanimations of The Hitcher, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street) was not exactly beloved among horror films, since it jettisoned that film’s grainy, homemade intensity for a slick aesthetic more interested in the abs and posteriors of its model-worthy cast than genuine scares. But it made bookoo bucks, so the company set about to churning out an origin story for Leatherface and his clan. Critics loathed it (“Has mass murder ever been this dull?” asked Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers), but more importantly, audiences didn’t show — it made grossed less than half of the 2003 “original.”
Amityville II: The Possession
Platinum Dunes was also behind the 2005 remake of the 1979 hit The Amityville Horror, but they haven’t churned out a remake to its sequel — yet. The original film tells the story of the Lutz family, who move into the home where a patriarch had killed his entire family a year earlier; the sequel tells the story of those murders. The reason why is a bit convoluted: in selling their story to American International Pictures, the Lutzes secured rights to approve any sequels. They were trying to get a film made from the 1982 bestseller The Amityville Horror Part II, which was a continuation of their story (and the first film’s events). However, Lutz says that AIP had made a deal with Dino De Laurentiis, who put his own Amityville II into production — but made sure it had nothing to do with the Lutzes. They sued, and while they weren’t able to prevent Amityville II from being made or released, they did get a ruling that forced any theater showing the film to display a poster reading “This film has no affiliation with George and Kathy Lutz.” Again, critics were unkind, but Amityville II: The Possession did robust business, and marked the first in a series of (mostly straight-to-video) sequels and prequels.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
We’ve written plenty of times about the many shortcomings of George Lucas’ long-awaited, since-reviled return to the Star Wars saga. Instead, we’ll just let our good friend Patton Oswalt explain why Lucas’ prequels were lacking — and, in doing so, why prequels are so often such a bad idea.