30 Criminally Underrated Movie Sequels

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Next week brings the Blu-ray debut of Psycho II and Psycho III , two 1980s horror films that had the gall, the downright temerity, to follow up Hitchcock’s groundbreaking horror classic. But here’s the thing about these movies: they’re not half bad. There’s no denying that the vast majority of sequels are both unnecessary and terrible, less continuations of stories or honest entertainments than filmed deals. But it’s also unfair to paint all follow-ups with that broad brush; there are a fair number of sequels that are far better than their reputations would have you believe.

Psycho II

Following up an iconic horror classic is no easy task — particularly 23 years after the original, which changed the game for modern horror filmmaking. When Psycho II was released in 1983, purists seemed mostly upset by the mere idea of its existence — who the hell was this Richard Franklin person, and how dare he attempt to top Hitchcock? But taken on its own terms, as an affectionate tribute, it works. Anthony Perkins, try as he might, had been so unforgettable as Norman Bates that audiences were unable to see him as anyone else. But there’s no defeat in his performance here, merely an opportunity to dig deeper into Norman’s troubled psyche. And Vera Miles is equally enjoyable, reprising her role of Lila Crane (now Loomis).

Psycho III

Despite the protestations, Psycho II did big box office. And something interesting happened after that: with the second part taking the hit from audiences itching for a fight, the third film was free to take some chances and carve out something new. Psycho III found Perkins not only starring again, but directing as well. Having lived with the role for over a quarter century, he crafts a fascinating and sympathetic portrait of his tortured protagonist; he also assembles several admirably Hitchcockian set pieces (the bit with the motel ice chest is a doozy). Needless to say, neither film is the equal of Hitchcock’s superb original. But they’re respectful, entertaining continuations (as opposed to, say, Bates Motel).

Alien 3

Expectations couldn’t have been higher for the third film in the Alien series. The first sequel, Aliens, had outgrossed the original and received comparable reviews; it’s one of the most frequent rejoinders to the “sequels aren’t equal” argument. But neither audiences nor critics were quite sure what to make of the dark, grimy, altogether different Alien 3, helmed by a young music video director named David Fincher. It was widely dismissed, but time has been kind to the picture; as Fincher’s aesthetic became more widely appreciated, his ambitiously lo-fi debut film has been reassessed and, in many cases, newly praised.

Jaws 2

Steven Spielberg was offered big money to go back in the water, but his attention was focused on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (ditto for shared star Richard Dreyfuss). Instead, the job went to Jeannot Szwarc, a TV director whose subsequent filmography included the unfortunate Supergirl and Santa Claus: The Movie. His direction is serviceable if not inspired, yet Jaws 2 is a decent little sequel; returning screenwriter Carl Gottlieb bangs out a credible continuation narrative, while Roy Scheider and Lorraine Gary continue to flesh out the Brody family in interesting ways. And good ol’ Murray Hamilton, as corrupt Amity mayor Larry Vaughn, is as wonderfully scummy as ever.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

Wes Craven had mostly steered clear of the endless sequels to his 1984 smash A Nightmare on Elm Street (his only direct involvement was as executive producer and co-writer of the third installment). It was a wise move; the series grew sillier with each outing, a moody horror franchise transformed into a comedy schtick parade for cult hero Freddy Krueger. 1991’s Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare seemed its logical conclusion — but three years later, Craven returned to the series to write, direct, and co-star in New Nightmare, a fascinating examination of the role of fantasy and reality in horror filmmaking. It was a minor hit; two years later, Craven would revisit those themes in Scream, whose tremendous commercial success has since overshadowed the genuinely innovative and thoughtful New Nightmare.

Halloween II

Few sequels are as faithful to their originals as Halloween II: it picks up at the exact moment its predecessor left off, with Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) shocked to discover that, in spite of a fall from a balcony and several bullets fired at close range, escaped killer Michael Myers is still at large. The narrative then, logically, follows poor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) to the hospital, where her attempt to recoup from her wounds is interrupted by Michael showing up to wreak a little more havoc. The amped-up gore factor is dispiriting (the original film is notable for the restraint of the bloodletting, particularly compared to the countless slasher films it begat), the synthesized version of the theme is vintage ‘80s cheese, and the characters aren’t nearly as likable this time around. But thanks to the heavy chunk of returning personnel — not only Pleasance and Curtis, but also co-writer/co-producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill — Halloween II holds up pretty well, with plenty of good scares and a satisfying conclusion.

Halloween III

In contrast, Halloween III was a totally different ball of wax. The second film seems to end with the death of super-slasher Michael; Carpenter and Hill had the idea of turning the Halloween franchise into an anthology of unrelated (except by title) horror tales set at the titular holiday. For 1983’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch, writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace moved the series from Haddonfield, Illinois to Santa Mira, California, where the Silver Shamrocks Novelties factory is manufacturing jack-o’-lantern masks designed to kill those who wear them on Halloween night. There were occasional nods to the first films (including an uncredited voice-only appearance by star Jamie Lee Curtis), but not enough for fans, who rejected the anthology notion; it died (as did Carpenter and Hill’s involvement) with the third film (Halloween’s original producer, Moustapha Akkad, resurrected Michael Myers for Halloween 4 six years later). But as the years have passed, this single non-Myers Halloween has found a vocal and passionate cult audience who insist that, contrary to reputation, the third film deserves consideration in the series.

Hannibal

An argument could be made that the moment Jodie Foster declined to reprise her role of Clarice Starling in this sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, critics checked out as well. In the years since its (commercially successful) release, Hannibal’s stock has continued to fall; it was the beginning of the character’s end, the word has it, a ghoulishly overdone bit of nonsense. Make no mistake, Ridley Scott’s vision of Lecter’s world is very different from Jonathan Demme’s cool, brainy interpretation; Scott (to his credit, following the direction of Thomas Harris’s novel) is working in a heightened, Grand Guignol style. It may not work for everyone, but it has a creepy, anything-goes vibe of its own — and at least he’s not just doing a half-assed Demme imitation, as Brett Ratner would in 2002’s Red Dragon.

Damien: Omen II

Damien ain’t exactly high are, sure — but then again, neither was the original. It was an efficient little potboiler, lent extra respectability by the presence of Gregory Peck in a leading role (and extra juice by the sight of Atticus Finch himself trying to murder a child). For part two, the Serious Actor lead slot is filled by William Holden, but the narrative jump from childhood to teenage years meant that director Don Taylor couldn’t recapture the creepy-kid stuff that made the first movie so memorable. Yet he could amp up the intensity on what became the series’ signature motif: ingeniously executed kills (usually, in a foreshadowing of the Final Destination movies, executed by everyday objects and Rube Goldbergian accidents), scored to that distinctive screeching-chorus music. The first film gave us an unforgettable sequence with an unfortunately airborne piece of plate glass; Damien topped it with a scene that will rattle in the head of any viewer who ends up in a bumpy elevator.

The Exorcist III

Exorcist author William Peter Blatty was one of the many behind-the-scenes personnel to stay far away from Exorcist II: The Heretic, a sequel notoriously jeered by fans and critics alike. With that thread of the story dead, Blatty had the freedom to write and direct this adaptation of his novel Legion, an indirect sequel with its own style. Part police procedural, part murder mystery, and part supernatural thriller, Exorcist III was not exactly the demonic possession sequel audiences were looking for. But it’s a fine and chilling picture in its own right.

French Connection II

Exorcist wasn’t the only giant hit that director William Friedkin refused to franchise; he also had no interest in directing a follow-up to his 1971 Best Picture winner. But the director Fox brought in to replace him was no slouch either; John Frankenheimer’s credits included The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds, and Birdman of Alcatraz. FCII followed Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle to Marseille in pursuit of Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), who slipped off into the mist at the end of the first film. As with Blatty, Frankenheimer didn’t try to replicate Friedkin’s distinctive style; with the change in locale, he was free to make his own film with its own virtues (including a harrowing section in which Charnier gets Doyle hooked on smack, and the cop must go cold turkey before pursuing him).

28 Weeks Later

Danny Boyle’s all-you-can-eat-buffet style of filmmaking, in which he genre jumps and seldom goes back for seconds, would seem to preclude an interest in sequels (though that may soon change). So when he declined to make a follow-up to his 2002 horror hit, Spanish director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo took over — but he wasn’t interested in a mere rehash. Instead, he and a trio of co-writers give the narrative an unexpected shot of potent, War on Terror political subtext. It didn’t reinvigorate the zombie genre as the original film did, but all these years later, it holds up just as well.

Addams Family Values

In the world of comedy franchise filmmaking, a successful initial outing will sometimes give its makers the freedom to go a little wilder and push the envelope a little further the second time around. That’s certainly the case with Addams Family Values, where director Barry Sonnenfeld follows the pleasant but forgettable 1991 TV adaptation with a darker, stranger, and far funnier take on the ghoulish family. Plus, any sequel that casts Joan Cusack gets an automatic bump.

A Very Brady Sequel

The same principle holds true for another TV-to-movie adaptation and its follow-up. Betty Thomas’s 1995 Brady Bunch Movie is mostly driven by nostalgia and quotation. But Arlene Sanford’s 1996 sequel is an odder and much more subversive affair — if for no other reason than the surprising (and hilarious) Greg/Marcia incest-but-not-really subplot.

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

This 1991 sequel’s got everything Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure had: Reeves and Winter, George Carlin, an abundance of “gnarly, dude” humor, and a more-clever-than-it-had-to-be time travel plot. But Bogus Journey may be the only early-‘90s comedy sequel to devote copious amounts of screen time to an extended Seventh Seal parody, and for that alone it does not get enough credit.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

There are two types of people in the world: those who think Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle was a work of comic genius and each subsequent film in the series is worse than the last, and those that feel the series goes in the opposite direction. Mark this viewer down firmly in the latter category; White Castle is wildly uneven, Guantanomo Bay’s coarseness and rough edges are made more forgivable by the surprisingly sharp sociopolitical satire smuggled in among the weed-assisted giggles, and the duo’s Christmas outing is, surprisingly enough, the best in the series. It’s a far more coherent and well-made picture than its predecessors, and one that is (for the most part) thankfully free of the odious scatological humor and unreasonable coincidences that made the earlier films so problematic. Plus, y’know, Patton Oswalt as a mall Santa.

National Lampoon’s European Vacation

National Lampoon’s Vacation is appropriately lionized as the quintessential family road movie, and its second sequel Christmas Vacation has become a holiday favorite roughly on par with A Christmas Story. But what of the European Vacation that came between them? Released in 1985 — the same summer as star Chevy Chase’s magnum opus, Fletch — the Griswold family’s trek through Europe has nearly as many laughs per minute as its better-regarded bookends, though without the manic energy of the initial outing or the warmth of the latter. But any comedy sequel with the good sense to hire Eric Idle as a running gag gets a thumbs-up from me.

Fletch Lives

Michael Ritchie’s 1989 sequel to his 1985 hit is occasionally inexplicable — why, for example, would screenwriter Leon Capatanos invent a new (and rather simple) Fletch mystery instead of adapting one of the many terrific books that followed Gregory MacDonald’s original novel? Still, if it doesn’t match its predecessor (and few ‘80s comedies did), there’s an abundance of worthwhile comic bits here, as well as a rare non-serviceman turn by R. Lee Ermey as a TV preacher. And it offers the chance to enjoy Chevy Chase’s wiseass persona in one of the last films he made before it got moldy.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

Due credit to Joe Dante: instead of just churning out a by-the-numbers sequel to his 1984 smash, he took the opportunity to bite the hands that fed him, turning this 1990 follow-up into a witty and knowing satire of media conglomerates and mass marketing. Audiences weren’t hearing it (its box office was less than one-third of the original), but it’s appreciated now as a purer and funnier distillation of the Dante ethos.

Grumpier Old Men

In all fairness, Grumpier Old Men is basically a remake of the original film, transplanted into a warmer season and given a generous helping of Sophia Loren. And y’know what? There are worse reasons to remake a movie.

Clear and Present Danger

The third film adaptation of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan books may well be the best in the series. Harrison Ford, now comfortable in the role (he took over for Alec Baldwin in the second film, Patriot Games, but it didn’t quite seem his yet), brings weight and urgency to the film, while Willem Dafoe and Joaquim de Almeida are worthy antagonists. But the film’s best villain may be Henry Czerny, whose file-deleting sequence with Ford is the film’s tense highlight (in spite of the fact that it is, inarguably, a scene of two guys sitting at their desks).

Lethal Weapon 3

The second film in the Lethal Weapon series seems to get its due; there, the intensity of the first film successfully completed its transformation into action/comedy, with the help of Joe Pesci’s hysterically irritating third wheel. But there’s a lot to like about Lethal Weapon 3: the clever opening sequence, Riggs and Murtaugh’s stint as traffic cops, and (most of all) the introduction of Rene Russo’s Lorna Cole, an ass-kicking female cop whose battle-scar comparison with Mel Gibson’s Riggs switches from Jaws riff to hubba-hubba foreplay in the blink of an eye.

The Bourne Legacy

The idea of a Bourne movie without, y’know, Bourne is a little hard to swallow, and Damon’s absence is certainly felt in writer/director Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy — it’s full of dialogue like “Jason Bourne was just the tip of the iceberg” and Damon’s face popping up in file folders and that kind of thing. But Gilroy manages to make this story seem like a natural extension of those that came before, with electrifying chase scenes and intricate plotting, and Renner is a robust and muscular new lead.

Beverly Hills Cop III

I can feel you already pushing back, and for good reason — BHC3 began one of Eddie Murphy’s many lazy stretches, spent collecting easy paychecks for recycling the same old schtick. And by this point, the novelty of his Detroit cop in Los Angeles had worn off; by trip three, the fish was no longer out of water. But at the time of its release, director John Landis (Coming to America, Animal House, The Blues Brothers) stated his wish to make the film “the next Axel Foley adventure, like the next James Bond adventure.” On those terms, its kinda fun; more importantly, it mixes action and comedy with, dare I say, more success than the initial outings, which adopted a first-one-then-the-other approach that is occasionally jarring.

Rocky Balboa

Few franchises were as wheezy as Rocky by the time it got to its sixth installment in 2006, and few ideas seemed as desperate as letting 60-year-old writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone go back to that 30-year-old well. But Stallone was always a competent, occasionally inspired filmmaker, and the picture has a nicely meandering sense of atmosphere, seeming perfectly at home in its Philadelphia streets and gyms. Moreover, he knows exactly how to use the series’ considerable iconography to his advantage; it’s impossible to not get worked up when the “Gonna Fly Now” training montage rips, and when he trots out trademark visuals like the downing of eggs and the punching of beef. And shockingly, he lands an an honest-to-God poignant climax in the middle of the blistering final bout. Much of Stallone’s recent work smacks of smug nostalgia, but there’s a heartfelt quality to Rocky Balboa that you can’t fake.

Young Guns II

Nobody’s confusing these pictures with Ford or Hawks, but let it be said: Young Guns II is actually a superior film to the original. Emilio Estevez is having a ball as Billy the Kid (“You can go to hell, hell, hell!”), director Geoff Murphy’s got an energetic way with an action sequence, and the introduction of the Pat Garrett angle (via a very fine William Petersen) gives the ambling narrative some focus.

Superman III

Yeah, I said it. Superman III is one of the more reviled of superhero sequels, dismissed these days as an object of ‘80s excess and proof that director Richard Lester was actually not to thank for the excellence of Superman II. But Richard Pryor is stone-cold hilarious, the drunken villain Superman scenes are clever, and the film dances to the beat of its own weirdly manic drummer. And if none of that works, think of it this way: no Superman III, no Office Space.

Batman Forever

HEAR ME OUT. There’s no denying, from me or anyone else, that Batman & Robin is (as MST3K’s Mike Nelson wrote) “the single worst thing that we as human beings have ever produced.” But the fact that director Joel Schumacher shat the bed so spectacularly with that film has, in the intervening years, led to a general consensus that his previous entry in the franchise, 1995’s Batman Forever, was just as bad — and that’s simply erroneous. Sure, it’s goofy as shit, and, y’know, Chris O’Donnell is in it, so there’s that to deal with. But Val Kilmer’s a more-than-decent Batman, Nicole Kidman has never been sexier as the romantic lead, Jim Carrey is a pitch-perfect Riddler, and Tommy Lee Jones appears to actually have a good time playing far broader a role than is his custom.

The Rescuers Down Under

Over the past few years, Disney has shown no hesitation to besmirching the legacy of their finest films by cranking out cheap and mostly terrible direct-to-video sequels to the likes of Lady and the Tramp, Bambi, and Cinderella. And the sad fact is, this far down the line, most people assume The Rescuers Down Under is part of that unfortunate tradition — when in fact, the 1990 film was a full-on theatrical release, sort of the last of the studio’s old legacy (released, as it was, between The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast). And it’s a lovely little charmer, featuring wonderful voice turns by Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, and (especially) the late, great John Candy.

The Godfather Part III

Yes, Sofia Coppola is unspeakably bad. And yes, Paramount and Coppola should’ve just ponied up the salary Robert Duvall was asking for. But The Godfather Part III is far better than its terrible reputation: Al Pacino’s aged, Lear-esque take on the quintessential antihero works, Diane Keaton’s venomous playing of once-sweet Kay is startlingly effective, and the young guard (particularly Andy Garcia and Joe Mantegna) are frequently electrifying. Up to the standards of Part II? Hardly. But also not the atrocity it’s somehow been recast as.