Since the early days of horror cinema, franchising has had the tendency to dull the sharper edges of our favourite horror icons. Twenty-five years after they emerged from the shadows, Universal’s stable of classic monsters had mostly been reduced to comic foils for Abbott and Costello. By the early 2000s, the icons of the ’80s had followed suit. Michael Myers had been cursed by Druids, Jason Voorhees had gone to space, and Freddy had gotten into a slanging match with Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child. Even highbrow Oscar-nominated monsters like Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter have been defanged by several excessive sequels apiece, and after seven followups the once-shocking torture porn of the Saw movies have become passe. Cheap to produce with big box office returns, horror and sequels go together like dumb teens and abandoned houses, which begs the question: is it possible for horror movies to stay edgy once they become part of a franchise?
The short and fairly obvious answer is often “no.” Every time we draw back the curtain to take a peek at the monster, it loses a little bit of its scaring power. In many of the classic franchises, the villains end up becoming a weird type of protagonist. Unless in the case of a particularly iconic Final Girl (a Laurie Strode or a Sydney Prescott, for instance) audiences often aren’t rooting for the scrappy heroes to survive. We have switched camps – we want to see how Jason/Michael/Freddy/Chucky etc. will dispatch the latest squad of annoying slasher fodder. The Friday the 13th series is notoriously good for this, with Jason using machetes, harpoon guns, fire, sleeping bags, foldable camp beds, and even liquid nitrogen to brilliantly madcap effect. In 1989, Jason even (silently) appeared on Arsenio Hall’s show in person to promote the seventh Friday sequel – to the audience’s audible delight. With these horror franchises, we’re not really here to be scared, we’re here to be entertained.
However, the longer and more muddled answer to the question is, “Um, sort of? Sometimes?” In certain cases, franchises are even outright the best way for a horror property to go. Perhaps because it isn’t built around one central Bogeyman, the Purge series is a rare example of expansion being a positive thing for a horror flick. In a dystopian near-future, all crime including (a word which here means “especially”) murder is legal for 12 continuous hours every year on March 21. This setup, not tied to any single villain or protagonist, is inherently best explored through multiple iterations. With an ever-changing roster of protagonists from different economic and racial backgrounds, each installment is able to offer a new and interesting perspective on what is soon established to be Government-sanctioned social cleansing. We experience the Purge through wealthy white families, poor families of colour, black political activists, active participants and those just wanting to survive the night. There’s not a scrap of subtlety to be found, but the Purge franchise wears its politics happily and boldly on its sleeve in a way few other franchises do.
The extended Conjuring universe shares this kind of narrative flexibility. The main Conjuring movies, while the most critically successful of the series, are sometimes hampered by the fact that they feature real-life people as their protagonists. They’re fictionalised, but we know heroes Ed and Lorraine will survive whatever supernatural beastie they face. Vera Farmiga absolutely sells Lorraine’s prophetic dread after seeing visions of her husband’s violent death in The Conjuring 2, but no one in the audience was ever really worried Ed would die.
In this case, franchising actually gives the movies more scope to be edgier. The Aladdin’s Cave of supernatural tat curated by the Warrens offers an endless supply of source material, and moving away from stories directly featuring the couple gives potential spinoffs license to do whatever they like. Original director James Wan is also stepping into more of a producer role for the series, looking at his abdication as a way to usher in new filmmakers, cinematic voices and styles. While it’s true that The Nun and The Curse of La Llorona may not have been the strongest entries, they teased the potential of the series – The Nun especially capturing a kind of retro Hammer Horror vibe. The upcoming Crooked Man has tantalisingly been described by Wan as a “dark fairytale”. Here is a universe tailormade for franchising, with the potential for a brilliantly varied horror anthology as a result.
Let’s also not forget that nowadays, horror franchises often extend to television too – and the results can be surprisingly good. Prior to 2013, the last time we saw Dr Hannibal Lecter was in so-so prequel/origin story Hannibal Rising. Reborn as a debonair Mads Mikkelsen in Bryan Fuller’s wildly gory NBC show, Hannibal combined sumptuous art design and body horror for some deliciously nasty corpse tableaux, a million miles from the stark visual identity of the films.
Elsewhere, after the Three Stooges-esque tomfoolery of 1992’s Army of Darkness and the humourless 2013 reboot, the Evil Dead franchise went back to the woods and returned to its bloody roots with Ash vs Evil Dead. This TV show delivered some truly nasty kills (both human and Deadite) without compromising the franchise’s signature madcap humour, poking some fun at its ageing hero all the while. Bates Motel has also stoically done its part to rehabilitate the Psycho series after several disappointing cinematic sequels (not to mention that weird Gus Van Sant remake business). In many cases, TV provides an excellent home for horror franchises to pep themselves up and recapture the horror of the silver screen.
Nonetheless, let’s think about the best horrors of the last decade – films like The Witch, It Follows, The Babadook, Hereditary, and Get Out. Each one expertly cultivated a sense of queasy dread surrounding a strong and often controversial central theme. Few could be described as “enjoyable” in the same way a trashy slasher flick could. No, these are weird, unsettling pictures, sometimes a little esoteric and always quietly troubling. With such laser-focused topics as racism, grief, sexuality, and motherhood, it’s unlikely that any could sustain a single sequel, let alone seven (or a TV spinoff). These films are one-offs, dropping in for a couple of devastating hours before bowing out, leaving its audience to chew over what the hell just happened. To franchise any of these would be to permanently dull their sharp edges, to render them toothless and destroy much about what scared us to begin with.
But that isn’t to say that franchises don’t have their place. True, if Friday the 13th hadn’t spawned any sequels, we’d never have had to go to space to watch Uber Jason punch the head off robots – but we’d also never have seen Jason as a killer at all. Pamela Voorhees did the slicing and dicing in the original; Jason only took up the mantle in Part Two, and only acquired his famous hockey mask in Part Three. 2018’s Halloween may have essentially been a remake of the first movie (now with added Michael-on-Podcaster violence), but it gave us some unparallelled thrills too – seeing Final Girl Laurie Strode in her 60s as a traumatised and imperfect survivor, or daughter Karen using her own perceived weakness as bait to draw Michael out (the split-second switch from helpless sobbing to her stonily deadpan “Gotcha” as she lines up her shot remains an absolutely fist-pumping moment of glory).
Sequels and franchises, when they manage to hit the right mark, can be incredible. Revisiting a monster doesn’t always neuter it. Sometimes, it creates unforgettable moments and chillingly iconic images that linger long after the credits.
That being said, fingers crossed we don’t get The Babadook Takes Manhattan any time soon.