How horror franchises redefine themselves over time

What sets one horror franchise apart from another, and how do they evolve over time? As REC 4 lands on disc, we take a look...

The first instalment in any long running horror franchise is, generally, the one people reckon is the best. And in a lot of cases, they might be right. But as franchises get longer and start clocking up four or more movies in the same universe, things tend to change.

It might be that producers have taken note of popular actors or elements in previous films and want to expand on them; it might be that years have passed and tastes have changed; or it might be that new directors want to put their stamp on a story, but either way, the fifth or sixth movie in a series is usually pretty different from the first one. And the thing that a franchise becomes known for might be something that wasn’t particularly important in the first movie.

The most obvious example of that is the Friday The 13th movies. Think Friday The 13th and you picture the hulking killer Jason Voorhees in a hockey mask, but Jason barely appears in the first movie, and he doesn’t strap on his famous mask until Part III.

So how do horror franchises earn their reputations, and how deserved are they? Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent franchises and see…

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Halloween: the one that started it all

The Halloween franchise has racked up eight movies, plus a remake, and a sequel to that remake, which makes it one of the longest franchises out there. The first movie can be credited with kick-starting the slasher genre – not because it was the first of its kind, but because it was such a hit – and its impact on horror is hard to over-estimate.

Looking back now, it’s easy to lump the Halloween franchise in with the other ’80s slashers that followed. The later sequels do get a bit daft, with telepathic links and an unkillable villain stalking sexually active teenagers. But the first movie isn’t really like that. It’s an exercise in suspense, starting from that first unforgettable sequence of the six-year-old Michael prowling around his house before murdering his sister. It’s creepy rather than splattery, as poor old Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is stalked by a shape she’ll only glimpse out of the corner of her eye until it’s too late.

And then there’s Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, which is a complete departure from the rest of the franchise and features killer Halloween masks rather than a masked killer. Producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill (who also wrote the first two Halloween movies) wanted to change the direction of the franchise, and turn it into a kind of anthology of different stories set on Halloween night. Disappointing box office returns spiked that idea, though, and with Halloween 4, the franchise started to become what it’d eventually be known as: a gory slasher featuring a man with a big knife.

Friday The 13th: the one with the body count

The first Friday The 13th movie was created to cash in on the success of the first Halloween film. And in the tradition of all cash-ins ever, it boils the original down to its most basic parts and then amps them up. Which means a hell of a lot of people get killed in the first Friday The 13th movie, and it’s much gorier than its Halloween counterpart.

It makes sense from a story perspective – Michael Myers is mostly just trying to murder his own family, while Pamela Voorhees is trying to get revenge on an entire class of person – and also from a filmmaking perspective, if you assume that audiences in the early ’80s were discovering a real thirst for blood.

In a way, then, the first Friday The 13th film is a lot closer to its later sequels than the first Halloween is to its, because it starts splattery and stays that way. The change of antagonist is interesting, though, since most people probably don’t remember that Jason wasn’t the original killer. Did the filmmakers know what they were doing when they stuck in that terrifying but illogical ending to the first movie? They created a monster in more ways than one.

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The Friday The 13th franchise can now boast 10 films, plus a crossover and a remake, and more of them feature a masked Jason than don’t, so it’s fair enough that that’s become the defining image of the franchise. But it’s also a bit odd that the original killer and her original motives all get thrown out of the window a couple of movies in, in favour of an apparently emotionless, relentless killing machine.

A Nightmare On Elm Street: the imaginative one

The other ’80s slasher franchise, of course, is A Nightmare On Elm Street. The first movie came out in 1984, and though the killer had a similar motive to Michael and Jason – revenge! – his modus operandi was pretty different. Rather than stalking his victims with a knife, Freddy Krueger kills them in their dreams. It’s a brilliantly horrifying idea, and the first film was an instant commercial success that led to a seven-strong franchise, plus a crossover and a remake.

For many horror films, the kills are the main attraction, and on that front, Nightmare On Elm Street really delivers. There are only so many times you can watch someone take an axe to the head, after all. But by creating an undead monster that turns a person’s nightmares against them, Wes Craven and co gave themselves a way to be really inventive.

The first film is comparatively boring on this front, since it spends most of its time establishing the identity of the killer and the idea that sleep can be deadly. But the sequels soon get creative. Take the cockroach nightmare in Dream Master, for instance, or the puppet one in Dream Warriors; they’re the kind of thing that could give you nightmares for real.

Unfortunately, there’s another hallmark of the Nightmare On Elm Street movies: Freddy’s wisecracks. To begin with, Freddy’s evident glee at torturing kids just makes him scarier, but a few films down the line, it just makes him seem silly. And silly isn’t scary.

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Scream: the postmodern one

Eventually, the slasher franchises established in the ’80s started to lose steam, and other kinds of movies took their place. But then in the mid-90s, a new slasher trend started. Wes Craven, having already created one iconic slasher, came up with a new one: Ghostface.

The twist was that the doomed teenagers in the Scream franchise weren’t wide-eyed innocents. They were genre savvy, cynical types who’d seen all the old horror movies and rolled their eyes at the way their victims sleepwalked to their fates. Heavily influenced by Halloween, Scream was a post-modern, self-referential slasher that showed even knowing the rules wouldn’t always save you, and for a new generation of horror fans, it was terrifying.

The Scream franchise has, so far, only notched up four movies, one of which didn’t come out until 2011, so it’s nowhere near as long in the tooth as the other franchises we’ve discussed so far. And that might be part of the reason, too, that it’s so consistent. Scream 4 is, in some ways, a retread of Scream, starring a new generation of kids who’ve seen an extra 15 years’ worth of horror movies; you get the impression that the younger characters in Scream 4 would even roll their eyes at their counterparts in Scream.

The whole point of Scream, really, is that it’s in on the joke, and that self-awareness sets it slightly apart from other movies. When it uses clichés, it’s not by accident; it’s because that’s what horror movies do, and Scream expects its audience to be as genre savvy as it is. If and when the mooted Scream TV series starts, it’ll be interesting to see whether it can play with genre tropes in the same way as the films have – or if it’ll try to redefine the franchise’s identity in some way.

Final Destination: the silly one

One thing all the franchises discussed so far have in common is a recognisable baddie. Halloween has Michael, Friday the 13th has Jason, Nightmare On Elm Street has Freddy, and Scream has Ghostface (even if there’s a different person behind the mask every time). But in 2000, a new horror movie turned even that genre staple on its head. In Final Destination, the real enemy is death itself.

Now a five-strong franchise, Final Destination is known for two things: its spectacular opening sequences, and its super elaborate Rube Goldberg-style kills. There’s a sense of spectacle to these movies that stands in contrast to the grubbiness of a lot of slasher films. In Final Destination, Death is a master stylist – and he also seems to have a sense of humour.

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It’s weird, actually, how silly the Final Destination films are thought to be. While many people don’t enjoy slashers because they don’t like the idea of death as entertainment, they’ll happily watch Final Destination. Why? Maybe because there’s not a person behind the deaths? Honestly, I find the idea of an inescapable fatal force that’ll toy with me before killing me in a ridiculous way more terrifying than a bloke with a knife. But that’s an individual thing, I guess.

The Final Destination films have definitely got a bit sillier as they go along – the first one has a fairly serious tone, even when the deaths are daft, but by the fifth one, the cast were making parody music videos as part of the promotional push.

Saw: the one with all the torture

Saw, on the other hand, might be the grubbiest of all horror franchises. The first one was cheap and dirty, filmed in a matter of days and released to an unexpectedly enthusiastic reaction. The studio cranked out a sequel every year between 2004 and 2010, and the franchise garnered itself a reputation as a gory, sickening, super extreme trend that right-thinking people should probably avoid.

Which is, as all Saw fans can tell you, not entirely accurate. Yeah, the first one is pretty extreme, but the actual torture shown in it is minimal. The main trap is just two guys in a room talking for hours, and most of the other victims are already dead when the film discovers them. There’s no lengthy torture, and nowhere near as much gore as you think there is. The second movie ups the gore quotient, and the third one has some seriously nasty stuff in it, including a guy getting his arms and legs twisted off, so yeah, by that point, it’s probably fair enough to say this is a franchise built on torture porn.

After Saw III, though, things change. The movies focus as much on character development as they do horrific traps, and there’s more emphasis on the detectives investigating the case as there is on the murderers (although in fairness, there’s a lot of overlap). The movies are structured as a series of elaborate flashbacks, with more drama, secrets, and backstabbing than your average soap opera.

But there is a lot of gore, too. And that was the main selling point for the movies when they were released, each one promising more extreme scenarios than the last. So its reputation isn’t entirely undeserved, I suppose.

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Paranormal Activity: the handheld one

Horror has always been the cheapest genre of movie to make – and the one with the biggest potential profits – so as technology has made movie making more and more accessible, it’s not surprising that increasingly cheap movies have become normal and popular. The first Paranormal Activity movie cost an alleged $15,000 to make and raked in over $193 million, so it’s not surprising that it, too, soon became a franchise. Even if the first movie didn’t really suggest there was much of a story to continue.

There have been five Paranormal Activity movies to date, with a sixth due for release later this year. The defining feature in all of them is the handheld camera and the found footage conceit. The first one features a couple playing with their new camcorder and deciding to investigate some apparent supernatural activity in their home; the most recent one, The Marked Ones, sees some kids trying to film their neighbours’ weird rituals and discovering some supernatural nastiness. Green night vision sequences come as standard.

The thing is, the first Paranormal Activity is a genuinely scary, smart, original film about a couple and their relationship, told through the medium of amateur film footage. The sequels are mostly about finding reasons for people to pick up a camera, and for furniture to fly around the room. As the sequels go on, the thing that the movies are known for starts to become more of a millstone around their necks than a selling point. Which is kind of a shame, but we’ll all go and see The Ghost Dimension when it finally comes out anyway. Won’t we?

Emerging franchises

There are tons more franchises we could talk about here – Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, Child’s Play, and Hellraiser, to name just a few – but most of them develop in similar ways to the ones discussed above. Plus most of the sequels are crap. What’s more relevant, maybe, is to think about new and emerging horror franchises.

There are tons of horror movies that have spawned one or two sequels so far floating around, and some of these may well grow into long running franchises. There’s The Conjuring, for instance, which has already had one spinoff film released with a sequel in the works; will it become known for its terrifying scare scenes, or just for pilfering historical ghost stories? Insidious Part 3 is on the way, too; will that recapture some of the nightmarish creepiness of the first one, or succumb to the lack of logic of the second?

The sequel I’m most excited about this year is REC 4: Apocalypse. The first REC movie was a brilliantly eerie found footage film that started off as a zombie outbreak movie and became something far nastier; the second one, against all probability, was just as scary even as it introduced more supernatural elements. And then the third one was almost a comedy horror, which abandoned the found footage conceit in the first act just by having a character put down the camera. That suggests a willingness to experiment, and an unwillingness to be trapped by expectations.

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Also, the first two movies were co-directed by both Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, while REC 3: Génesis was helmed by Plaza alone, and REC 4: Apocalypse will see Balagueró take the reins solo. What will that mean for the direction of the franchise? No idea, but I’m dying to find out. The film is out on disc now.