If a movie franchise can last long enough, sooner or later, it will start eating its own tail. It’s a common grumble when talking about the big boys on the block, Star Wars and Star Trek. Neither feels like it’s willing to move on into the future, pulling fans back to earlier years and rebooting iconic characters in order to refresh—read: re-market—the stories fans love. But they’re not the only adopters of the technique; some franchises get downright sneaky about where in the timeline they’re going to take us next.
For example, little about the upcoming Saw X makes it clear to average moviegoers where the movie fits into the timeline. Franchise fans are probably aware that it’s a sequel-prequel timeline pretzel, fitting itself in between the original film and Saw II, and adding new details about Jigsaw’s obsession with the doctors that failed him. Horror franchises love using prequels to explore their antagonists, so it’s actually wild that it took this long for a prequel (or at least side-quel) in the Saw series to arrive. Horror is far from the only genre to use it, though, as you’ll see.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Three years after the smash success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg brought Indy (Harrison Ford) back with a rip-roaring pulp adventure through a fantastical version of India. Along with future Mrs. Spielberg, Kate Capshaw, and introducing today’s beloved new Hollywood king, Ke Huy Quan, Temple of Doom didn’t waste a lot of time or promotion on why there weren’t any Nazis for Indy to fight. For Indy’s purposes, time doesn’t matter as much as history.
A title card at the start of Temple of Doom, however, tells us that the opening scene is in 1935, which makes it clear that this is well before Hitler’s jackbooted minions were stealing God’s goodies from around the world. It’s also a fleeting notification set against a neon lightscape, and it takes hardcore movie or literature fans to keep in mind that this is a pre-war joyride, inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din. Indy’s enthusiasm here is less cynical than it would be in the rest of his films, and that goes a long way to helping us remember that this is him in an earlier time.
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Jason Bourne films can seem impenetrable to non-fans, but there’s a theme of loss and reconnection that ties Robert Ludlum’s terrific amnesiac spy saga together. By the time of The Bourne Ultimatum, Bourne (Matt Damon) has remembered enough about the Treadstone sleeper agent project to want to take it apart. Preceded by The Bourne Supremacy, which saw Jason pulled into a John Wick-style journey of revenge that took him to Moscow, it seemed pretty clear that Ultimatum was the next natural step in his onslaught.
Except, there’s a sly twist hidden in the movie that upends the timeline as we thought we understood it. A phone call between Bourne and CIA deputy Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) reveals Bourne’s real name and birth date—but it’s a scene we’ve already witnessed at the very end of the previous film! With this contact, Bourne’s location in Moscow, and Ultimatum’s breakneck pace in mind, the truth is unmistakable. Almost all of The Bourne Ultimatum takes place in between the last two scenes of The Bourne Supremacy’s ending. It’s one of the most subtle twists in modern action film history.
When a Disney movie brings in the goods, it’s a guarantee that the Mouse is going to put those characters on a treadmill until they die. Tarzan may be the most confusing victim of this, not because of how many spin-offs there were—creator Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote 24 books and his estate is still chugging—but because Tarzan 2 came out after another sequel to the Disney movie, Tarzan & Jane, was released. Straight to video, the latter film was made of unused TV series episodes to tell a new story. And Tarzan 2? The box art is confusing, showing a young jungle child. Is this Tarzan’s son?
Actually, no. It’s Tarzan himself, as a young foster child with the heart of a gorilla. He’s fragile compared to his family and in need of a voyage of self-discovery, so it’s time to put a kid in peril. It’s not a lot of peril, and the alleged villain Zugor (George Carlin) turns out to be a funny old dude. The film ends with Tarzan belting out his signature yell for the first time, bookending the original film. Still an unnecessarily confusing title.
Like Tarzan 2, Bambi 2 didn’t give away a lot of information with its title. It’s also a hell of a belated follow-up, coming out almost 60 years after the original film. Styled as a sequel release, it’d be easy to assume it’s about the new Prince of the Forest finding his way through adulthood. But a glance at the cover shows a still-spotted buck deer. The animals around him seem to be Bambi’s own friends, so it’s probably not his kid either.
Sort of like The Bourne Ultimatum, Bambi 2 is a prequel-slash-interquel. There’s a time skip during the original Bambi, where the Great Prince guides Bambi away from tragedy. Bambi 2 fills in that lost time, offering up a father-son story that also sets up Bambi’s rivalry with another buck for the affections of the doe, Faline. The best part of this otherwise okay prequel? Sir Patrick Stewart is the voice of Bambi’s noble dad.
Final Destination 5
Ingmar Bergman would get a kick out of the anthological horror franchise Final Destination. Death isn’t an antagonist so much as a dude really dedicated to making sure every soul gets where it’s supposed to go when it’s time to go. That’s not much different than Bergman’s Death in The Seventh Seal. Every film features a new pack of doomed young adults trying to poker face their way off Death’s day planner. In every film, they mostly, or entirely, fail, even when armed with the knowledge of their predecessors.
That makes Death the only constant in the franchise, which is a nice metaphor for real life, isn’t it? That said, Final Destination 5 pulls off a neat trick. Another movie full of fresh meat for Death’s grinder, it’s the final scene that gives franchise fans a laugh. Two so-far survivors board a plane to Paris and spot a fight breaking out. It’s the same fight that kicks off the events of the very first film, telling the final couple that Death is here with them on the way to Paris, and he’s collecting his lost luggage.
The Thing (2011)
2011’s The Thing features plot points so blatantly patterned after John Carpenter’s masterpiece that plenty of reviewers and moviegoers assumed that it was a remake. Returning to the Arctic, The Thing now features a Norwegian camp. Most of its crew are speaking English just fine as they find “the Thing,” watch the Thing turn rib cages into mouths, assume each other have become the Thing, test blood to find the Thing, and whittle themselves down to the last people standing…. against the the Thing.
And then the one guy, that only one guy who speaks Norwegian, sets off after a dog across the ice. Oops. In retrospect—not a second viewing, because this film isn’t worth that—the clues are there. The blood test is clumsily handled this time, with the Thing doing a bad job at burning the lab to cover its tracks. A fire ax lodges into a wall in a way familiar to fans of the original. And in one of the movie’s better moments, this time the Thing really is mimicking the base commander, not framing the C.O. as it does in the John Carpenter film. So if this is what happened before Kurt Russell got involved, it’s safe to say some Things are better the second time around.
The Cloverfield Paradox
Hot dropped onto Netflix after Super Bowl Sunday’s big game, the third Cloverfield movie wasn’t worth staying up late for. It has a great cast, including Marvel faves Daniel Brühl and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and they do their best with a convoluted plot about dimensional paradoxes and the alternate universes they can spawn. Initially taking place in 2028, Paradox feels like just another random piece of the Cloverfield anthology, with a message about trying to use barely understood science to save our Earth.
One character, Michael (Roger Davies), ends up on a version of Earth undergoing a hell of a kaiju attack, weathering it in a bunker. It’s a predicament that, likely purposefully, brings 10 Cloverfield Lane to mind. The final shot of this janky flick welds the Cloverfield canon together even more firmly: escaping station personnel get to witness the original monster, nicknamed Clover, rise up for a mighty roar. It’s easy to make the assumption that the Paradox, and Clover, have set into motion whatever hell John Goodman was trying to survive in that creepy bunker of his.
Cruel Intentions 2
The ‘90s had a thing about taking classic lit and revamping it into hip, modern situations with teenagers. Jane Austen got it the most, but hey, Clueless is the best adaptation of Emma ever. It’s weird that the luscious Dangerous Liaisons, a French epistolary drama best known for an ‘80s film version where Glenn Close and John Malkovich ate the set whole while Keanu Reeves looked on confused, received an update. Cruel Intentions can’t match this lusty tale of social revenge, but it’s a clever attempt. The DVD-only Cruel Intentions 2, on the other hand, is so bland-looking that it could’ve been about anything. Annette’s new life without Valmont? Merteuil’s life in exile?
Nah, it’s how the creators salvaged a canned prequel TV series called Manchester Prep. It loops back around to how Valmont and Merteuil first met. They’re annoying step-siblings, apparently, in a move that turns the luxe sins of these upper crust souls—you know, the entire point of the novel—into a CW-style comedy about one-upping each other. At least Riverdale is batshit entertaining.
Paranormal Activity 2
The Paranormal Activity franchise features more time hopping than a season of Doctor Who, exploring the generations of a cursed family in whatever order it feels like. The original film is a scarily effective found footage drama about a family demon that’s about as likable as the one from Hereditary. A Halloween hit, sequels instantly started baking. Paranormal Activity 2 dropped during the spooky season one year later, and, by the title, it’s surely going to progress the future of Tobi (Asmodeus), right?
That doesn’t happen until Paranormal Activity 4, actually. The second film jumps back to two months before Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) have the worst housewarming of all time. Katie’s sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), is coping with supernatural activities of her own, and some grim memories of childhood. The origins of the family demon get a little explanation, and then, in a jarring shock ending, the film concludes with a connection to the first film.
The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas
With a fully replaced cast due to John Goodman’s wise refusal to return and Rick Moranis’ retirement, it was anyone’s guess what the point of the thinly advertised Flintstones follow-up was going to be. A glance at the poster suggests it’s a decade-early riff on The Hangover, but, like, somehow even more cringe. It depicts what we can only assume by the costuming is a joint Flintstone-Rubble family trip to prehistoric Vegas.
Viva Rock Vegas is so much worse than that! It’s actually a half-hearted attempt at American Graffiti, taking us to the salad days of young Barney and Fred, and how they met their lifetime ladies. God help us all, this prequel also has the temerity to bring in the futuristic alien The Great Gazoo (Alan Cumming, as delightfully watchable as ever) to make our young cavemen look even more unhinged. And thus exits this misbegotten live-action franchise.
From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter
The original From Dusk Till Dawn manages such a great mid-film swerve that it’d be impossible for any sequel to match up. So they don’t try hard. Instead the series swerved itself to becoming a pulpy straight to video experience. The second film is another jaunt at the Titty Twister, vaguely set after the first, so why would the third be any different?
Hold onto your ass, exhausted high school kids, because The Hangman’s Daughter is the funniest prequel premise ever. The name Ambrose Bierce and his classic short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is drilled into American lit students, so you know the name. Bierce is also one of history’s most famous disappearances, lost in Mexico after telling friends he was going to document the Mexican Revolution. The Hangman’s Daughter jumps back to 1913, his last known year and offers a bloodsucking answer to the mystery. Bierce winds up at the infamous vamp bar, currently called La Tetilla Del Diablo, and hijinks ensue! Put the bar’s name in Google Translate for a giggle, and know that Bierce himself would’ve probably gotten a kick out of it.
Amityville II: The Possession
1979’s The Amityville Horror is itself, technically, a subtle prequel (or sidequel) to James Wan’s horror franchise, The Conjuring, as the Warrens were among the investigators of the real life Amityville case. A classic haunted house tale, Amityville Horror alleges that an incident of real-life mass murder—the Ronald DeFeo Jr. case—left a psychic imprint on the house it occurred in, and that it tormented the next occupants. The family eventually moves away, but that doesn’t end the curse. Its 1982 follow-up, The Possession, returns to the damned house with a new set of occupants. Which sounds like standard sequel fare from the title.
Ah, but of course, this is actually a heavily fictionalized reworking of what led DeFeo to kill his family in the first place. Restyled as the Montellis, with Sonny Montelli (Jack Magner) as the lawsuit-safe future killer, this prequel suggests the house was haunted all along. The possible reason? An Indigenous burial ground underneath the home. To be fair to the Amityville legend, which has suffered dozens of exhausting retreads since, it was one of the earliest films to drag that canard out. On the other hand, come on.
Insidious: Chapter 3
To be fair to the Insidious franchise, itself an affectionate homage to Poltergeist, it’s way better than that film’s remake and bevy of sequels. Another James Wan creation, Insidious tortures its parental stars with the horror of inexplicable events and a child in danger. It takes a bitterly cynical twist in the third act, too, adding a cliffhanger that leaves Chapter 2 to follow-up on the troubles the Lambert family still faces. A third film seemed a given, as it seems that the first film’s evil demon has now moved on to an unrelated young girl named Allison and her sister.
Chapter 3, logically, should have carried on that plot thread. To date, Allison’s story has gone nowhere, however. Instead the third installment goes back to what franchise regular and experienced demonologist Elise (Lin Shaye) was up to several months before the Lambert family went to hell. It braids together the past of Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and Elise’s influence on the Red Faced Demon pretty well, but still… what happened to that poor kid?