VHS Revival begins its three-part exploration of the horror sequel
Always the bridesmaid…
During preview screenings for James Whale’s Frankenstein, Universal Pictures began to consider the possibility of a follow-up.
Such was the clamour to see the studio’s new monster, it seemed reasonable to suggest that maybe more could be done with the story. The trouble was, at that time, Frankenstein culminated with the death of Henry Frankenstein and, without him, Universal didn’t see a way forward. So, thinking ahead, they had Whale re-shoot the end, allowing for Frankenstein’s survival, and thus, the possibility of a sequel.
The English director, though, wasn’t remotely interested in making another Frankenstein film, pointing out that he’d already “squeezed the idea dry“, but Universal’s head of production, Carl Laemmle Jr. became increasingly convinced, particularly after the success of the The Invisible Man, that Whale was the only possible director for the job.
With his stock high, Whale agreed on the follow-up, on the proviso that he be allowed to first make a pet project, the mystery drama, One More River. Universal acquiesced and allowed Whale time on his venture before he went to work on Universal’s latest horror film. In the belief he couldn’t possibly top Frankenstein, Whale instead hoped to create a memorable “hoot” that would hugely entertain the audience, but probably wouldn’t surpass the box office of the original.
When Bride of Frankenstein opened in April 1935, it wasn’t only a commercial success, but a critical one too, with Time announcing the film had ‘a vitality that makes their efforts fully the equal of the original picture’. Now heralded as James Whale’s masterpiece, the film’s reputation has grown steadily in the intervening years following its release to become regarded as both the first horror sequel and arguably the best sequel of all time.
Whether Bride of Frankenstein deserves the honour of being the first, though, is a matter for some debate. In Germany, Fritz Lang‘s 1922 silent film, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Dr. Mabuse der Spieler) prefigured two sequels, released over a 38-year period, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse), released two years before Bride of Frankenstein, and The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse), which followed in 1960.
Dr. Mabuse the Gambler concerns the misadventures of the sinister, titular doctor; a criminal genius, hypnotist, gambler, and master of disguise who builds an empire based on deceit and murder; eventually turning insane after a confrontation with the ghosts of his victims. At four-and-a-half hours long, the film was initially split into two parts, released a month apart, but a heavily-condensed version was imported to the US. Despite the truncation to make the film more palatable to American audiences, Dr. Mabuse the Gambler wasn’t a hit and didn’t receive a proper release until the full version finally debuted at the 1973 New York Film Festival.
It could be argued, of course, that Lang’s trilogy is not technically of the horror genre. For example, one might classify the original film as a supernatural crime drama as opposed to a horror film. Though, as one counter-argument states: ‘In Europe Mabuse is as familiar an icon of horror as Count Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster.’ Indeed, the blurb on the 2013 Eureka Blu-ray release suggests the film: ‘constructs its own dark labyrinth from the base materials of human fear and paranoia’: as firm a nod towards the horrific as one could hope to find.
However one chooses to view Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, there’s little doubt that – in America at least – Universal’s forays into classic literature signalled a highly productive period in the nascent horror film cycle – with sequels playing a fundamental role, both artistically and financially. In Germany, meanwhile, there were the early tremors of an altogether more terrifying and tangible horror, that would soon manifest itself in the most devastating and destructive of ways.
What is a sequel? A continuation of the story; a valiant, but, as is so often the case, futile attempt to catch lightning in a bottle again (and again); or nothing more than a cheap cash-in to swell the studio coffers?
Usually, it’s at least one of the above.
Accentuating the positives, the sequel ideally serves to continue the adventures of the characters the audience has grown close to over the course of the original film. If the film has any merit, and the filmmakers have done their jobs properly, the viewer cares about these characters enough to want to see what happens next.
From the filmmakers’ perspective it could be the challenge of hitting the same heights twice, of creating a larger world, or broadening the canvas, artistically.
Yet, often, at the behest of the studio – always with an eye on the bottom line – the sequel is merely a future source of income via a story that has, fortunately, resonated with audiences. Of course, there is a balance of risk-versus-reward that the studio or financier must weigh up, but stories of re-shoots to accommodate possible future sequels are not uncommon – as with Bride of Frankenstein – though often to the detriment of the intended ending and the film as a work of creative art.
A great number of films prematurely adjudge themselves as future franchises, for better or worse, and the increasingly standard ‘open-ending’ caters for this possibility. The classic term applied to a huge number of sequels is ‘the law of diminishing returns’, whereby, regardless of the quality of the original, the sequel can in no way compete (with a handful of notable exceptions) either artistically or from a box office perspective.
There is also a sense of snobbery aimed squarely at the sequel. While genre fans in particular wax lyrical about a great many sequels as really coming into their own during the second, third, or fourth iteration, critically they are usually given short shrift.
It’s also worth noting that sequels don’t always continue the story from the point the previous film left off. In fact, often they are part of a greater series of films, with differing characters, events and timelines. The Oxford Dictionary definition states that a sequel is:
‘A published, broadcast, or recorded work that continues the story or develops the theme of an earlier one.’
The Friday the 13th series generally follows the classic sequel pattern of following on from the previous story, but does stumble onto other narrative paths―the non―Jason Voorhees instalment, A New Beginning, and Jason X, for example. Similarly, the six A Nightmare on Elm Street instalments, culminating with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, refuse to be bound by systematic sequel protocols.
An incestuous affair
Following Bride of Frankenstein‘s enormous success, Universal began to closely scrutinise their properties, with a view to repeating the trick elsewhere. Dracula, The Mummy and The Invisible Man were immediately slated for future follow-ups. James Whale had initially promised to direct the Dracula sequel but due to time constraints had to pass on the film. Dracula’s Daughter began a cycle of four sequels, culminating in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; an interesting comic-driven end for the series, with parallels to a number of later horrors that increasingly accentuated the comic angle, notably the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.
Both The Wolf Man and Frankenstein, with four and six sequels successively, also reached their conclusions in the same Abbott and Costello vehicle. Taken together, the sequels were largely incestuous affairs with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. trading monster roles across the series. Despite heralding the end, for now, of the classic triumvirate, the Abbott and Costello meet… series ran for another four films, including dalliances with The Invisible Man (one of five sequels for the Invisible series), The Mummy (also one of five sequels) and, in a strange choice of title, The Killer, Boris Karloff. The latter was banned in Denmark, for a time.
By the early 1940s, Val Lewton’s skill at producing films based upon arbitrary titles handed down by RKO executives, had begun with the Jacques Tournier-directed Cat People. The film, based on a short story, The Bagheeta, written by Lewton, would prove highly influential as a minimalist horror film, demonstrating that what the audience doesn’t see can be just as terrifying as what is clear to the eye. Cat People is also noticeable for the introduction of a technique that precipitated the classic horror film jump scare, the ‘Lewton Bus’.
The success of Cat People ensured that a sequel would inevitably follow and, within two years, The Curse of the Cat People was released. While both the original and its sequel are outstanding films in their own right, the latter does not follow the typical sequel route. While it does retain the two main characters, the ghost of Irene is the film’s only vague reference to the existence of cat people. In fact, the film focuses more on an introverted girl, Amy, and her relationship with the ghost, and an ageing actress, eschewing the cat-related mystery element altogether. Lewton had intended a different title for the film, but was summarily overruled. Ergo, Curse of the Cat People was mismarketed as a horror – ‘The Beast Woman Stalks the Night Anew’, screamed one tagline – and inevitably failed at the box office.
Brundlefly and the Bunny
The cover of the June 1957 issue of Playboy Magazine was remarkable in that it did not feature the standard photographic image of a beautiful, sultry woman. Instead, the only image of note on the stark white cover was a black pair of Bunny logo cuff-links to compliment the Playboy Magazine tagline, Entertainment for Men. Amid the numerous advertisements and a feature on Playmate of the Month, Carrie Radison, were a selection of written pieces including a short story by George Langelaan, titled The Fly.
Flipping through the magazine one day, Kurt Neumann happened across the story and showed it Robert L. Lippert, head of 20th Century Fox‘s subsidiary, Regal Pictures. Neumann, grasping the opportunity to direct the prospective film, hired James Clavell to adapt The Fly, and he turned in what fellow screenwriter Harry Spalding described as “the best first draft I ever saw, it needed very little work.” David Hedison and Patricia Owens were cast as the film’s major characters, the ill-fated scientist André Delambre and his wife, Hélène, with Vincent Price in a supporting role as André’s brother, François.
Despite early mixed reviews, The Fly was a commercial success, making back five times its initial budget as one of Fox’s biggest hits of 1958, and receiving a nomination for the 1959 Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie. With unfortunate and tragic timing, Kurt Neumann died mysteriously just a few weeks after the premiere, and was never afforded the opportunity to enjoy the biggest film success of his career.
The Fly also marked the first cautious steps into the realm of body horror, a stylistic and thematic convention that The Blob, released the same year, continued. Later proponents of body horror, including David Cronenberg, Brian Yuzna, Stuart Gordon and Clive Barker, would help fully establish the sub-genre with a number of classic films concerned with the graphical transmogrification of the human being, both physically and psychologically.
Vincent Price, having established himself as a major horror star, went on to reprise his role in the serviceable sequel, Return of the Fly, but the final film in the series, The Curse of the Fly was notable only for his absence; Price by this time was deep into a series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations for Roger Corman. The Fly is also significant as one of a handful of films surpassed by a remake. David Cronenberg’s 1986 effort, starring Jeff Goldblum, was met with widespread critical and commercial success, and led to a sequel of its own, The Fly II, and later a a comic book mini-series, The Fly: Outbreak.
‘Minstrel of monstrosity’
As Universal’s choke-hold over horror began to weaken, the studio’s gaze fell briefly on a new technology to reinvigorate their output. Filmed using three-dimensional stereoscopic film (3-D), Creature From The Black Lagoon heralded the last of Universal’s Classic Monsters, the amphibious Gill-Man. Directed by Jack Arnold, whose 3-D work on his previous film, It Came from Outer Space, won him the job, the film performed admirably at the box office and two further instalments followed: Return of the Creature, also directed in 3-D by Arnold, and notable for marking the film debut of Clint Eastwood, and The Creature Walks Among Us, directed by John Sherwood.
An unwitting passing of the baton occurred between the release of the final two Creature films. In England, a small film company operating out of Bray, Berkshire, went into production with their first foray into the horror genre, albeit with a science fiction tinge. The Quatermass Xperiment (based upon the BBC Television series, The Quatermass Experiment, written by Nigel Kneale) went on general release in the UK in November 1955 before finding its way to the US. Opening just two months after the final Creature picture, under the title The Creeping Unknown and packaged in a double-bill with The Black Sheep, the film was so successful with US audiences, United Artists offered to part-fund a sequel. The double-bill was also record-breaking in a rather tragic way after a nine-year-old boy died of a ruptured artery during a showing at a cinema in Illinois. The Guinness Book of Records subsequently recorded this as the first and only known case of anyone dying of fright while watching a horror film.
Hammer followed The Quatermass Xperiment with two further instalments, culminating in 1967’s Quatermass and the Pit, but following the success of their debut horror, the company had designs on some rather more classic characters for their next trick. An adaptation of Frankenstein, written by an American called Milton Subotsky, found its way onto the desk of Hammer chairman, James Carreras. Immediately, the company ran into trouble. Registering the title, Frankenstein, alerted Universal and the threat of lawsuits loomed the moment Hammer made any attempt to appropriate any of Universal’s assets, including Jack Pierce’s classic makeup effects.
Subotsky’s script, Frankenstein and the Monster, would ultimately prove too expensive to make and the writer along with his producing partner, Max J. Rosenberg, were offered payment and a percentage of the profits for the final film, but would remain an uncredited part of Hammer’s story. Partly in response to their treatment, the two went on to form Amicus Productions; their portmanteau horror films proving to be a thorn in Hammer’s side during the next two decades.
Meanwhile, Hammer screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, wrote a new script titled The Curse of Frankenstein, using Mary Shelley’s novel as source material. With Peter Cushing on board as Victor Frankenstein, along with the addition of a tall, imposing supporting player, named Christopher Lee in the role of the Monster, the first British colour horror film went into production in late-1956.
The Curse of Frankenstein was an enormous success, and Hammer produced a further six Frankenstein films over the next 17 years. Where they differed from Universal’s efforts was via a focus that fell upon Baron Victor Frankenstein (played by Cushing in all but one sequel) rather than the Monster itself, often a new creation of the Baron with each passing film. Christopher Lee only played the role of the Monster once, but he was about to tackle one of his own.
The thing that could not die
No one else was auditioned for the role of Dracula, it was Christopher Lee’s for the taking. Hammer were once again embroiled in legal red tape with Universal, but a deal was struck and Hammer were allowed to proceed, provided Universal were granted distribution rights. Lee’s Dracula was quite the departure from Bela Lugosi’s incarnation of the famous Count. Where’s Universal’s Dracula was mesmerising, yet mannered (a consequence of Lugosi’s poor command of English and his previous stage performances in the role), in Hammer’s version the Count was a primal force of nature; predatory, sexually brooding, and vicious.
Peter Cushing joined the cast as Dracula‘s arch foe, Dr. Van Helsing, a role he would play intermittently across the eight sequels that followed, while Lee would feature as the Count in six. At the behest of Universal, who wanted to differentiate from their own Dracula property, the film was renamed Horror of Dracula in the US, where it was released as part of a double-bill with one of the final Universal horror films of the age, The Thing That Could Not Die. Ironically, within a year, Universal’s horror monopoly was no more.
For Hammer, however, the unparalleled success of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula would ensure the gravy train kept rolling well into the Seventies with sequels as disparate as The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Legend of 7 Golden Vampires. Hammer further plundered the Universal catalogue, with three takes on The Mummy story and a direct remake of The Old Dark House, during a halcyon era for the British company.
More than 3,000 miles away from Berkshire, two friends from Pittsburgh, tired of making commercials for a living, decided to make a horror film. Working as co-writers, John Russo and George Andrew Romero produced their first ever drafted screenplay, a horror comedy about teenage aliens befriending their human counterparts. A second draft followed centred on a teenage runaway who discovers half eaten rotting human corpses discarded by aliens. Russo and Romero liked this version better, it was closer to the kind of story they wanted to make a film about. They were on to something, but the story and title still weren’t quite right.