Always the bridesmaid
During preview screenings for James Whale’s Frankenstein, Universal Pictures began to consider the possibilities of a follow-up. Such was the clamour to take a glimpse of their monster, it seemed reasonable to suggest that maybe more could be done with the story.
The trouble was, at that time, Frankenstein ended with the death of Henry Frankenstein and, without him, Universal didn’t see a way forward. So they simply had Whale re-shoot the end, allowing for Frankenstein’s survival, and thus, the possibility of a sequel.
James Whale, though, wasn’t remotely interested in making another Frankenstein movie. From Whale’s point-of-view 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 English director’s take on The Invisible Man, that Whale was the only man 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. With this complete, Whale went to work on Universal’s latest horror movie. In the belief he couldn’t possibly top Frankenstein, Whale instead hoped to create a memorable “hoot” that would hugely entertain the audience, but …
The result, Bride of Frankenstein, is now widely regarded as Hollywood’s first major sequel, and arguably the greatest sequel ever made.
What it is
What is the sequel? A continuation of the story, a valiant, but often futile, attempt to catch lightning in a bottle again (and again), or nothing more than a cheap cash-in to swell the studio coffers?
Very often it’s one or all of the above. Accentuating the positives, the sequel serves to simply continue the adventures of the characters we’ve grown close to over the course of the original film. If the film has any merit, we care about these characters and 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 resonated with audiences. Of course, there is a balance of risk versus reward that the studio or financier must weigh, but stories of re-shoots to accommodate possible future sequels are not uncommon; often at the detriment of the intended ending and the film as a work of creative art.
A great number of movies fancy themselves as future franchises, for better or worse, and the largely 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, fourth iteration, critically they are usually given short shrift.
It’s also worth pointing out 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, often 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.
For example, the Friday the 13th series follows the classic sequel pattern of following on from the previous story but does stumble onto other narrative paths – the non-Jason Vorhees instalment, A New Beginning and Jason X, for example. Similarly, the seven A Nightmare on Elm Street instalments, culminating with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, refuse to be bound bAbbott and Costello Meet…y agreed sequel protocols.
Following Bride of Frankenstein‘s enormous success, Universal began to take a closer look at 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, that finds parallels in a number later horrors that 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 series ran for another four films, including dalliances with The Invisible Man (five sequels), The Mummy (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, meanwhile, Val Lewton’s skill at producing films based upon arbitrary titles handed down by RKO executives began 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 movie demonstrating that what the audience doesn’t see can be just as terrifying as what is clear to the eye.
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, that latter does not follow the typical sequel route. While it does retain the two main characters, the film features no cat people, aside from the ghost of Irene, the cat person of the first movie. In fact, the film focuses more on an introverted girl and her relationship with the ghost, and an ageing actress. Mis-marketed as a horror, “The Beast Woman Stalks the Night Anew”, screamed one tagline, the film failed at the box office.
As Universal’s chokehold over horror began to weaken, the studio’s gaze fell briefly on new technology to reinvigorate their output. Filmed using three-dimensional stereoscopic film (3D), Creature From The Black Lagoon heralded the last of Universal’s Classic Monsters, the Gill-Man. Directed by Jack Arnold, whose 3D work on his previous film, the proto-slasher, House of Wax, the ecological science fiction film performed admirably at the box office and two further instalments followed: Return of the Creature, also directed in 3D by Arnold, and notable for marking the film debut of Clint Eastwood, and The Creature Walks Among Us, which the director passed on.
A minstrel of monstrosity
An unwitting passing of the baton occurred between the production of the final two Creature films. In England, a small production company operating out of Bray, Berkshire, went into production with their first foray into the horror genre, albeit with a sci-fi 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 movie and packaged in a double-bill with The Black Sheep, The Creeping Unknown, as it was re-titled, was so successful with US audiences, United Artists offered to part-fund a sequel. The film was also record-breaking in a rather tragic way 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 only known case of an audience member 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. By registering the title, Frankenstein, Universal was alerted and the potential for lawsuits loomed should Hammer attempt to appropriate any of Universal’s assets, including Jack Pierce’s makeup effects.
Frankenstein and the Monster would ultimately prove too expensive to make and Subotsky 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 the Hammer’s story. Partly in response to their treatment, the two went on to form Amicus Productions, a thorn in Hammer’s side during the next two decades.
Hammer screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, wrote a new script titled The Curse of Frankenstein, using Mary Shelley’s novel as source material, and 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 movie went into production.
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 the focus fell upon Baron Victor Frankenstein (played by Cushing in all but one sequel) rather than the monster itself, often a new creation with each passing film. Christopher Lee, meanwhile, was about to tackle a monster of his own.
No one else was auditioned for the role of Dracula. It was Christopher Lee’s for the taking. Hammer was once again embroiled in legal red tape with Universal, but a deal was struck and Hammer was allowed to proceed, with Universal 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), Hammer’s 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. Lee himself would feature 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 1970s with sequels as disparate as The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Legend of 7 Golden Vampires. Hammer further plundered the Universal catalogue, with a take on The Mummy and a direct remake of The Old Dark House.
More than 3,000 miles away from Berkshire, two Pittsburgh friends, 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 film draft, a horror comedy about teenage aliens befriending humans. A second draft followed a teenage runaway who discovers rotting human corpses aliens have discarded after eating. Russo and Romero liked this version more and knew they were on to something. But the story and title still weren’t quite right.