When a Horror Sequel Is Just Too Late

Rings, Jigsaw and Scream 4 - Split - Photofest - H 2017
From left to right: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate and Photofest
Films like 'Jigsaw' or 'Blair Witch' really need to say something new to work so many years after the last installment.

Jigsaw is in theaters this weekend, making the Saw 3D follow-up/franchise reboot the latest in a long, not-exactly-storied tradition of belated horror-movie sequels.

Whether it can recapture the film series' long-stalled momentum is up for debate, but judging from the recent annals of delayed cinematic follow-ups (Rings, Blair Witch, Scream 4), it’s certainly got an uphill battle ahead of it.

Not that there aren’t success stories (and even genuine classics) to be found in the belated-sequel category. Look no further than 1978's Dawn of the Dead (released a full 10 years after Night of the Living Dead) for proof of that. Aliens (1986), another terrific follow-up that arrived seven years after the original film, was a bona fide blockbuster. And in 1983, Psycho II came out of the gate 23 years after the Hitchcock classic to gross a more-than-adequate $34 million. 

Outside of those titles, the record gets spottier. The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999, 23 years post-Carrie) was doused in proverbial pig’s blood on arrival. In 1997, An American Werewolf in Paris (17 years after An American Werewolf in London) was a howling failure both critically and commercially. Nine years after Children of the Corn, Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1992) came and went with little fanfare (though the film’s relative success on home video did spawn a series of shoestring direct-to-DVD follow-ups). And also after nine years' time, Jason X (a.k.a. Jason Goes to Outer Space) failed to wash the taste of 1993’s Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday from our collective imaginations, grossing just $17 million worldwide on a budget of $11 million.

Recent history is littered with similar flops. Scream 4 (2011, 11 years after Scream 3), last year's Blair Witch (16 years after Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows) and this year's Rings (12 years after The Ring Two) all similarly floundered. Granted, Jigsaw comes saddled with far less lag time than any of those movies, with just seven years transpiring between it and Saw 3D. But despite being relatively fresh in the public consciousness, it shares one potentially deadly thing in common with those others: Aside from a few creative new traps, it doesn’t appear to bring anything new to the table.

Looking at the successes is similarly instructive. In addition to being legitimately great films, Dawn of the Dead and Aliens were both wildly different from their predecessors. In the case of the former, director George A. Romero transitioned from the low-key black-and-white creepiness of Night of the Living Dead to a gore-soaked Technicolor satire of American consumerism. While Dawn wasn’t a breakout hit domestically by any means (it made the majority of its money outside of North America), it endures as a legitimate classic of cinema and has doubtless made back its $1.5 million budget many, many times over.

Aliens, meanwhile, expanded on the original in a way that didn’t feel like an empty game of one-upmanship (as in the case of the Saw sequels). Whereas Alien was a fearsomely original blend of creature feature and old-fashioned haunted-house movie, Aliens was a full-bore action spectacle that intelligently widened the franchise’s scope. Even a lesser artistic achievement like Bride of Chucky (1998) doubled the gross of Child’s Play 3 (1991) by injecting its killer-doll franchise with a winning dose of self-referential humor (not to mention Jennifer Tilly).

Judging from the above-mentioned titles, thematic sophistication appears to be another vital component of the belated sequel. By virtue of age and experience, audience members who were drawn to the original films tend to demand more from modern-day updates of their old favorites. While younger moviegoers will inevitably show up for pics like Jigsaw given the marketing hype that surrounds them, there is a core fan base that needs to be catered to — and I would argue that catering to them involves bringing a fresh, clever angle that mirrors and rewards the audiences’ respective personal evolutions.

Jigsaw is expected to gross in the $16 million range this weekend. That’s about on par with Saw 3D, which finished with over $22 million in its opening weekend. Assuming Jigsaw follows the same trajectory, it will no doubt be a profitable venture for Lionsgate and kick off another round of blood-soaked sequels. But early reviews indicate that it is, indeed, more of the same, albeit with an added technological bent to its cruel traps. That seems like a pretty shaky foundation upon which to base an entire franchise revival.

The review by The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Scheck may sum up the reaction best: “Considering the long amount of time since the last installment, you'd think that more effort would have been put into creatively reviving the franchise. But Jigsaw just seems rote and mechanical, with long stretches of its running time feeling like a police procedural or CSI spinoff.” Oof. Having someone compare your cinematic revival to a franchise that stopped being relevant right around the time that yours did has to sting, just a little.