The auteur casts a long and heavy shadow over genre franchises. Those inaugural, boundary-breaking, breathtaking works of art set things in motion for entire new worlds, while simultaneously doing everything they can to pump the breaks. The artistic standard is nearly impossible to repeat. Yet, no matter how many gourmet chef hats the director wears at once, producers will attempt the impossible knowing that hungry genre fans have McDonald’s-ready stomachs of steel. The thing is, you’ve got to be pretty damned stoned to eat perfectly made steak tartare for your first course and then a fake cardboard lab burger for your second, and not notice the difference. You can say that all of us B-movie addicts have bad taste, but we don’t lack taste entirely. The jolt of that change is the issue. On a long enough timeline, we can see two wildly different films in a franchise as both great, but in the moment, a dramatic shift of velocity knocks many out of their seats. Consider the first two installments of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series: both by the same auteur Tobe Hooper, but one is the most terrifying film ever made, and the other is the slapstick commentary upon it. These days that comedy gets the love, but it took decades of slander to get there. But what happens when the about face isn’t even in golden child hands? We’re not here to discuss second films, though; we’re skipping right to the third course.
After the auteur weight suffocates the second film, it can be the third that sets things free. With expectations gone, and the second film having already martyred itself, why not just go with pure entertainment factor? If any film had audiences as afraid as Hooper pulled off, it would be The Ring (2002). And just say the name out loud: Gore Verbinski. Someone’s mom wanted to pop an auteur out. There was no way The Ring Two (2005) was going to hold up. The studio even made a valiant effort, bringing in the original director from the Japanese franchise. This might have been even worse than simply making something completely dumb, though. You’re going to give us artistic gout here. Then, after that, nothing for a long time. That weighted shadow put the Ring franchise completely to a halt. For 12 years. And then, Rings (2017): as of yet, it didn’t save anything. I’m going bold myself, though: it set the mofo free. The first scene says it all. Austerity is at the core of Ring-aesthetics, and they play that plane crash out as a full-on action blockbuster with an over the top orchestra strike style score that feels like a complete middle finger to the first two films. What follows is some of the nerdiest “What If?” style investigations possible. “What If?” Samara started making viral youtube vids? “What If?” a college started studying the science of the Ring curse? “What If?” we didn’t have a protagonist playing out the difficulties of being a single mother, and rather just had, like, hot young people on camera a bunch? (If you haven’t heard, nerds are super oversexed post Cosplay going mainstream.) But even if you aren’t a nerd and don’t like sex, Rings sets up all the sorts of world-building aspects that a franchise needs. It turns the streamlined ideas of The Ring into an open world sandbox. Maybe we’ll never revisit Samara for a 4th sacrilegious entry where she shaves her head, though. So let’s move on.
Do you like the parts where the Scanners don’t fight and instead talk for a long time about what a Scanner is and explore fringe ideas of corporations using medicine and psychology as the battle ground for financial warfare? Scanners II: The New Order (1991) has some stuff to offer you then. You’ve got to tolerate it not being in the highly stylized hands of David Cronenberg, though. Fortunately for those who liked the whole heads-blowing-up stuff, there is Scanners III: The Takeover (1991) that feels like the alternate reality Cannon Films version. Is it just a bunch of mindless carnage perpetuated by characters flexing their big minds? You know it. Did it reach escape velocity? You know it. The series went on for a total of five entries thanks to this turn towards complete amusement park ride. That is actually enough to then pull one of those “we’re going back to the roots” sort of things and doing an (I’m so sorry) elevated horror 6th installment. So if you are mad that the Scanners franchise only has one art film entry, just know that ball is now back in Cronenberg’s court, and all complaints must be directed to him.
You ready for the champion, though? Okay. I hate to come hard at him, ‘cuz Roger Ebert was a badass and he doesn’t need his name dragged through the mud, but when he called Robocop 3 (1993) a “retread,” he was way out of line. The second franchise entry had done a decent job of transitioning Paul Verhoeven’s brutal and sophisticated critique of policing and corporatization into a more bubblegum realm. It still had a decent budget to pull off lots of eye candy. The problem, though, was trying to live up to that sophistication. Where Verhoeven feels like dark satire, Robocop 2 (1990) just seems to reinforce the fascist belief systems the first film threw a punk middle finger to. We’re left with a “Just Say No” message and the warning that a world without cops would doom us all. It is almost like notorious pro-fascist screenwriter Frank Miller won’t say “ACAB”? Strange thing is, he also wrote Robocop 3 where Alex Murphy goes full Antifa super-soldier. When a sophisticated message proves too hard, and the budget won’t allow for an amusement park for the eyes, just tell people what they want to hear: Fuck the Police. This third entry, free from the expectations of poetry, is able to loop back around to being truly critical of the modern world again by being blunt and dumb. Robocop joining the revolution after a secret police force is formed gives us more than enough reasons to cheer, and then the film even goes and perfectly lands the ending, as Robocop looks a CEO right in the face and says, “My friends call me Murphy. You call me RoboCop.” And guess what? This supposed financial flop led to 22 episodes of a live action TV series (which also is pure virtual reality-exploring fun, the best content of the entire franchise), four made-for-TV movies, and two cartoon series. Still waiting on the Scanners and Ring cartoons, by the way.
I could also talk about Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992) and the CD DJ Cenobite, but you already get what I’m saying. The third films that famously ruined genre franchises forever? Take another look. Maybe they actually just realized one can solve a zen koan by simply existing next to it. Besides, we can only naval gaze at high art for so long before it comes time to fill our Buddha bellies with something fatty again. These films don’t establish a rule, and they don’t guarantee any sort of results for securing the long life of a series, but they aren’t flukes either. They are a type unified by a similar strategy of letting go from high brow expectations; a strategy that Hooper knew when jumping the line and making his own third installment of Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the second entry in the franchise.