5. Scream 2
By the 1990s, the slasher pic had become so derivative and predictable that all of the horror genre seemed like a joke. In 1996, Scream burst onto the scene and was received more warmly than expected. A clever script that beat everyone else to the meta trend and superb execution by Wes Craven made Scream the rare horror film that had legs. But any goodwill went out the window when a sequel was announced.
Scream 2 was a hit, and critics took to its continued deconstruction of the genre with even better reviews. The sequel leaned in to all the mean things people have to say about horror sequels. There are few movies that pulled off having their cake and eating it too as well as Scream 2, which revels in its self-analysis without getting pretentious. More sequels would follow, and they would be everything people feared Scream 2 would be. Still, it’s ironic that a film that pre-empted itself on being hokey and derivative became a blueprint for making sequels clever and surprising. Even more shocking, Scream 2 is probably one of the top ten sequels of 1990s.
4. Evil Dead 2
This spot also goes to Army of Darkness, and if there was a list for best trilogy enders or best third instalments of a horror franchise, that film would be in the title spot. Both films are more or less equal in quality and succeed so strongly for the same reasons.
Both expertly balance the macabre, gore, and humor to great effect. Director Sam Raimi refuses to be precious with his own story and is therefore manage to pack every story beat with humor, dread, and just the right amount of darkness. Bruce Campbell, meanwhile, embodies the prototype of the era’s alpha male—over-confident, bumbling, amped up, utterly oblivious, charming, and in contempt of his or anyone else’s mortality—to such a caricature that it borders on kabuki theatre.
And Evil Dead 2 (and Army of the Dead) are so good at being sequels. The films organically continue the story, pushing it forward and revving things up while still delivering more or less the same. Few sequels are able to give their audiences the familiarity of what they loved about the first instalment while still making something feel new and actually attached to the first film. It feels both necessary and comforting and strikes sequel gold not once but twice.
3. Bride of Frankenstein
The auteur theory hasn’t done much for James Whale, but few filmmakers have done so much to shape the motifs and grammar of western cinema. When it comes to horror, there are even fewer filmmakers whose images and techniques have done so much to mold a genre’s identity.
The Bride of Frankenstein might technically be from another time, but it makes a strong case for horror as the medium’s most enduring and timeless drama. While Whale and the studio played fast and loose with Mary Shelley’s tale, their follow up builds on choices that at once seemed questionable. As an adaptation, the first film stripped the monster of some of its humanity, reducing it to a now-iconic design and a limited faculty for speech that conveyed its tortured sense of longing. The sequel seeks to re-establish both the work’s literary ties and its monster’s depth of character.
It opens with a coda putting the story back in the arms of Shelley. It proceeds to drill deeper into what made the first film so effective. This might not be the first horror sequel, but it was the first iconic one, and while the Frankenstein story is told at least once a decade, this is still the last great, or even unambiguously good, one.
Aliens is a great sequel full stop. More than that, it’s a blistering, high octane, no holds barred argument for why sequels should be made. It’s so much sequel it doesn’t need a number and can make do with an “s”. James Cameron takes the reins from Ridley Scott and changes an austere science fiction slasher that was a masterclass in tension to an all-out action bonanza.
What’s really left to say about Aliens that hasn’t been said a million times by over-eager film bloggers and indie rags that slyly shine a light on big budget studio behemoths? This is Cameron’s show, and he attaches to it all the crowd-pleasing and cloyingly effective upgrades Hollywood wants in a sequel. Like Michael Bay but with the ability to film a woman above her chest, Cameron knows what enough of the audience wants and will accept.
The result, for all its implications for the future of genre and franchise filmmaking, is so effective—that is, so thrilling and unnerving and monstrous—that like his other seminal sequel Terminator 2, he left the franchise with nothing to do but stage all-out war. And just like in that other franchise, the studio blinked and hasn’t delivered a solid entry since.
1. Dawn of the Dead
Dawn of the Dead is such a good sequel that it eclipses almost all of the rest of its franchise, and unlike almost every franchise on this list, its stablemates are quite consistently solid. Director George Romero created one of the greatest cinematic universes but only punctuated it with subtle nods to the other instalments, and while the horror-as-social-allegory statement had been used before, Dawn of the Dead’s clear but unshowy comment on commodification and the emptiness of modern society dared to attack American culture and its entitled myopia head-on. Dawn of the Dead wasn’t warning us about communists or conformity or nuclear radiation. It was warning us about us.
As a sequel, it instantly realizes what the studios behind Halloween and the other big slashers have never really mastered: sequels don’t have to be carbon copies of their predecessors. It also manages to be entertaining, genuinely suspenseful, and relevant. In a genre where every bit and morsel is rebooted, remade, sequelized, and transformed into a copy of a copy, it says something that even the 2000s remake still crackles with Romero’s energy and confidence. Dawn of the Dead is a testament that great a film can come from anywhere and be anything, even (and especially) a horror sequel.