One of the inexpungeable articles of faith in contemporary film criticism maintains that any sequel is cursed by fate, genetics, the law of diminishing returns, and the fickleness of film critics to fall short of its predecessor. This is a conviction that the vast majority of office holding film critics would no sooner part with than the Statue of Liberty would let go her torch. It has lately grown so strong that it last even prompted the coinage of a special term, "sequelitis,” which alludes to the episodic nature of sequels in the ‘70s, and which also gives an official name to one of the deadliest known causes of the common film critics’ syndrome characterized by a glassiness in the eyes , a crick in the neck, and a prickly pain in the posterior.
Exactly when this doctrine was first proposed for discussion and adopted into law, I don't know. I was absent at the time — I suspect I was not yet a gleam in my mother's eye — or I might have voiced a dissenting murmur. If I now were of a reforming mind, and if I were willing to debate each individual case, I would submit as arguable exceptions to the rule the following hastily assembled group: The Iron Mask, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Tarzan's New York Adventure, Topper Returns, The Return of Frank James, Curse of the Cat People, Son of Paleface, The World of Apu, Sanjuro (no doubt a comedown from Yojimbo, but still, in relation to most movies , a mountain among molehills), Alphaville (perhaps it's stretching the definition of "sequel'' to include Godard's expropriation of Eddie Constantine and his Lemmy Caution persona, but it's not stretching as far as Godard himself does when he suggests that his short segment in The Oldest Profession is a sequel to Alphaville, or that his Breathless is a sequel to Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse, or that his recent Numero Deux is a sequel to Breathless), Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only live Twice, Five Million Years to Earth, The Model Shop (which, while markedly inferior to Lola, extends the original storyline in such surprising and saddening ways that is stands as a landmark experiment in movie sequels), Hour of the Gun (which was not conceived by John Sturges as a strict sequel to his Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but rather as a carefully reconsidered version of the Earp-Clanton feud in which the famous O.K. Corral shootout provides the starting instead of the finishing point), The Organization, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, The Trial of Billy Jack, The Godfather - Part II, French Connection II, and Exorcist II: The Heretic. This many would be enough, to my satisfaction, to throw the prevailing critical conviction into the shadow of doubt. But if pressed, I could also call upon an even greater number of follow-up films in which the quality was neither lowered nor highered to any noteworthy degree: Kriemhild's Revenge (Part II of Die Nibelungen), The Bells of St. Mary's, Claudia and David, Father's Little Dividend, Hercules Unchained, A Shot in the Dark, Dracula — Prince of Darkness, Funeral in Berlin, Magnum Force, The Four Musketeers, Funny Lady, Gator, The Other Side of the Mountain — Part II, and the countless installments in long-running movie series built around such immutable characters as Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Andy Hardy, The Bowery Boys, Francis the Talking Mule , the "Carry On" gang, Gidget etc., etc., all of which maintain approximately the same steady level of mediocrity straight through. All told, the aforesaid movies seem to me quite sufficient to overturn the critical cliché even if careful research and a better memory than mine should happen to turn up the unlikely statistic that for each sequel which held or improved the quality of its predecessor, there were two or three that manifested a definite drop in quality, as in, for instance, The Return to Peyton Place, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, The Class of '44, Rooster Cogburn, and all of this summer's ill-favored sequels: Jaws 2, Damien — Omen II, and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan (better than Breaking Training but worse than the original).
The widespread bias against sequels is most solidly founded, I think, not so much on the actual aesthetic value of the work, but on a certain stubborn principle of narrative art. Obviously there exists no principle that prohibits the day-to-day business of moviemaking — the acting, the camera setups. the set decorations, and so on — from being carried out in a second movie with as much imagination and wholeheartedness as in the first. But the storyline of a sequel, unlike these independent elements, is tied to the earlier movie in such a way that insists it be judged in direct comparison, the same way that offshoots like Peter Fonda, Jim Mitchum, and Patrick Wayne are painfully prone to being held up to Henry, Robert, and John.
The narrative principle that is tampered with in a sequel has to do with the integrity, or the territoriality, of an artwork. Every narrative marks out its own private space, models its events and its emotions into a specific shape, and rounds off the fictional structure with an implicit "once upon a time" at one end and an explicit "the end" at the other. To return to that structure after its final consecration and graft a new appendage onto it is to jeopardize the sense of balance, proportion, and self-sufficiency of the original, somewhat the same as in adding a porch, a gazebo, and a nursery wing to existing house. This sort of remodeling becomes especially objectionable when the original storyline presents such catastrophic and cathartic events (as in, say, Jaws and The Exorcist) that one is apt to feel the characters who have survived these ordeals have thus earned the right to peace and quiet for the remainder of their natural lives. I would concede that this feeling about the integrity of an artwork and the territorial violation committed by a sequel holds some water, but not enough water to wash the sleepiness from the eyes of those who subscribe to it. Insofar as any human life be broken down into “stages” or "periods," I see no reason why it may not be broken down correspondingly into separate and sequential "stories." At any rate, there is no reason persuasive enough to have discouraged the making of sequels by such narrative artists as Homer, Aeschylus, Rabelais, Goethe, Cervantes, Twain, Stevenson, Strindberg, O'Neill, Hemingway, Faulkner, Colette, Celine, Francois Mauriac, Ford Madox Ford, Dorothy Richardson, and Lawrence Durrell, to name several.
Of course, not all narrative works are equally good about leaving the back door temptingly ajar for further explorations. Personally, I look forward more to the promised Close Encounters sequel than I do to the Star Wars one; I am not in the least interested in finding out what has happened to Rocky Balboa's ranking in the heavyweight division nor to the size of his "purses" since he lost his saloon-style brawl with Apollo Creed; and never under any circumstances would I want to see the little town of Amity have it summer season disrupted one more time by a large and malicious fish. Where the legitimate disgruntlement over this summer's sequels lies, I think, is largely with their storylines; and it's interesting to observe how they have gone wrong. Simply put, they have gone wrong because they have gone nowhere. They are like running-in-place exercises. Rather than conceive their narrative events as a continuation of the original's, they conceive them as a simple substitution. Rather than address the question "What next?" they address the question “What else?" In their eagerness to repeat the commercial windfall of their forerunners, they tend to repeat the actual events in such a way that the sequel appears to be little more than an afterthought, an amendment, or an alternative to what has come before.
As has been abundantly reported in the Hollywood press, director John Hancock was dismissed from Jaws 2 in midcourse because he had the deviant idea of revamping the entire complexion of the project, replacing the broad-daylight, monster-movie quality of the original Jaws with a dark, Gothic, supernatural quality. His intentions in this direction constituted the "artistic differences" with the studio bigwigs which are customarily cited as the reason for all such dismissals. What the studio wanted, and what it got, was a nice assortment of shark attacks that might readily and unnoticably be substituted for any of the attacks in the first Jaws. The sequel could almost be composed wholly of outtakes retrieved from the cutting-room wastebaskets of the first movie. The only real inspiration, the second time around, is in centering the monster movie melodrama around a summer vacationing group of teenagers—a clever box office ploy which indicates the filmmakers understand very well which side their bread is buttered on.
Damien — Omen II undeviatingly follows the plotline of its forerunner, with the adolescent Antichrist, who it seems has a very poor memory, gradually becoming aware once again of his unique identity and his mission in life, and his agnostic parents wising up to the truth even more gradually, and his trail piled high with the corpses of good, godly people who tried to wise up the world. It amounts to nothing but an alternate, or parallel, version of the first Omen, showing how the story would go if it were set in junior high school rather than in kindergarten. This sort of thing could go on indefinitely: Damien Goes to Yale — Omen III, Damien Takes a Wife — Omen IV, etc. The only innovation here is the rapier-beaked raven who has replaced the toothy dog as the Antichrist's ever present bodyguard. Otherwise, the prime creative challenge was in dreaming up death scenes even more grisly than in the first movie. An especially memorable one involves a fellow plunging through thin ice and being swept along in an undertow while has helpless friends scurry across the frozen surface, gazing in hypnotic horror at his blurred form under the ice. For the rest, though, it's difficult to pretend that seeing someone bisected at the midsection is a big improvement over seeing someone bisected at the neck.
The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, a third rather than a second installment, shows the depletion effect of this sort of carbon copy imitation. Having already done one replay, and having proven conclusively that there is a limited variety of miscues and heroics which can occur on a baseball field, the filmmakers are plainly sick of the whole business. Like the Little Leaguers in the movie, they seem to regard this project as no more and no less than a ticket to Japan. There have been flimsier excuses for making movies, I suppose.
Still to come this summer is Revenge of the Pink Panther, which if it conforms to the last two Inspector Clouseau installments,will again be a grab-bag of gags interchangeable with those of the previous outings. These will take their proper place in your head where the rest of the Inspector Clouseau gags are filed, and where the mists of memory quickly obscure the boundaries of the individual films. Also still to come is International Velvet, which, according to its promotional material, is not a simple updating of the 1944 horse movie, but is instead a full-fledged, free standing sequel, I'll bet.
It has often been remarked that Hollywood in recent years has been operating as if with its head screwed on backwards, relying more and more on sequels, remakes, old established formulas, parodies of old established formulas, and period-piece nostalgia. But a curious development in Hollywood's reactionary surge is that its sequels, with their carbon copy aesthetics, have lately started to look almost indistinguishable from its remakes.