Franchises are where good horror goes to die.
Don’t get me wrong. Next month I’ll be out there with everyone else, lining up to see Halloween Kills, just like I lined up a few of years ago to see Jamie Lee Curtis return as Laurie Strode in 2018’s Halloween.
Does that make me a hypocrite? Of course.
Let’s be honest: the most recent installment of the Halloween franchise was well worth seeing, especially for fans of Michael Myers who have had sit through dismal shit like Halloween 4 and Halloween 5 over the years. It was not, however, tremendously scary. Bloody? Of course. Tense? At times, certainly. Ferociously entertaining? You bet. Frightening? Not so much. And I think the reason for that is clear from the phrase “fans of Michael Myers.” Because that’s what we are. The thing is, though, being a fan of something implies that it is familiar and engaging. It implies a high level of acceptance and comfort. Predictability. Stability. All of which implies a kind of security. We know (and we like) what we are going to get from Michael. We buy the ticket and in return we are entertained. We get some violent, bloody shocks. What we don’t get—we really don’t want, in this context—is anything too unexpected or that is going to seriously challenge or disturb us. We are in the arms of the franchise, and that embrace tells us we will get our thrills safely.
It’s not a bad movie. Not at all. It’s just not very scary. Not really.
This has little or nothing to do with whether the director has made a good film or a poor one. 2018’s Halloween is a well-made flick. What I’m describing is just a function of your familiarity with the material on the one hand and the market pressures that keep the director from straying too far from the formula that has made the franchise a success thus far. (Note how many fans hated Halloween 3 when it first came out simply because it had nothing to do with the other movies in the series.) Because of the formulaic nature of sequels, what was fresh quickly becomes tried and true, then tired and trite. This is especially true in the case of a movie like Halloween, which helped launch not only a series of sequels but also a gang of imitations when the slasher subgenre exploded. Under the circumstances, it is virtually impossible for any sequel to scare and audience as much at the original did. In order to do so, it almost has to strike out in a completely different direction—something that almost never happens.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately not because of Michael Myers, but because of Jennifer Hills. In ways, this is hardly an analogous case. Halloween’s first sequel came out just three years after the original, and others quickly followed. By contrast, the 1978 cult classic I Spit on Your Grave went over thirty years before a remake (2010) spawned a couple of sequels (2013 and 2015). Still, I find the Spit remake and sequels rather quickly ran into the same types of problems. None of the later movies possess the raw, unsettling power of the original. Certainly, a sturdier budget resulted in the 2010 remake being a more polished film; the camera work, sound, and effects are better, and at times the acting is also stronger. However, there are some sizable minuses here as well: there are noticeable plot holes (inexcusable for such a simple plot), and the attempts to add interest by making some of the revenge sequences more elaborate felt flat and unrealistic. Even the movie’s more polished presentation really makes it less effective; the 1978 movie has a brutal realism to it that makes it feel like a documentary, the opening of a window into one woman’s private hell. While the remake is often intense and disturbing, it falls well short of the original. This happens for several reasons, but the main one is simply that we have seen this all before.
If the 2010 movie is a passable remake that struggles to capture the numbing agony and frenzy of the original, the sequels are far lesser things. The filmmakers seem to realize in ISOYG 2 that they need to change the formula, and they attempt to accomplish this by movie the setting to the rape/revenge drama from the backwoods to the big city. This changes little, however, and we basically get a movie that rehashes old turf and attempts freshen things up by introducing more elaborate (and less convincing) methods of revenge. ISOYG 3 strays further from the original plot premise and therefore feels a bit newer, but it unfortunately develops some issues of its own in the process. The acts of violence committed against women that form the rationale for revenge are suddenly all off screen, which lessens their impact and makes Hills’s violent reprisals feel more like de rigueur set pieces. The violence here seems designed to maximize the audience’s vicarious satisfaction and sense of self-righteousness rather than to confront them with the psychological and ethical burdens involved in such “justice.” The butchery becomes almost cartoonish at times; it becomes unreal and unconvincing (indeed, some of it, depicted as Hills’s violent on-screen fantasies, is not even “real” in the world of the movie). It’s not just entertainment—it’s bad entertainment. While the original film forcefully raised questions about toxic masculinity and vigilantism, this installment seems mostly content to celebrate violent reprisal. Somewhat disingenuously, it makes gestures at acknowledging how dehumanizing these violent outbursts are for Hills, but never really seems to take the problem seriously. Everything that was unsettling and horrifying in the original has been lost.
Unfortunately, the problem with franchises is that once they start making money, they are almost impossible to kill. They rise, these creatures from the shadows in the back of the box office. You think they’re dead, but they sit back up and come at you again and again. True to form, there is one more installment of I Spit on Your Grave out there that I have not yet bothered with. Its name seems apt: I Spit on Your Grave: Deja Vu.
I suspect I have, indeed, already seen what it has to offer.