By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Hannibal Rising,” Weinstein Company, 2007]
This week’s release of the film “Hannibal Rising” marks the crest of a new wave of Hollywood filmmaking: the rise of the prequel as a major box office force. First with 2005’s “Batman Begins” ($370 million worldwide) and then with last year’s “Casino Royale” ($570 million), prequels have suddenly become more than a quick, cheap way to cash-in on a hit. They’re just as commercially viable as and in some ways more commercially viable than a standard sequel.
The prequel (simply, a sequel whose events take place before the chronology of the film it is following) is in some ways the perfect Hollywood enterprise. A prequel is what you make when you can’t get or don’t want your original film’s overpriced stars or directors or writers to return. The focus remains instead on the property, the brand: and brands don’t get pay raises or star treatment. Actors age; James Bond the property and Batman the brand remain young forever.
Prequels are particularly appropriate for these sorts of franchises because they all contain iconic elements, and icons need origins. “Batman Begins” shows us where Bruce Wayne’s bat fetish comes from. “Casino Royale” shows us why James Bond is such an unrepentant womanizer. Commonly, prequels like to present happy accidents, whereby characters stumble onto their destinies without realizing their significance. For instance, in “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas” Fred casually plays a carnival game, unaware the prize will be an egg that will soon hatch into his beloved pet Dino. Audiences probably like these sorts of gags for the slight, knowing buzz of superiority that comes with them: they understand something even the characters themselves do not yet grasp.
According to the always reliable Wikipedia, the first cinematic prequel or, at least, the first use of the actual term “prequel” was 1974’s “The Godfather Part II,” which is technically part-prequel and part-sequel: some events lead up to the story of the first picture, some continue the story of the first picture. Coppola was smarter than many who followed him, because he must have known a crucial flaw in prequel storytelling: an inherent lack of surprise. We know Vito Corleone will rise to power because we’ve already seen him as the The Godfather, so we watch his sections with less anticipation than bemused curiosity. The Michael Corleone sections in the “present” (technically the past, but let’s not get confusing) are far more engrossing because to the viewer the future is not written, and we don’t know what will happen. The classic line used to justify prequels is “we know where the characters will end up, but not how they will get there.”
But, of course, if how they got there was all that interesting, that was the story the filmmakers would have told in the first place. Thus another fundamental flaw of prequels: they tell no stories, only backstories. By their definition, prequels fill in the holes in the history of characters, or explain how characters transmogrified into the icons we know them to be. But those icons became popular because of who they were in those films, not because of who they were before those films which is totally irrelevant. Many prequels include the phrase “The Beginning” to attempt to bestow some sort of narrative significance, but they’re not fooling anyone.
Prequels are also great ways to bring back dead characters in ways sequels obviously couldn’t. Typically, these prequels belong to movies that are unexpected hits; if filmmakers expect to make a whole series of movies they probably won’t kill off their lead characters. So when the creators of “Infernal Affairs” bumped off one of their two leads, they went the prequel route in “Infernal Affairs II” (and later still went the “Godfather Part II” route with the part-prequel part-sequel “Infernal Affairs III”).
It’s not for me to guess whether “Hannibal Rising” will be a success haven’t you always wondered where he got the taste for chianti? but, regardless, prequels have shown a newfound strength at the box office and so there are sure to be plenty more of them in the future. So it’s an appropriate time to look back at a few of the worst prequels, to see why they work or (more commonly) don’t work, and to remember that many of the worst movies ever made were prequels. So tread carefully, moviemakers. And learn from the mistakes of those who have come before you.
“Missing in Action 2: The Beginning” (1985)
Prequel to: “Missing in Action” (1984)
Plot Summary: In Vietnam at an indeterminate time after 1972, Col. James Braddock (Chuck Norris) and a platoon of American soldiers are imprisoned and tortured at a barbaric Viet Cong prison camp. Years later (i.e. in the first movie), Braddock will return to Vietnam, rescue more American P.O.W.s left behind, and get revenge on his captors.
Reason Why It’s Not a Regular Sequel: Braddock already returned to Vietnam once to save American soldiers. Doing it again might make him look ineffectual. And if there’s one thing Chuck Norris is not, it’s ineffectual.
Relatively Necessity of Prequel: High. The Braddock of the first “Missing in Action” is traumatized by his captivity in Vietnam; this film offers the opportunity to see why.
Most Shocking Revelation: Events and even people don’t seem to match up between the two “M.I.A.”s. In the original, Braddock meets his old torturer, Colonel Vinh. But in “The Beginning” he’s tortured by a guy named Colonel Yin. Things get even more confusing in the third film in the series (the first sequel, technically speaking) “Braddock: Missing in Action III.” Though “The Beginning” depicts years of imprisonment stretching well past the end of the Vietnam War, “Braddock” shows Chuck Norris at the fall of Saigon in 1975, where he’s also got a wife. So he was combat shocked, imprisoned for years after the war ended…while also serving elsewhere and getting married. Pick a side Norris, we’re at war!
Least Shocking Revelation: That even though Braddock claims to be mentally scarred by his imprisonment in “Missing in Action” he actually seems pretty cool with everything in “The Beginning.” In fact, when he gets the opportunity to escape, he hangs around the camp and kills every single Vietnamese soldier in the area rather than simply fleeing.
Waiting For the Check To Clear: Chuck Norris, but in fairness to Chuck, that Total Gym thing I’ve seen on TV looks totally awesome.
One Scene That Sums It All Up: During his forty-minute escape that’s really more of a systematic execution, Norris gets to beat up Colonel Yin, first in a kung fu fight, then by exploding him. So he’s already blown up the man who he will later return to Vietnam to face. Again, Chuck Norris is totally awesome.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” (2006)
Prequel to: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (2003)
Plot Summary: In 1969 four years before the events chronicled in the Michael Bay produced remake of Tobe Hooper’s epochal slasher film two teens (and their foxy girlfriends) driving across Texas on their way to join the army run afoul of a burly gentleman named Thomas Hewitt, later to be known as Leatherface.
Reason Why It’s Not a Regular Sequel: The 2003 “Massacre” killed R. Lee Ermey’s Sheriff Hoyt; a prequel enables him to reprise the role. But more importantly, at the end of the first picture, Leather face lost an arm, meaning unless he’s going to hire a kid sidekick to follow him around, it’d be awful difficult to operate that chainsaw.
Relatively Necessity of Prequel: High. When someone’s as genuinely deranged as Leatherface there’s a certain amount of curiosity as to how he got that way. Unfortunately, the film gets most of the “origin” out of the way in the first ten minutes and the rest is your standard gorgeous-20-somethings-in-scantily-clad-peril.
Most Shocking Revelation:That Leatherface is the spiritual brethren of “Perfume”‘s Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. As it turns out, Mr. Hewitt was actually born in a slaughterhouse; his mother worked there and couldn’t even get so much as a coffee break to go and have her baby, so (much like the scene in “Perfume”) she just plops down on the floor, pushes him out, then leaves him wrapped in butcher paper in a dumpster. Instead of a miraculously sensitive nose, Leatherface would gain the power to appear out of thin air and shove a meat hook into things.
Least Shocking Revelation: Leatherface dresses like a butcher because he used to work as a butcher. Creative.
Waiting For the Check To Clear: Michael Bay, the producer of the recent “Massacre” series, who stood to clear a tidy sum regardless of “The Beginning”‘s artistic potential.
One Scene That Sums It All Up: As the torture of the innocents begin the two guys are tied up and hung from Leatherface’s ceiling. As one loses his cool, the other pleads “Dean! Stay with me! I need you to be a soldier!” Dean and the audiences both, it seems.
“Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd” (2003)
Prequel to: “Dumb and Dumber” (1994)
Plot Summary: In 1986 roughly a decade before the classic Farrelly brothers film starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels Harry (Derek Richardson) and Lloyd (Eric Christian Olsen) meet in a high school special needs class. Hilarity theoretically ensues.
Reason Why It’s Not a Regular Sequel: Clearly Carrey and Daniels weren’t interested in reprising their roles; clearly the producers weren’t interested in paying them enough to make them interested.
Relative Necessity of Prequel: Low. Few questions were asked, let alone left unanswered by the original. Its biggest benefit to audiences is retroactive: it makes the original seem like a Joyce novel in comparison.
Most Shocking Revelation: Lloyd’s trademark chipped front tooth broke when he literally ran into Harry for the first time. Most would be deeply annoyed if some stranger mussed their dental work. These two becomes pals for life. But hey they’re dumb.
Least Shocking Revelation: That Lloyd’s (other) trademark, his bowl cut hairdo, is actually cut with a bowl.
Waiting For the Check To Clear: Eugene Levy who plays Harry and Lloyd’s evil principal beneath a moustache and even bushier eyebrows than normal. Sorry Eugene. We can still tell it’s you.
One Scene That Sums It All Up: After Harry has an awkward encounter with a chocolate bar in a bathroom (a twist on a similar moment in the first film), Bob Saget enters and screams, “There’s shit everywhere!” accurately describing both that scene and the film surrounding it.
“Amityville II: The Possession” (1982)
Prequel to: “The Amityville Horror” (1979)
Plot Summary: Before the Lutz family was terrorized by an unholy evil in their quaint Long Island home, the Montelli family faced said same unholy evil in said same quaint Long Island home.
Reason Why It’s Not a Regular Sequel: The original “Amityville Horror” was based on the real Lutz family and their account of the events that transpired in the month they lived there. After they left, plenty of other people came and went from the house, and no one since has complained of any supernatural shenanigans, making a straight sequel a bit tougher to justify (though producers would later, in 3-D no less).
Relatively Necessity of Prequel: High; if the film’s purpose was to explain how the house got so horrifying in the first place. Unfortunately “Amityville II” begins with the evil already firmly entrenched as tenant, so it’s more like “Amityville Too.”
Most Shocking Revelation: That with its lengthy exorcism subplot and crazy demon dude with a reverb voice, “Amityville II” is as much a rip-off of “The Exorcist” as it is of the first “Amityville Horror.”
Least Shocking Revelation: Sleeping with your brother, as the Montelli’s eldest daughter does, will lead to the undoing of your family. Well, yeah, and you don’t even need to be possessed by the devil while you’re doing it.
Waiting For the Check To Clear: Burt Young, as the bored-looking and intensely abusive Montelli patriarch, marking the days between “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV.”
One Scene That Sums It All Up: The final shot of the film echoes its first: the quiet image of the Amityville house with a “For Sale” sign on the lawn, a deadly threat not only to tenants but to audiences everywhere.
“Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” (2005)
Prequel to: “The Exorcist” (1973)
Plot Summary:Years before the events chronicled in the William Friedkin film, Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) encounters a demon who possesses a young crippled boy in East Africa.
Reason Why It’s Not a Regular Sequel: With all of the original film’s cast fully grown or dead, there’s little incentive to make a direct sequel, particularly after the shall we say “limited” success of 1977’s “Exorcist II: The Heretic.”
Relatively Necessity of Prequel: Low. Other than explaining exactly what the early scenes of “The Exorcist” are all about, there’s very little reason this movie exists, which is probably why it has such an identity crisis.
Most Shocking Revelation: That this film, by Paul Schrader, really is worse than the one by his replacement, Renny Harlin, who was hired to reshoot the film from top to bottom (and did; his slightly better, slightly louder, and slightly dumber version is called “Exorcist: The Beginning”).
Least Shocking Revelation: In light of the languid pace and horrid (as opposed to horrific) special effects, its not all that surprising when Schrader at one point acknowledges on his director’s commentary, “I didn’t quite know how to shoot this scene,” and that he “…[doesn’t] know quite what it means,” when a character dies with a butterfly in his hand.
Waiting For the Check To Clear: Satan, who clearly phones in the evil (and the crummy computer generated demons) throughout the picture.
One Scene That Sums It All Up: Schrader’s final thought on the commentary track: “Somehow we made it through that.”