Killing horror: 'The Grudge', 'Scream' and other franchises that were destroyed by really bad installments
Horror films are one of the greatest gifts of cinema. Be it exploitation, slasher, supernatural, phantasmagorical, or just plain psychological experiences, there is something about horror as an overarching genre that makes for a unique viewing experience. It gives chills, thrills, spooks, and sometimes even makes you think. But like everything else, there is a diminishing marginal utility to spooks. And horror filmmakers, who should really know better, often forget that. As a result, we get sequels, reboots, remakes, and spin-offs of great films that truly, in every essence of the word, kill the fun.
So, let’s take a look at some great horror film series that was turned into absolute trash by greed and by refusing to let the franchise end with dignity. There are really a lot of them, but for this article, we’ll look at four that have caused a lot of heartache for fans.
The ‘Scream’ films
Wes Craven is rightly considered a master of slasher capers. Ghostface remains a true icon of horror as he kills teens while donning his ridiculous attire. And ‘Scream’ is an absolutely great horror film because Craven perfectly captured and satirized common teen-murder film tropes. Starring David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, and Drew Barrymore, the first film was a meta experience for horror film nerds.
‘Scream 2’ proved to be equally good. But things got shaky with the third installment. The 2000 flick starring David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Patrick Dempsey, Scott Foley, and more is a rather contentious topic among fans of slasher thrillers. On the one hand, it’s considered the weakest film in the franchise (and many believe that list includes the films’ parodies ‘Scary Movie’ and ‘Stab’). On the other hand, many believe that the film was just lost in the post-2000 shift in horror aesthetics in Hollywood.
Things only got marginally better with the fourth film -- incidentally, Craven’s last film -- and even in its good moments, it felt formulaic. With the fifth installment in the works, beating a dead horse is no longer funny. Yes, the meta-horror film was great in the first two attempts. But at some point, things get too meta and really lose their charm. Ghostface did not kill this franchise. Sad writing did.
The ‘Ju-on’ or ‘Grudge’ franchise
Takashi Shimizu’s 2000 supernatural horror film ‘Ju-On’ was a masterpiece by all standards. Even its Hollywood remake, ‘The Grudge’ was excellent. Both films were as scary as they were tragic. Kayako, her son Toshio, and Toshio's pet cat were murdered (and brutally so) by her crazed husband Takeo, upon suspicion that Kayako was having an affair with another man. She wasn’t.
Takeo broke Kayako’s neck and threw her down the stairs. He drowned Toshio and the cat. And finally, he killed himself. The broken neck and bones in Kayako’s body become part of the horror as when she takes the form of the curse (born out of this senseless rage), her voice is an eerie guttural death rattle. And her broken limbs is the reason she doesn’t walk straight. She crawls.
But the film series has spawned a total of 13 films, of which nine are Japanese productions, and four are American, and not all of them are great. In fact, some of them are downright terrible. Kayako is as much a horror icon as Sadako of ‘Ringu’ films. But after a certain number of iterations, one begins to get bored.
On top of that Shimizu was followed by a whole host of filmmakers who tried to resurrect the same cerebral horror that the first few films elicited. And they spectacularly failed thanks to bad writing, overuse of jumpscares, and the mainstreaming of the films. Sure, 2016’s ‘Sadako vs. Kayako’ was an unlikely good film, but for the most part, the films have overused J-horror tropes and killed its very essence. Perhaps, in real life, the senseless killing of a film franchise only results in disappointment. And not a curse.
The ‘Paranormal Activity’ films
While not a pioneer of the found-footage genre, 2007’s ‘Paranormal Activity’, produced, written, directed, photographed, and edited by Oren Peli, was certainly responsible for the mainstreaming of the genre in Hollywood. There aren’t enough superlatives to praise the minimalism and the atmospheric horror created by the first one. The second film, while not as good as the first, was also a remarkable feature. It was ingenious in how it used security cameras to tell the story, and it connected really well with the first one.
Then, it went downhill. While there are obvious merits to ‘Paranormal Activity 3’ -- the story is a prequel that dates back to the 70s -- and it provides a decent enough origin story. By this film, found-footage had been overused and it had lost a lot of its charm. But the real death knell to the franchise was caused by the subsequent films. ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ provided absolutely nothing new and bored audiences. The fifth and sixth installments, ‘The Marked Ones’ and ‘The Ghost Dimension’, were downright bad writing.
‘The Marked Ones’ admittedly had some fun moments, especially that one scene where they go guns-blazing to fight supernatural evil. But the films created a convoluted plot that was less a fun brain teaser and more a taxing watch that turned fans away from the whole franchise. There is a seventh film to come and you can be sure that it will do no favors to any genre -- found-footage specifically, and horror generally.
The ‘Saw’ series
2004’s ‘Saw’, directed by James Wan and written by Leigh Whannell, was a genre-defining film. It was clever, well-made, and set the tone for what could have been a great series of films. A man called John Kramer (Tobin Bell), also known as the Jigsaw killer, employs cruel justice to people he deems unfit for society. He gives them complicated tests that would either kill them or would require them to do something ghastly just to save themselves.
The low-budget (yet great) first film gave way to a sequel the next year. And as far as sequels go, it was fantastic. The Jigsaw lore was taken forward and the film evolved into its exploitation slasher form. The second film had an equally good plot and was clever enough to make its bloodiness seem worth it. But from there, things went downhill. With a total of nine feature films and additional media, ‘Saw’ has now become a pathetic excuse to cut, gut, and slash people with elaborate traps that often don’t even make sense. In his earlier traps, Jigsaw demonstrated karmic justice. But with each passing film, they lost their symbolic elegance.
The ‘Saw’ franchise, more than any worthless person, deserves to be punished by John Kramer. And the thought of Jigsaw saying, “I want to play a game,” to a box set of ‘Saw’ DVDs film would probably be a better film experience than some of the later ‘Saw’ films.