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Apart from alliteration, what do the following films have in common: The Terminator, The Toxic Avenger, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Tremors? The answer is that each one is the first part of a quartet of stories. Each of those films has three sequels. The same is true (suggesting that this is some sort of magic number) of Alien, Jaws, Psycho, Critters, Watchers, Ghoulies, Nemesis, Anaconda, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Mirror Mirror, House, The Omen, The Curse, Prom Night, Resident Evil, Phantasm, Pumpkinhead, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Scary Movie, Deathstalker, Species, Subspecies and - God help us - the Eddie Murphy remake of Dr Dolittle. If you want to argue that both AVP films are also Alien sequels or that House 3: The Horror Show is not part of the House series - go ahead and argue. I’m not stopping you. And yes, there’s a Species IV. Not to be confused with Subspecies IV - which, in a reversal of their original relationship, may actually be the better (and better known) film. Pay attention to all this, there will be a quiz later and it’s not multiple choice.

      I love sequels, me. Love ’em. I don’t necessarily love them all individually. Frankly, if anybody ever tries to make me watch Hellraiser III again I could end up a fugitive from justice with blood on my hands. But show that rubbish in the court room and there isn’t a jury in the country who would convict me. And that was number three. They’ve made five more since then. Doug Bradley is in all of them and his excuse - which doesn’t seem unreasonable - is that he feels proprietorial towards the character of Pinhead and if he doesn’t do these films, they’ll just get somebody else to do it.

      Maybe ‘love’ isn’t the right verb. I’m fascinated by sequels. It’s the concept of them I love. The practicalities in both narrative and financial terms. The incongruity. How many people here have seen Circuitry Man? Okay, put your hands down. Hand down. And yet someone, somewhere figured that enough people had seen the first one to justify the production of Plughead Rewired: Circuitry Man II. Which, by some quirk of copyright, has ended up as one of those no-strings-attached, piece-of-meat films sold like sirloin steaks at the AFM each year and endlessly re-released. Amazon lists six different UK DVDs of the film, either solo or as half of a double bill. Yet the original Circuitry Man itself has, so far as I can tell, never been seen in this country apart from a solitary VHS release many years ago. It all reminds me of how Psychotronic Video magazine used to have a regular subcategory of their reviews headed ‘More sequels nobody wanted’.

      One of the appeals of film series is simply the collecting angle: the impulse that all good fanboys have to complete the set of whatever. It’s a challenge, especially when rights to different movies are scattered between different companies, rendering the releases sporadic and non-consecutive. Although of course increasingly there is the opportunity to bypass such uncertainty and pick up a complete series of films in a box set. In a piece of perfect timing, young TF Simpson should be just about old enough to really appreciate and understand Harry Potter films around the time that the last one hits the virtual shelves of Amazon, at which point I confidently expect an all-dancing, all-singing box set to be released. And six months later, when Amazon and other retailers realise that everyone except the Family Simpson already has all the other films, that should come down in price enough for me to afford it. Come on, give me a break.

      In recent years there has been a tendency for sequels to not only be released on DVD together but to actually be shot back-to-back, with principal cast and most crew wrapping Part x, having a quick breather and then starting on Part x+1. A few years ago I went over to Romania to hang out on the set of Pumpkinhead 3 with my mate Jake West, which was shooting back-to-back with Part 4. The line producer explained to me that, although it might look to the untutored eye like a two-for-the-price-of-one deal, in fact shooting a brace of B-movies was more like two-for-the-price-of-one-and-three-quarters. Which might not sound like much of a saving - especially at the budget level of the average toofer production - but every cent saved is another cent of potential profit when these things are sold to distributors around the world.

      Now, it’s a very curious thing that, among all the film buyers and sellers who meet up each year in Milan, Cannes and Santa Monica, no-one seems to be certain whether audiences like sequels or dislike them. On the one hand, there’s a built-in  audience; even for the crappiest sequel, there must be somebody who liked the first film. Publicists love to have an angle to use with a film - something to ‘exploit’ - and when a B-movie is devoid of interesting ideas or name cast, one option is to make the most of the thing that it’s a sequel to. But the downside of this is the law of diminishing returns. With very, very few exceptions, not as many people will watch the second film, because there’s not much appeal in watching the second (or third or however manyth) part of a story you’ve not already seen the start of. The number of new punters prepared to take a chance on the follow-up film is unlikely to exceed the number of other punters who saw the original and either can’t be bothered to watch the sequel or are actively avoiding it as one would avoid a rabid dog.

      It is for this reason that we sometimes find sequels, especially in overseas territories, disguising their origins. Often this involves simply snipping the franchise out of the title so that, for example, Carnosaur 3: Primal Species, simply became Primal Species in the UK. Sometimes, however, distributors can be a bit more inventive. When Leprechaun 2 was released in the UK on VHS in 1996, the video company decided that not enough people were familiar with the original and cheekily retitled the flick One Wedding and Lots of Funerals. (Although the original title was restored for the DVD.) Which is all well and good, but doesn’t explain why the same thing also happens in reverse. In 2001, David DeCoteau’s The Brotherhood came out in the UK, inexplicably retitled I’ve Been Watching You. And this was followed by I’ve Been Watching You 2: Prom Night. But... that wasn’t a retitling of DeCoteau’s The Brotherhood 2 (Dave has since made six of the things - and that’s not including The Sisterhood). I’ve Been Watching You 2 started life as Steve Balderson’s Pep Squad, a dark, wry tale of high school jealousy and murder in the vein of Heathers. It’s a brilliant film but differs from The Brotherhood in one crucial way: a complete lack of vampires. I would love to see inside the mind of whoever made that decision (it certainly wasn’t Dave or Steve!). Let’s retitle this film to take advantage of the seven or eight vampire fans in the UK who actually saw I’ve Been Watching You - and then thoroughly disappoint them. This may explain why there has never been an I’ve Been Watching You 3.

      The same thing happened when Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy (another DeCoteau film, as it happens) came out over here in the UK. Suddenly it was Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy 2, an ersatz sequel to an unrelated Jeffrey Obrow picture. Although at least they had two things in common: a mummy and a complete lack of any connection with Bram Stoker.

      Then there’s Italy, which, in its own golden age, had absolutely no qualms about redesignating low budget films as ‘sequels’ to Hollywood blockbusters. Hence the film we know and love as Alien Contamination was, on its domestic release, Alien 2: Sulla Terra. And presumably lots of Italian horror fans, having been wowed by Ridley Scott’s classic, were severely disappointed to find that the sequel knocked several zeros off the budget and, in the directorial hands of the pseudonymous ‘Sam Cromwell’, several more zeros off the talent. Then, when James Cameron’s real sequel hit the Naples Odeon, were there puzzled lines around the block, muttering (in Italian): 'Hang on, didn’t they already do one of these?'

      While it would be difficult (though not impossible) to get away with such shenanigans nowadays, keeping track of sequels can still be a confusing matter - either thankless or fun, depending on one’s tolerance for irrelevant trivia. Sometimes life is straightforward. If you want to see all 13 Witchcraft films - well, there’s probably something very wrong in your life. This loosely connected series of US cheapies (characters do reappear in later films, even the one that was shot in London) still holds the record for the longest run of numbered sequels. And that’s my point: they’re numbered I to XIII so it’s easy to place them in the right order. But what do we do with Universal Soldier, which spawned two DTV sequels, actually titled Universal Soldier II and III, before the ‘official’ sequel to the first film, Universal Soldier: The Return, hit cinemas? The DTV sequels have the same characters but a completely different cast and crew, whereas The Return (and its own belated DTV follow-up, Universal Soldier: Regeneration which came out this year) both star Jean-Claude Van Damme, just like the first film. A branching structure has been created in the fabric of cinematic space-time. Whichever ‘second and third Universal Soldier films’ you watch, there is another brace of Universal Soldier sequels that you have to ignore. Two unconnected trilogies, both starting with the same movie. It’s like a cinematic model of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: a quantum trilogy which refuses to collapse its waveform. Love it. Love it.

      There are all sorts of other oddities. For example, in 1996 Fred Olen Ray made an enjoyable kid-com, starring perpetual cinematic mother Dee Wallace Stone, entitled Invisible Mom. A couple of years later he made two unrelated but thematically similar pictures, Invisible Dad and Mom’s Outta Sight, the latter of which was released in some European territories as Invisible Mom 2. Then Fred went and made an actual Invisible Mom 2, with Dee Wallace Stone reprising her role, which couldn’t be released in Europe under that title on account of it having already been used. So it was retitled.. Mom’s Outta Sight. So whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on, there is a real sequel and a pseudo-sequel, they have the same titles but not necessarily on the same films - and all three were made by the same bloke!

      Once you start getting into prequels, remakes and spin-off TV shows, things get really crazy. How can it be that the 2007 film The Hills Have Eyes 2 is not a remake of the 1985 movie The Hills Have Eyes Part II? Instead, they’re sort of second cousins. What about the Brendan Fraser-starring remake of The Mummy which begat The Mummy Returns (a sequel) which begat The Scorpion King (a spin-off from the sequel) which begat The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (a prequel to the spin-off from the sequel). And that’s before we consider the third film or the cartoon series or the fake ‘feature-length adventure’ cobbled together from episodes of said cartoon series. Where does that fit in?

      Keeping track of these things is a full-time job. Fortunately, most of them don’t really matter to most people in the grand scale of things. To actually care about the provenance and continuity of something like Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy 2 or Universal Soldier 3 or any of the baker’s dozen of Witchcraft films, you really have to be very sad or very bored or both.

      Still, that Invisible Mom 2 anecdote is a doozy, ain’t it?

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.