Common wisdom decrees that sequels are never as good as the movies they follow, but common wisdom hasn’t spent weeks rooting through horror’s countless franchises to find exceptions to the rule. And there are plenty: In longstanding series running eight to 12 entries deep, trilogies less than a decade old, and even duologies comprising a pair of stone-cold masterworks that have influenced horror for close to a century. A surprising number of horror cinema’s second acts outpace their opening acts. Maybe the original film in a series sets the bar too low, or the former raises it too high. Or maybe they’re both really damn good, but the follow-up has just a skosh more oogie and boogie.
Whatever the case, some of the best horror franchise movies happen to be sequels, and some of those sequels happen to be among the best horror movies ever made. Here’s a selection of 10 easily found on streaming services.
The low-fi novelty of 2012’s horror anthology V/H/S wears off just after the end of its first segment. The basic conceit, which marries a haunted-house backdrop to an omnibus structure, is eerie enough, but gives its participants too much leeway to make their work look intentionally crummy. The sequel, V/H/S/2, follows a similar approach, but its wraparound narrative has purpose, and its contributing filmmakers know how to shoot hand-held and grainy without obfuscating what’s happening onscreen. It helps that the movie is better-paced than its predecessor, and that its marquee chapter, “Safe Haven” (from Gareth Evans, director of The Raid and Raid 2), is sharp, inventive, and flat-out terrifying enough on its own to justify not only the sequel, but the existence of the original as well.
The Bride of Frankenstein
James Whale’s name is cemented in horror canon for directing Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, and The Invisible Man, but he deserves as much recognition for directing what’s arguably cinema’s first truly great sequel. There’s no denying Frankenstein its status as an unimpeachable masterpiece. But The Bride of Frankenstein improves on everything that makes Frankenstein so remarkable, from its imagery and atmosphere to Boris Karloff’s performance as the lonely, terribly misunderstood monster. If you can’t enjoy horror for the grim pleasures of watching Karloff’s towering, misshapen lab experiment go on an anguished rampage, or reveling in the raw shock of Elsa Lanchester’s reaction to her would-be suitor, then you have little reason to watch the genre in the first place.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II
Don’t interpret Hellbound: Hellraiser II’s inclusion here as a knock on the Clive Barker classic Hellraiser. They’re both good. It’s just that Hellraiser II’s insanity quotient is much higher, which is to be expected, given the in-depth tour of Hell and its expansion on the particulars of the Lament Configuration. Tony Randel brings a daring, semi-experimental aesthetic to the film while building off rules and expectations Barker set in Hellraiser. Skin is once again optional, people choose their own eternal torments, and Doug Bradley can’t help being anything other than stately and poised, even in a full bondage getup. Frankly, his Pinhead is key to what makes Hellraiser II work. There’s a humanity to his performance in Hellraiser that Bradley further explores in Hellraiser II with both menacing relish and empathy: He’s the film’s emotional center, and a surprising source of compassion against a backdrop of madness.
Hostel: Part II
Eli Roth’s Hostel is a far cry from Hostel: Part II, where the nastiness baked into the premise is given weight and substance its progenitor lacks. Hostel does little more than reimagine the setting of the splatter film, relocating the kidnap-torture-kill pattern of backwoods horror movies to Central Europe, where horny dudes get led by their manhood to their bloody demises. By contrast, Hostel: Part II has scope, pulling back the curtain on a world of spectacular wealth and commodified sadism. Roth dares to imagine what kind of person pays top dollar for the privilege of mutilating and murdering innocent twentysomethings, but he also has the good manners not to skimp on richly staged bloodletting. Hostel: Part II is a vicious film, but its savagery is matched by its savvy.
The Devil’s Rejects
Rob Zombie has been making horror movies for 16 years, and his best to date (well, apart from The Lords of Salem) is still The Devil’s Rejects, in every way a vast improvement on the confused, muddled House of 1000 Corpses. In the latter, Zombie limits his vision to homage; the film reads like a collage of his favorite horror movies. The Devil’s Rejects, on the other hand, metastasizes his influences — from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Badlands — into a cohesive narrative. Cleverly, maybe even cruelly, he presents a moral quandary to his audience: By repositioning the central Firefly family as leads instead of heavies, he invites us to invest in their dynamic and their bond, which means the audience ends up rooting for, or at least caring about, a trio of remorseless, gleeful murderers. Figuring out how you’re supposed to feel about the bloody end sequence is the ultimate challenge in empathy.
Wrong Turn 2: Dead End
Rob Schmidt’s Wrong Turn is the definition of mediocrity: The cast is bland, the kills are tame, the plotting is formulaic, and even the final post-credits stinger feels listless. Basically, Wrong Turn 2: Dead End didn’t have to do much to come out ahead of its precursor, so it’s a nice surprise that director Joe Lynch set a higher goal for himself than “make a better movie than Wrong Turn.” Anyone could make a better movie than Wrong Turn. But Lynch went and made a good movie, a top-notch example of the backwoods mutant redneck cannibal horror niche that works as satire of the genre, satire of crappy reality TV, and as a slasher.
Wrong Turn 2: Dead End is streaming on Amazon.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors
Three years and three movies in, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street series fully developed its identity with A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors, the chapter where Freddy Krueger became the wisecracking, mischievous, endlessly creative murderer he’s remembered as after nearly four decades of butchering teenagers in their sleep. His arsenal of one-liners is a pivotal element of his personality, arguably more so than his enterprise and ingenuity in the hyper-competitive field of making kids dead. The world-building in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors is a treat, but it’s the tally of imaginative kills and the still-fresh FX work that makes this film so damn memorable and endlessly watchable, whether Freddy is turning people into marionettes, or ramming their noggins into TV sets.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors is streaming on Amazon.
If Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [•REC] is a rollercoaster, [•REC]² is a drop-tower. Or maybe it’s an up-tower: The story progresses upward through a building, toward a penthouse, as events go from bad to worse to terrifying, forcing the characters deeper into danger at the business end of a first-person POV. [•REC]² is missing the surprise factor of [•REC], but makes up for it and then some with sheer ferocious energy. Watching the film feels like a workout, an immersive experience that goes beyond putting viewers in the thick of the action, and instead runs them out of breath. We’re right beside the doomed protagonists as they race through apartments teeming with zombies, desperately seeking hope and rescue, but met only by endless hordes of the undead.
[•REC]² is streaming on FandangoNow.
Evil Dead 2
It’s a controversial proposal among diehard video-nasty aficionados and Sam Raimi devotees: The question of whether Evil Dead 2 is an improvement on Evil Dead is deeply personal, and hinges on how you like your DIY splatter flicks. But Evil Dead 2 is the moment where “Raimi” took on a function beyond serving as a cognomen, and came to describe a style of horror filmmaking still referenced and (badly) replicated today. It’s the perfect confluence of bloodshed and humor (gallows as well as gross-out), and easily one of the most essential audience films in horror history. From the scene where Ash loses his mind in the cacophonous laughter of household objects and tchotchkes to the sequence where Henrietta Knowby is slashed to pieces, there aren’t many movies so perfectly engineered to compel macabre delight among masses of likeminded gorehounds.
Evil Dead 2 is streaming on Amazon.
Ouija: Origin of Evil
Wrong Turn 2: Dead End is to Joe Lynch as is Ouija: Origin of Evil to Mike Flanagan, though between the two, Flanagan got the worse deal by far: How does anyone make a good sequel to a horror movie based on a board game? Ouija isn’t even a “game” in the traditional sense. There isn’t a concrete objective. But Stiles White’s Ouija is total trash, so Flanagan could only go uphill with Ouija: Origin of Evil. This isn’t to say that the film is entirely good—it may be the worst Flanagan has made to date, though he’s made a lot of good movies, so “worst” is relative—but watching him dig for something substantial enough to hang a story on, and actually find it, is impressive. Oh, and that shocker of a final shot provides a jolt so satisfying that it’s worth the price of admission by itself.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is streaming on Amazon.