Let's face it, people. Movie sequels tend to suck a monkey's left nut and shitty sequels litter the cinematic landscape like the sidewalk dog turds near where my pal Greaseball Johnny used to live in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens (I swear to god the place was like a dogshit mine field). The seemingly endless FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH droppings and AMERICAN PIE followups continue unchecked while other film series dump out mediocrity after mediocrity, so when a sequel that's actually worthwhile happens there's a moment of pause in which we appreciate and contemplate just how good the continued use of favorite characters and concepts can be. Provided they're in the right creative hands, that is. While thinking this over I initially contemplated coming up with a look at sequels that were better than their predecessors, and while what follows certainly contains a number of such films, not all immediate sequels — meaning the first sequel to follow an original, duh — are better than what came before them, despite what popular consensus may dictate as law. In several cases the worthy sequel deviates in theme or tone from its progenitor and comes up with something that potentially broadens the franchise's potential, so that factor must be taken into account. Anyway, here are the movies that first pop into my head when I think of outstanding first (and sometimes only) sequels.
The creators of ALIENS had the good sense to not even try and go down the same path as the landmark ALIEN (1979), instead kicking the horror-movie-in-space angle to the curb in favor of making what is essentially a war movie set in space. While lacking the intimate terror of the original, the threat demonstrated by the first film's lone xenomorph is multiplied exponentially as a cohort of space-Marines find themselves hopelessly outmatched when taking on what's pretty much a colony town full of the damned things. While not necessarily scary, ALIENS is certainly suspenseful, action-packed and entertaining as hell, so James Cameron's status as a guy who can deliver the action/eye candy goods was ensured.
A SHOT IN THE DARK (1964)
Not just an excellent immediate sequel, this is by far the best of the PINK PANTHER sequels and should be checked out immediately by those who missed it because it lacks the familiar PINK PANTHER label. Establishing Inspector Clouseau as the central protagonist and not just a goofy side character, the film kicks comedic ass as he lets his cock guide him through the investigation of a series of murders where all the evidence points to a smokin-hot maid (Elke Sommer) being the killer. Funny as hell in that way that only Blake Edwards could pull off during this film's era, A SHOT IN THE DARK also introduces series regulars Commissioner Dreyfus (Herbert Lom) and Kato (Burt Kwouk), and if you ask me, it's advisable to skip the original PINK PANTHER and use this flick as the real series starting point. The only other Clouseau movie that rivals this one for classic status is THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976), in which Dreyfus goes totally insane (again) and builds a working death ray.
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
A complete one-eighty in tone from director James Whale's appropriately grim-as-the-grave FRANKENSTEIN (1931), THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN ups the emotional ante and packs a gay subtext that's as plain as the skunk stripes in the Bride's pre-new wave hairdo, something I can't believe they got away with at the time (I think this one may have just squeezed under the Hays Code's radar). Camp as Christmas and loaded with memorable sequences, this remains one of the most visually lyrical horror films ever made and may be the best of the classic Universal monster cycle.
STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)
Hands-down the best of the pre-reboot STAR TREK films, THE WRATH OF KHAN benefits from a solid script and direction, as well as the aging Enterprise crew facing their own decrepitude and dealing with it. We get the (not) death of Spock, a chilling torture scene that's somehow suitable for the kids, the still-spectacular demonstration footage of how the Genesis Device works, a tense space battle and, most memorable of all, the titanic ham-off between William Shatner's Captain Kirk (see the above pic) and Ricardo Montalban as the chesty eugenics superman, Khan.
MAD MAX 2 (1981)
Known to us Yanks as THE ROAD WARRIOR, the first sequel to MAD MAX (1979) takes the previous narrative's future dystopia (that I always thought of as Australia during the time of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) and inexplicably turns it into a nightmarish wasteland, completely ripe for a Campbellesque heroic journey of regained humanity and fuel-injected badassery. By transforming the landscape into a mythopoeic speedway, the story can shed nearly all pretense of reality as we know it and thus revel in tons of high-speed, bone-crushing vehicular homicide as entertainment. If ever there were a movie that ran on pure adrenaline, this is it. (I still prefer MAD MAX, though.)
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963)
Superior to DR. NO (1962) in virtually every way, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE was one of the two films that really established the template from which the James Bond films would define themselves (the other being GOLDFINGER). The international scope is increased, the violence is nastier, the sexual content is extremely tawdry for its day (007 and Tatiana unwittingly starring in a porn reel being perhaps the most obvious example), the bad guys are perfect Cold War antagonists (Lotte Lenya's Rosa Klebb being an especially creepy standout) and the series' signature gadgets make their first (and relatively realistic) appearance in the form of Bond's well-equipped briefcase. Connery's cooler than the Abominable Snowman's dick, and his fight with Robert Shaw as SPECTRE psycho Red Grant is one of the most realistic on record, so if your taste in 007 runs more to the non-over-the-top flavor, you cannot go wrong with this, the best of the James Bond series.
EVIL DEAD II (1987)
Unlike the majority of the horror-lovin' world, I was not a fan of EVIL DEAD (1981), so in my eyes just about anything would have been acceptable as a followup. Luckily its first sequel was this delirious more-or-less, kinda/sorta remake of the first film, only with a bigger budget and director Sam Raimi displaying bolstered confidence behind the camera to compliment his visual imagination. Like a live-action cartoon filtered through a modern sensibility as influenced by a dosed-on-mushrooms Charles Addams, the movie is a roller coaster ride of crazed incidents and a sense of loony humor that would have been right at home in a Three Stooges short.
THE GODFATHER PART II (1975)
THE GODFATHER (1972) is a favorite film of myself and just about everybody else on the planet, so the fact that its first sequel actually surpasses it on several levels can be seen as somewhat miraculous. The narrative jumps back and forth in time between the events in Michael Corleone's criminal world in 1958/1959 and the incredibly compelling story of how his father made his way from the hills of Sicily to New York and founded his empire, and there's not a single wasted frame or boring second in its entire two-hundred-minute running time. This was my first Robert DeNiro film and his quiet, thoughtful portrayal of the young Vito Corleone won me over for life.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
Often compared with THE GODFATHER PART II as being one of the minute number of sequels that surpass the original, this second STAR WARS film remains the strongest of the bunch thanks to it taking the time to flesh out its characters a bit (well, as much as you can in a space opera anyway) and dazzle the eye with sequence after sequence of briskly-paced latter day Saturday afternoon serial thrills. We get the budding romance between Han Solo and the Princess, Luke's early Jedi training under Yoda (back when the tiny Jedi master was still awe-inspiring and full of genuine wonder), the battle on Hoth, the Millennium Falcon hauling ass all over half the galaxy and getting into a number of memorable scrapes (chief among which is undoubtedly the asteroid field chase)...the list just goes on and on. But the real genius of the film lays in the decision to make it Darth Vader's movie and give the bad guy a showcase worthy of his towering evil. Killing off failed subordinates at a rate that's almost comical and being simply amazing as the most pimped-out villain in the history of deep-space nefariousness, Vader rocks this one like a motherfucker, capping it off with his now-immortal revelation to Luke Skywalker near the picture's end. Some make the point that STAR WARS was a perfect stand-alone film and that both THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) can't necessarily be enjoyed as a satisfying whole without seeing the original, but in the case of EMPIRE I could not disagree more, and nearly thirty years after the fact it remains my hands-down favorite of the entire STAR WARS series and is the only one I will ever sit through again and again.
DRUNKEN MASTER II (1992)
The original DRUNKEN MASTER (1978) is by far the funniest of the numerous comedic kung fu movies, plus it contains classic fight scenes from start to finish and firmly established Jackie Chan's well-deserved place among the pantheon of martial arts movie stars. When its sequel opened in New York City's Chinatown back in Februrary of 1994, I was long a huge fan of the original and was completely skeptical of any attempt at a followup, especially since I very much doubted that Jackie could still cut the mustard with the kind of high-speed martial acrobatics required for his version of the legendary Wong Fei Hung character. What I did not know going into it was that it was co-directed by Lau Kar-Leung, the veteran star and sometimes-director of such all-time Shaw Brothers masterpieces as 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (1978, aka MASTER KILLER), DIRTY HO (1979), SHAOLIN CHALLENGES NINJA (1979, and a film I really have to do a write-up on one of these days), MAD MONKEY KUNG FU (1979), and the superlative LEGENDARY WEAPONS OF CHINA (1982), each and every one of which I cannot recommend highly enough. The teaming of Chan (who was by this point well-skilled in directing in his own right) and Lau yielded results that were both jaw-dropping and eye-popping, as Chan's Wong Fei Hung gets epically shitfaced and fights like a motherfucker's motherfucker, and in the process kind of put an end to an era. Some consider this to be the best kung fu movie ever made and, indeed, it's hard to come up with another martial arts movie that is as uniformly high-quality in its every aspect. Released in a dubbed and slightly cut version as LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER in 2000, this is definitely worth checking out for both the martial arts movie enthusiast and the newbie alike. Simply put, this is one of the best action movies ever made. And for the record: although I don't personally think it's the single best kung fu movie ever made, I would certainly rank DRUNKEN MASTER II among the all-time Top 10.
TOY STORY 2 (1999)
While the original TOY STORY (1995) was a very good film, TOY STORY 2 can be added to the short list including THE GODFATHER PART II and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK as a sequel that surpasses its predecessor. This time focusing on Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks, turning in a fantastic voice-acting performance) and his discovery of his own history, the story gives us more frequently-hilarious character bits involving the lovable toys who reside in Andy's room, but the real standouts here are new characters Bullseye (Woody's non-talking but fully-expressive and charming horse) and Jessie, the Yodeling Cowgirl. Jessie (voiced in an Oscar-worthy turn by the criminally-underrated Joan Cusack) is one of the most endearing creations in animation history and her tragic backstory, told in poignant song by Sarah McLachlan, reduced all the grown men in the audience I saw it with to unashamed tears.
TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)
I've written on this one before at length, so for the purposes of this post let it suffice to say that never before or since has a film so chock-a-block with sex and violence been so wholesome.
X-MEN 2 (2003)
Far superior to what preceded and succeeded it, X-MEN 2 gave the fans what they wanted, namely shitloads of mutants kicking ass and doing amazing shit, with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine front and center. Nothing deep or meaningful here, just sheer summer blockbuster fun.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)
I'm gonna get shit for this statement, but this is hands-down the best movie ever made involving the ongoing flesh-eating zombie apocalypse. Featuring an intelligent script, solid performances and tons of still-staggering gore, this is the movie that latter-day zombie flicks wish they were.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
To be honest, I completely forgot about T2 while compiling this list (as was pointed out by more than one reader). It's good, but I always felt it was the most unnecessary sequel ever, strictly from a narrative standpoint, hence me not including it. Everything that really needed to be said about the characters and the concept was neatly tied up at the end of THE TERMINATOR, even creating an endless time travel loop, so T2 exists solely as a well-made cash-in. Its story adds nothing to the what the original put out there except for MORE, namely more of everything and the effects budget to pull it off. But even with those minor gripes noted, T2 is a hell of a lot of fun and features Linda Hamilton's now-buff and uber-tough Sarah Connor proving to be almost as bad as the Arnold model Terminator. This, however, would be the only TERMINATOR sequel of any worth; the two followups sucked ass.
BABY CART AT THE RIVER STYX (1972)
This second in the awesome LONE WOLF AND CUB series of ultra-bloody samurai flicks has unfairly-disgraced former royal executioner Ogami Itto (my man Tomisaburo Wakayama) hired to kill a guy who's about to reveal a fabric-dyeing clan's secret process to the series' main bad guy, Lord Yagyu. The road to Ogami completing the hit is fraught with an assload of danger as he fights off Yagyu's male ninjas, a pack of vicious female ninjas who are supposedly even badder than their male colleagues, and a trio of heavily-armed and highly-skilled killers who are escorting/bodyguarding Ogami's target. It's a non-stop orgy of exceptional swordfighting and graphic violence in which blood gets on the camera lens, but it's also utterly compelling and bolstered by gorgeous cinematography. There are six LONE WOLF AND CUB flicks starring Wakayama and they are all worth seeing, but if you only choose to see one of them, this is the cream of the crop.