Watching UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING the other night with my sister Sarah got me thinking. With four entries now and possibly more to come in the future, UNDERWORLD was a franchise. It was a sustainable series, with a fanbase that would continue to head into theatres and await new films once the latest had come to pass. Which led to my next question: Is this a good thing? As long as the quality of any franchise remains high, yes. This is not, however, often the case.
My first thought when I hear “franchise” is fast food. All over the U.S., legions of McDonalds, Taco Bells and the like feed a good portion of Americans low quality food that barely qualifies as edible to anybody with taste. They make kingly sums because most people don’t want to be challenged with the hassle of making their own food, and have palates that are only slightly more developed than an amoeba’s. Herein lies the problem with horror franchises: Hollywood is the nation’s most powerful fast food franchise. It churns out uninspired product because it knows there’s a hungry public out there that will buy it over and over again.
Think I’m wrong? Just consider FRIDAY THE 13TH as a franchise. Never has a series of movies offered less character development from its lead. Jason Voorhees’ character arc is a flat line. In Part 2, he’s an undeveloped mongoloid with a penchant for sharp weapons and murderous impulses. In Part 4, he’s still an undeveloped mongoloid who likes to kill people with blades. And Part 6, and Part 7, and so on. Through ten flicks, a crossover with Freddy Krueger and a remake, Jason Voorhees is exactly the same. He never learns anything, grows or has a change of heart. The closest he comes to character development is six films in, when he comes back from the dead and sort of qualifies as a zombie.
Now take a look at his pool of potential victims. They’re all interchangeable. Take Ginny in Part 2 and place her in Part 5. Or Alice in the first film and slide her in to Part 4. Does the change make any difference? The only one that would radically alter things by popping up in a different entry would be Tina in Part 7, but she’s a specialty case (hold onto her, as we’ll get back to Tina shortly). And as for the guys, they don’t even need names. Just call every one Horny Teenage Boy/ Girl and you’ve hit the nail on the head. All the victims and “last girls” are one-dimensional products from the Generic Stereotype Generator, without the slightest hint of any depth. But these films tell us that’s okay, because they’re only there for the main attraction, and the main attraction is their deaths. As for how they die, it’s a lot of hand tools and sharp stuff, ad nauseam.
The weirdest thing is how a franchise can be stuck in the repetitive rut for entry after entry, and manage to stray far from its original, modest intentions. Who would’ve thought that Jason the little boy mongoloid would eventually end up fighting a telekinetic, heading into the sewers of Manhattan, body swapping, and then flying through outer space? I’m convinced that things got strange once Tina came along in Part 7 because the powers that be thought they had to make things fresh and change up the old formula (Part 7’s subtitle is, fittingly, THE NEW BLOOD). Having Jason kill horny teens was the standard, but Jason had never fought a supernatural teen before. Yet oddly, put its heroine aside and Part 7 is more of the same, with teens partying next door with booze and sex and slaughter. The film is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and Tina a throwaway gimmick.
Against all these odds, Jason Voorhees is iconic. He’s horror cinema’s Big Mac, and Hollywood was thrilled to feed him to the masses one more time three years ago. The remake tweaked things a bit, but ultimately was more of the same. Though plans for a sequel have been shelved indefinitely, mark my words the FRIDAY THE 13TH drive-thru will be open for business again. I can read the “One billion body bags served” logo now.
There are ways to make a franchise work. Two examples are THE OMEN trilogy and George Romero’s Dead saga. Let’s look at each individually.
THE OMEN trilogy works because it showcases Damien at three different points in his life: at 5, around 13 and 30. Little Damien starts off unaware of his own evil, at bliss in his ignorance and childhood. Strange things happen around him, but he doesn’t know he’s triggering them. In puberty, his powers begin to develop, and a teacher at military school shows him the grandiosity of his own evil. He struggles with it, but ultimately the good in him doesn’t stand a chance. In the third film, Damien’s full blown maleficent, out to rule the world as the prince of darkness. His character develops not only with age, but with the scope of his power. The films serve as a logical progression of the devil born of woman, instead of a repetitive wheel.
Romero’s Dead saga also deals with progression, but in a wholly different way. It’s not the main characters that are evolving, but the zombies. In fact, it’s never the same set of main characters from film to film. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, a handful of people try to survive the first night of a zombie Armageddon. DAWN OF THE DEAD presumably takes place a few weeks later, as the situation has already reached meltdown. Its characters must deal with it as they try to hold onto the old society by way of the mall they’ve taken over. By the time DAY OF THE DEAD arrives, in just a few months since that first night the zombies have outnumbered humans 400,000 to 1. Holed up in an underground bunker, a group of scientists and soldiers offer a glimpse of the ugly remnants of humanity. Each film acts as a commentary on what the society was in its time, giving each a relevancy. Romero could have focused on repetitive zombie meals. Thankfully he didn’t.
Franchises, as Ray Kroc knew, are profitable. Just look as far as SAW and PARNORMAL ACTIVITY, and it’s obvious that horror is tailor made for them. If anything, the fact that UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING was my favorite entry proves what an up-and-down prospect the business of franchises can be. Which won’t stop horror fans from pulling up to the drive-thru and ordering a Voorhees with fries.