Planning Against The Sequel: Why Not Every Genre Movie Needs To Be A Franchise
Cabin in the Woods is a horror movie that both defines and deconstructs its genre, by hewing as close as possible to the rote tropes and then commenting on exactly why those tropes are rote in the first place. And, no, it's probably not for the reasons you think, but you'll figure it out well before the characters do, which is the point. But there's one aspect of horror films that Joss Whedon's (producer, co-writer) and Drew Goddard's (co-writer, director) convention stapling flick totally and completely subverts: if successful, the inevitability of a sequel. The way Cabin in the Woods ends, and there be no spoilers here, a direct sequel is an outright impossibility. The final product is all the better, and the more refreshing, for it.
That's the one mistake Wes Craven's and Kevin Williamson's Scream made, with each successive iteration taking a hit in quality until the near-resurgence of Scre4m made television the franchise's best option for existing in the future. It's possible one could say that series' decline is merely another meta commentary on horror movie sequels, but that's giving Craven and Williamson far too much credit. This is also the problem with Ridley Scott's and Damon Lindelof's recent box office hit Prometheus. As much as I enjoyed the movie -- and will enjoy again when it comes out on DVD -- I can't argue that there are holes present in its plot that amount to more than just a few poor choices in editing. Though, there are certainly a few of those, which gives me hope that there is a director's cut in the pipeline, for at least a slicker presentation of the material.
Based on comments made prior to Prometheus' release, those plot holes were most likely due to the filmmakers' belief that they would get a chance to explain themselves in, at least, a second installment. I'm sure that wasn't a studio directive demanding such a thing, but I'm also sure there's no studio doing business today that would prevent a movie from opening itself up to franchise possibilities. Certainly, I'm interested in seeing what happens next for Noomi Rapace's Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, but her further adventures shouldn't come at the cost of a completely standalone first feature. In stark contrast, Cabin in the Woods does stand on its own, though any number of other in a specific subset of horror films could function as a spiritual successor. A prequel or two set in Whedon's world could be interesting, from certain points of view, but, again, any number of horror films could serve that function, too.
I haven't seen it yet, but there are reports that a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman will definitely be made, presumably with Kristen Stewart reprising her role. Since when did Evil Queen tries to kill Beautiful Princess, who is saved by a Hired Goon and befriends Seven Dwarves, and together the Forces of Good defeat the Forces of Evil and everyone lives Happily Ever After need to become a multi-film story? I get that money speaks louder than sense in almost every aspect of our lives, and I'm all for more gritty, quasi-realistic takes on fairy tales, but why not let Rapunzel, Briar Rose, or Cinderalla get in on the blockbuster action?
Any story can feasibly extend beyond its ending, or reach back to a more distant beginning, but not every story needs such a thing; certainly not every movie. Do we really need to see what the ladies of Bridesmaids would do next? Thankfully, Kristen Wiig seems to care more about integrity than money. But so did Jim Carrey before he decided he did want to make Dumb and Dumber 2, before again coming to his senses and bailing on the gestating project. Certainly John Mclane and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull proved that even great franchises can't, or shouldn't, go on forever and ever until nobody cares about what made them special in the first place. Don't even get me started on Dan Aykroyd and the ceaseless charade of Ghostbusters 3.
The best stories, in any genre or format (from novels to movies to video games), have beginnings, middles, and endings. But we all know that already, subconsciously if not otherwise, which is why cliffhangers can be fun but never satisfying without resolution. This is true regardless of whether stories follow a familiar three act structure with incremental plot points to keep the machinations churning. Making a film with a sequel, or even a trilogy, in mind is the surest way to deliver an unsatisfying first installment that may or may not lead to more. Imagine if The Matrix sequels hadn't been shot all at once, but made and released as individual parts of a whole that could be called a trilogy in name later, like the original Star Wars or Christopher Nolan's Dark Batman triptych.
One thing all of those series mentioned above has in common is that they all had memorable opening salvos on which to launch successive blockbusters. Sure, the filmmakers involved might have had more of their tale to tell if the opportunity arose, but the first movie - which could always be the only movie, just ask Edgar Wright and Scott Pilgrim - wasn't sacrificed for anything that came later. As Prometheus shows, relying too much on future chapters could leave just too many questions unanswered, too many plot holes that need to be filled in, which can cause unexpected and undesirable side-effects not too dissimilar from accidentally drinking black alien goo. Even if a sequel is still a possibility, that's no excuse to be squeamish at the start and not put your best foot forward. They say the death of art is comfort, that artists need to be hungry, and planning for a sequel definitely presumes a level of comfort that perhaps shouldn't merely be expected. Prometheus was good enough for what it was, but "for what it was" is just an excuse for non-fans to condescend to the genre, and that's more frustrating than a movie that aimed high but just missed its target. Ridley Scott's return to Xenomorph territory could have been a legitimately great experience on par with Alien, without still one more excursion needed for it to also make sense.
In a way, maybe this is all Lionsgate's fault for not releasing Cabin in the Woods sooner in 2009 or 2010, assuming it would have been the moderate success then that it is today. If that had been released not too long after production wrapped instead of collecting dust in a studio vault for three years, moviegoers might not be suffering from the over reliance on sequel-bait for every single Hollywood product hitting theaters in the last couple summers. In case studio executives are still unclear as to the lesson they should be learning, let's spell it out more succinctly: If you try to save blowing audiences' minds for future cash cows, you increase your risk of killing it instead of milking it.
But if you commit to truly blowing fans' minds for at least the one time, the possible only time? They could love you forever.
Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar, and his wares can be purchased here (if you're into that sort of thing). He's not opposed to sequels or franchises, he just doesn't appreciate their ubiquity.