Way back in the early ’80s, sequel-making was reserved for movies that had across-the-board popular appeal: Star Trek II, Rocky III, Jaws 3-D. Now every producer in Hollywood knows what a roman numeral can do for box office, so we get cynical retreads like Angel III: The Final Chapter. More than ever, sequelitis is a sucker game.
Except for grade-Z horror sequels: They’ve always been a scam. Such titles as Maniac Cop 2 (1990), The Curse III: Blood sacrifice (1990), Witchcraft III: The Kiss of Death (1991), and Howling VI: The Freaks (1990) wave that sequel number as if it were their sole chance of survival. And it is. Bereft of name casts, theatrical exposure, or ad campaigns, these largely direct-to-tape screamers can make a profit, but only if they catch a renter’s eye. That’s why it doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of The Curse or Witchcraft II. The number itself exudes an assurance of quality that can fool a usually rational consumer. They wouldn’t make a sequel to a bad movie, would they?
P.T. Barnum had the answer to that one. In fact, these tatty horrors are black-sheep beneficiaries of the home-video revolution — steady renters that trade on the asset of having all installments available in one place at one time, like paperback detective novels in a bookstore. You really can watch all six Howlings in a row, if you’re brave (or masochistic) enough — and many of us are, apparently. On the other hand, if you don’t mind lowering your expectations, these scuzzfests can occasionally deliver solid no-brow entertainment. It’s a shell game: You’ll probably lose, but there’s a chance that you’ll win, and that keeps things interesting.
Take Maniac Cop 2, a closely constructed sequel to the fast, nasty 1988 thriller. Both films — about a zombie flatfoot on successive Big Apple rampages — were written and produced by gutter auteur Larry Cohen (director of such smart schlock as It’s Alive and Q: The Winged Serpent) and directed by William Lustig. These two make a surprisingly good trash team. Cohen’s characters are clichés, but he has a great cauliflower ear for Noo Yawk dialogue, and Lustig directs with breathless pacing (even the car chases seem fresh). Like the first Maniac Cop, No. 2 is brutal, stupid stuff, but it has an internal logic that carries you along in spite of (or because of) the dumbness. The style almost redeems the sleaze.
Sleaze is the style of Witchcraft III: The Kiss of Death, a laughable no-budgeter that shares a wooden lead actor (Charles Solomon) with Witchcraft II and a flashback scene with Witchcraft. The plot blends Bad Influence, The Kiss, and The Hunger into one lumpy stew: Eurotrash vampire Dominic Luciano sucks the life out of one-night stands and takes over the life of yuppie warlock Solomon. But T&A is really the main order of business here, and the one common thread uniting all three Witchcrafts. When the filmmakers own up to that — in the slow, deliberate scenes of Luciano moving in on Solomon’s girlfriend (Lisa Toothman) — Witchcraft III achieves a tawdry erotic charge. But when the movie tries to tell its story straight, it falls flat on its badly made-up face.
At least Witchcraft bears a tenuous relationship to its predecessors. Curse III: Blood Sacrifice is way off the map from the original Curse, an unpleasant germ-from-space-turns-small-town-folks-into-kill-crazy-zombies opus directed by actor David Keith. Now we’re in East Africa in the ’50s (why? who knows?), where colonial wife Jenilee Harrison annoys a witch doctor into calling up the local vengeful sea god. Scenic photography is all this one has going for it; drawbacks are too much racist native ooga-booga, a zip-suited monster that looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Cousin from the Bronx, and a lead actress who’s a real pill. If horror sequels are a gamble by nature, Curse III craps out.
The champ of this subterranean subgenre, though, has to be the Howling series, almost as long-lived as better-known crud like the Friday the 13th films. The Howling (1981) was an actual movie, a witty werewolf update directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins) and cowritten by John Sayles. The sequels started getting belched out in ’85, when producers realized there was a market for brand-name dreck on video and overseas. Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf is as crummy as its title, despite the presence of cleavage queen Sybil Danning. Howling III: The Marsupials is an improvement, a campy Australian-set horror-comedy in which the werewolves have, yes, pouches. By No. 4 (a.k.a. The Original Nightmare), we’re into standard stalk-and-slash territory, and No. 5, The Rebirth, is little more than Halloween with fur.
Howling VI: The Freaks tries for something different. Sadly, the best it can come up with is a painless, thin Twilight Zone knockoff that pits nice-guy lycanthrope Brendan Hughes against scummy wolfman Bruce Martyn Payne and his evil carnival sideshow. True, you do get Antonio Fargas (blaxploitation vet and Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch) as a chicken-chomping geek, but the suspense and cheesy transformation effects get sidetracked in favor of poky romance between Hughes and farm girl Michele Matheson. This is a shame. Dull romance you can get for free on TV, but if cheap video horror movies can’t deliver cheap video thrills, why bother making sequels in the first place?
Maniac Cop 2: C+
The Curse III: F
Witchcraft III: D-
Howling VI: D+