Contrary to what you may have heard, horror movie sequels do not need to be inferior to the originals. When Hollywood releases disappointing sequels, it’s usually because the filmmakers were simply trying to piggyback on the success of an earlier film. They didn’t take the time to actually build on the original premise.
However, on some occasions, producers, writers, and directors actually do emphasize the importance of exploring where a sequel can go in this genre. A recent example would be The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death. The upcoming The Strangers: Prey at Night is another example. Both of these movies demonstrate how horror sequels can stand out on their own as quality films. Here’s how:
Focusing on the Right Elements
Although there may be exceptions, for the most part, horror sequels shouldn’t focus on the protagonists of the previous movies. In many instances, those protagonists aren’t around anymore; such is often the case in this genre.
That said, even when they are, it’s usually not the “heroes” who appeal to viewers, but the villains. The “bad guy” of a horror movie, whether it is a ghost, murderer, or some other type of supernatural entity, is what’s most interesting. The protagonists are usually ordinary people thrust into terrifying situations. They’re merely trying to survive. Focusing on them in a sequel would require audiences to suspend their disbelief more than they may be capable of. Unless a horror movie protagonist has a direct connection with the villain, it’s often hard to imagine how they could manage to encounter the same terrifying situation twice.
On the other hand, it’s not at all difficult to imagine how a villain from a previous film might target new victims. On top of that, the villain is often more dynamic, interesting or downright appealing than the heroes. When viewers pay to see the next installment in, for instance, the Alien franchise, they no longer expect to see Sigourney Weaver evading the titular monster yet again. They expect to see new characters face an old threat.
That’s why the sequels to both The Woman in Black and The Strangers work. They maintain the right elements, while making strategic changes to the cast at the same time.
Altering the Setting
The setting of a horror film is almost as important as the setup. The situation and villain may be responsible for most of the terror that viewers experience, but the right setting can heighten that feeling of fear, too.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the setting doesn’t merely involve the physical location where the events of the film take place; it also involves the time period.
Again, there are always exceptions, but in the horror genre, sequels tend to be most effective when the setting is altered, at least slightly. It’s fairly easy to expand on a villain, giving them more depth in a sequel. It’s not always as easy to make the same setting more interesting the second time around.
The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death updates the setting of the story in the first film by a few decades, fast-forwarding to World War II. This is a smart move, especially when telling a ghost story. Ghosts make for interesting horror movie tropes because they exist outside of time. They offer a window into the past, but they also survive long after the protagonists of the stories pass on. Updating the setting reminds the viewer that the supernatural being’s legacy lives on, so to speak.
Similarly, in the upcoming The Strangers: Prey at Night, the overall setting remains secluded, but rather than taking place in a rural cabin (a fairly common horror movie location), the action has shifted to a deserted mobile home park.
An abandoned mobile home park, on the other hand, offers an arguably eerier location. This is the type of setting that implies people once lived there. Seeing a formerly occupied area devoid of its original population can triggers feelings of tension in the audience. The connotations are clear: decay, death, loss, and that unsettling sense of being forgotten. That’s why post-apocalyptic films are often somewhat frightening, even when they’re not intending to scare; the idea of seeing an area that humanity has fled can be unnerving.
Of course, these are merely a few reasons why these two movies represent what can happen when filmmakers actually care about expanding on the world of the originals. While it’s popular to claim that horror movie sequels are destined to be inferior to their predecessors, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death and The Strangers: Prey at Night show why this doesn’t need to be the case.