You might think that horror films have a finite storyline stitched into them, but few other genres lend themselves to sequels in the same way. No matter how much the concept is stretched, movie theaters are packed with horror fans who appreciate a good formula. After all, you never know when you walk into a new horror film if you’re at the start of a brand new franchise.
The best horror sequels have often come from fresh talent picking up the pieces from an earlier film⏤whether they’re blood-splattered or shaking with paranormal fear⏤and heading in a new direction. Though the real monster often proves to be the law of diminishing returns, many horror franchises have thrown up one or two sequels that match their original.
From gothic classics to modern reinventions, here are the best horror movie sequels.
Hellraiser II (1988)
The first Hellraiser film was a relatively faithful domestic tragedy adaptation of Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart. When it came to the sequel, all bets were off. Director Tony Randel expanded the concept of Hell, spending much of the film there and providing greater depth and motivation for the cenobites⏤demons to some, angels to others.
Hellraiser II has some startling imagery, from Julia’s reanimated body soaking through her dress to the towering Leviathan. Best of all was the chilling Dr. Channard. Bad enough as a scheming and sinister human, it’s no surprise that he transforms into a malicious cenobite with an odd fondness for a one-liner. The literal deconstruction of Lead Cenobite Pinhead almost finished off the iconic monster in his second outing, but Doug Bradley’s iconic performance was too good to lose.
Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)
After an odd and uninspiring second film, the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise got everything back on track when Freddy Krueger took on a group of defiant children in a psychiatric hospital. Patricia Arquette is just one of the actors this slasher series introduced to the screen. Her central character’s ability to pull others into her dreams, creating a team of Dream Warriors, could have pushed the concept to superpowered extremes. Instead, this entry was a franchise peak, just before Freddy’s one-liners overtook his scares. Wes Craven and Bruce Wagner developed the story that Chuck Russell sharply directed. Freddy has never been better than when he drags poor Phillip to the window ledge as a human puppet.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Director James Whale was reluctant to take on a sequel to his 1931 classic Frankenstein, but he couldn’t have been more wrong when he said he’d already “squeezed the idea dry.” Bride picked up key moments from Mary Shelley’s novel, including the blind hermit who befriends the creature and, of course, the central demand that Frankenstein make his creation a companion.
Elsa Lanchester was brilliantly cast in dual roles⏤as the titular Bride and Mary Shelley during the film’s prologue. It’s a fascinating parallel that helped the Bride become an instant icon in just a few scenes. Jack Pierce and Whale worked together to create her starling appearance, an equal to Boris Karloff’s legendary creature. The windmill fire that closed the first film was historic, but the emotional impact of the sequel, from the Bride’s shrill horror at her fate to the creature’s further rejection, is heartbreaking. A peak of romantic horror.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
It took eight years for Hammer to release a sequel to 1958’s Horror of Dracula. It opens brilliantly with the climactic scrap between Dracula and Van Helsing from the first film’s climax. But this film is a different beast. The talky Dracula is out. Christopher Lee refused to speak the lines, and the hissing, feral Count that’s left became legendary. The film’s success ramped up production during Hammer’s heyday. Prince of Darkness was the first of eight sequels, with Lee reprising his role in six. An impressive run, considering Lee disapproved of the way Hammer treated Bram Stoker’s original novel.
Saw II (2005)
James Wan’s Saw was a perfect standalone film, but the concept was irresistible and soon spawned an annual series. Saw II upped the ante in every way a sequel should. Its increased budget allowed for a creepier animatronic Billy puppet. It also encouraged the filmmakers to dream up new and better nightmarish traps, this time lined up for a group of guilty victims. The Needle Room, where the admittedly untrustworthy Amanda sorts through thousands of syringes for a door key, stands out as one of the franchise’s most hideous moments. It brings out the worst in Jigsaw’s victims, and debut director Darren Lynn Bousman didn’t spare the horror, to the “point” you could almost feel it. Over 120,000 needles were modified for the scene, although the pit still needed to be packed out with styrofoam. The most horrific part, for them and us? It was all for nothing.
Evil Dead II (1987)
Evil Dead II, sometimes sub-titled Dead by Dawn, is less a sequel and more a remake of the 1981 original. The six years between the two films gave director Sam Raimi the chance to refine the concept, and he produced a funnier, gorier, slicker cabin-in-the-woods tale. Bruce Campbell was in career-defining form as darkly comic Ash, a far more entertaining character than the original. As Ash was dragged through a succession of unbelievable and gruesome events, we watched him emerge as one of the most iconic heroes in horror. An unbeatable mix of gore, terror, and comedy.
Exorcist III (1990)
Exorcist III was in an odd position. While the 1973 original had become an instant classic, its sequel was instant turkey. Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty returned to demonstrate just how to twist the formula and avoid repeating the superb original. He moved the action to a psychiatric ward and added a police procedural and a demonic murder spree inspired by the Zodiac killer. Blatty had trouble selling his script and, after taking up the directing reins himself, suffered studio intervention that dented the third act. Still, he showed a sure hand in his final film, including one of the greatest jump scares in horror history.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
How do you follow up a tight black and white siege movie with its sights on social and race in 1960s America? George Romero’s Trilogy of the Dead would become famous for tackling distinct themes in each film. The stand-out was the middle film, Dawn of the Dead, which moved the undead action to a shopping mall and the tense, action-packed tale of survival made a pointed commentary on consumerism. One of the most influential zombie movies of all time.
Confusingly, there have been three ‘second’ Halloween films, but this is the best. John Carpenter reluctantly threw together the script for the sequel to his 1978 original, a film that threw off the whole franchise with the strange twist that Laurie Strode was Michael Myers’ sister. Rob Zombie’s 2009 sequel to his remake remains underrated for its breaks from the original films and a focus on the consequence of trauma.
When they reset the clock in 2018, David Gordon Greene and Danny McBride wisely wiped that familial connection away, replacing it with the three generations of strong Strode women. The 40-year gap may seem unlikely, and Michael’s actions are unbelievable given he’s about 60 years old and has been dormant for four decades. But this streamlined, stylish film brings menace back to the slasher by removing motive and reason. It captures the disturbing horror of the 1978 original, and it was all the better that John Carpenter was back on soundtrack duties.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
In Hammer’s sequence of seven Frankenstein films, this is the stand-out. No movie adaptation has turned the spotlight on the doctor like this run. The evil created by Peter Cushing’s chilling scientist is fueled by his arrogance, brilliance, and amorality. While his creations come and go between the films, the Baron remains the real monster of the piece, here proven with an unfortunate assault scene that shouldn’t have made it to the final cut. Still, this fifth entry is the most balanced, and for once, it looks like the creature⏤this time an emotional performance by Freddie Jones⏤has finally gotten revenge on its creator.
Scream 2 (1997)
It was inevitable that there would be a follow-up to the self-aware original. It couldn’t resist. Scream 2 doesn’t just state the rules for making a successful sequel to the audience⏤the body count has to be bigger and the kills more elaborate⏤it goes on to skewer them and plenty of other horror cliches on the way. Scream is so sharp that it should topple over, but the talent in front of the camera, and the sure hands of director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson behind it, help it keep pace with the first film despite missing the element of surprise. If it made one mistake, though, it was dispatching Jamie Kennedy’s Randy Meeks.