It generally works like this. You make a movie that becomes a hit. The studio greenlights a sequel. If it does really well, another one will be made. And depending on how that one performs, it could lead to even more installments. Next thing you know, you’ve got a franchise.
Most movies don’t spawn follow-ups and most follow-ups don’t lead to additional chapters. Furthermore, not all sequels are spontaneous. Some are actually planned out well in advance.
But usually, when the opportunity to expand the legacy of beloved characters for the sake of making easy money presents itself, it proves very hard to resist. Unfortunately, some studios don’t know when enough is enough.
Few franchises are as great as the original Star Wars Trilogy. Some, like the Alien series, are hit and miss. Most tend to be average and forgettable. Then there are those that get off to a bad start and get much worse over subsequent sequels.
Here are the five worst film franchises in the history of the movies:
5. Saw (2004-2010; 7 movies)
Before the fall of 2004, Lionsgate was an indie distributor best known for releasing controversial titles like the 1998 remake of Lolita and American Psycho, both modest performers at the cinema. But after the release of the first Saw movie, they became the house that Jigsaw built.
After the low-budgeted thriller earned over 50 million at the domestic box office, a sequel was commissioned for 2005. Saw II made over 85 million. Realizing they had a franchise on their hands, Lionsgate ordered a new entry in the series for each of the next five years. Although Saw III brought in 80 million during its 2006 run (nearly half of that total came during its opening weekend), none of the remaining installments would prove as commercially viable.
Saw IV took in 63 million, Saw V grossed roughly 57 million, Saw VI made less than 30 million and Saw 3D’s final take was less than 50 million. Add it all up with the international totals and you’ll be shocked to discover that all of these films collectively accumulated 873 million worldwide. Who knew there was a huge global market for low-grade torture films?
Make no mistake about it. The Saw franchise is not about good storytelling, it’s simulated revenge porn (not to be confused with the revenge porn that California recently outlawed). At the heart of these deeply unpleasant movies is John Kramer, a successful engineer gone mad who wants to teach others the real meaning of life and death by placing each of them in time-limited, claustrophobic situations where their instincts are tested. Few make it out alive. The rest keep the coroner busy.
Why is he continually doing this? At first, we think it’s because of his terminal brain cancer which leads to an unsuccessful suicide attempt. (He wants these kidnapped guinea pigs to appreciate their lives as much as he now appreciates his.) But in later sequels, there’s also the fallout from his ex-wife’s miscarriage (which leads to a divorce) and the insurance agent who cancels his coverage.
Kramer frequently rationalizes his crimes by saying he’s not a murderer. His victims always have a choice to live. Yes, but they have to suffer for that choice which makes him, at the very least, a cinematic Dick Cheney. Not cool, dude.
As much as I liked Tobin Bell’s portrayal of the philosophical Jigsaw (he slices off a piece of skin shaped like a portion of a jigsaw puzzle from each of the dead as a calling card), I never understood nor fully accepted his extreme motivations for putting deeply flawed, mostly unsympathetic people through absolute hell. Granted, seeking perverse revenge on the drug addict who unintentionally caused his ex-wife’s miscarriage (fucking door knob) and the aforementioned insurance agent who wouldn’t cover an experimental treatment that might prolong his life makes sense. But why care about “rehabilitating” all the rest? He looks like an out-of-control busy body with too much time on his hands. And quite frankly, his technique stinks.
Despite being killed off at the end of Saw III, Jigsaw remains a central figure throughout the rest of the series thanks to flashback after flashback. (He was thankfully never artificially resurrected.) Watching these scenes, you feel the filmmakers are constantly covering their asses about previous gaps in logic, often unpersuasively. Consider the end of Saw IV where a certain officer of the law turns out to be an accomplice. A whole back story has to be created for Saw V in order to justify his actions. The result: more tedious revenge porn.
Consider the end of Saw III. It takes two more movies to find out what happens to that grieving ex-husband’s daughter. When the resolution happens at the start of Saw V, the result is improbable and anticlimactic. And consider the end of Saw II. I’m pretty sure a certain major character from the first movie is discovered lying there dead in that scuzzy bathroom. So, how is he still alive in Saw 3D? Or was that someone else? Honestly, who gives a shit.
Although there are some clever twists, which partially explains the dark appeal of this dreadful series, and that catchy end theme (an always welcome sign that the movie’s about to end), it’s the agonizing torture scenes that define the franchise. While the first Saw shows a bit of restraint (probably because of its small shooting budget), from the second film onward nothing is left to your imagination. Bones break, skin rips & burns, arms & legs are decapitated, eyes are pierced, lungs burst, hair & teeth are pulled, and on and on and on. I defy anyone to watch any one of these sequences and not make a face. I envy those who wisely look away.
By the time you reach Saw 3D, whatever minor cleverness this series once possessed is completely gone. I’ve seen a lot of violent films in my life but this seventh (and hopefully, final) entry is one of the most depraved. Even more infuriating is the ending which doesn’t resolve anything. If Lionsgate falls on hard times any time soon (not bloody likely since they bought out the studio that brought you the Twilight Saga), you could easily see an eighth Saw in the future. God help us all, even us doubtful atheists.
4. Final Destination (2000-2011; 5 movies)
The more-disturbing-than-scary Saw films may be intensely violent but at least there’s some level of intelligence happening (albeit with a large dose of pretension mixed in). Face it, there’s nothing smart nor frightening about the brutal Final Destination series.
In the 2000 original, Devon Sawa plays a high school student who startles his fellow classmates when he wakes up having a terrible premonition. They’re on a plane that’s about to fly to France for a school trip when he freaks out warning everyone that they’re all going to die in an explosion. Several other classmates follow him off the plane as he gets kicked off. While waiting in the terminal, they all watch in horror as Sawa’s nightmare becomes reality.
Breathing a collective sigh of relief, this small group of grieving teens doesn’t realize that they’re still in grave danger. Apparently, “Death” is very pissed off that they screwed up his plans and so he sets out to kill them one by one in the order they were supposed to die on the plane. How does he do this? By defying every natural law in existence.
A so-so affair with an ultimately ridiculous supernatural premise, this don’t-cheat-death-or-else formula would be poorly repeated four more times over the next decade. Final Destination 2 involves a multi-vehicle highway mishap while number 3 involves a roller coaster ride from hell. The fourth entry, the blatantly dishonest The Final Destination, is set at a stock car race gone horribly wrong while Final Destination 5 involves a collapsing bridge.
Beyond the first one (which the late Roger Ebert praised), the sequels serve no good purpose other than to cash in. (The series ultimately earned 665 million internationally. Ugh.) To see new casts make the same mistakes as the original (before belatedly realizing the inevitable) is beyond annoying. 2, 3 and 5 are awful entries but The Final Destination is the absolute worst in the series. It remains one of the worst horror films I’ve ever seen. It has no value whatsoever. As pessimistic as the Saw franchise is, this is actually the most depressing horror saga in the new millennium thus far. No matter what, you can’t cheat “Death”. But if you’re smarter than me, you’ll avoid this entire series altogether.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, October 12, 2013