Prometheus, The Ring, Ouija, Annabelle, The Conjuring, The Strangers, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, Deathgasm: All of these films are seeking to make the jump from one-off to franchise with sequels currently slated for release or in the works. How they will rate among the other significant horror franchises of the 21st Century remains to be seen.
What makes a franchise great? While studios rate success in terms of financial return, aficionados appreciate films with nuanced storylines, compelling characters, and creative innovations. Quantity doesn’t always equal quality, as the Wrong Turn franchise proves: Despite 5 sequels and a 6th in the works, the series never recaptured the combination of elements that made the first installment such a winner.
When evaluating the best horror franchises of the 21st Century, it’s necessary to exclude those that arrived as reboots (and therefore carry a nostalgic legacy), so, unfortunately, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit on Your Grave, and The Hills Have Eyes aren’t eligible. Films that spawned franchises on or after the year 2000 reflect a unique set societal anxieties, cultural shifts that began during the Bush administration and exasperated by the events of 9/11. Below, in no particular order, are the most perceptive, penetrating, and entertaining horror franchises of the new millennium.
Insidious (Launched 2010)
Sony set the internet a-chatter by unveiling a logo for Insidious: The Next Chapter at CinemaCon in Las Vegas earlier this week. The first 3 installments have been well received by both fans and critics. Lin Shaye binds the franchise as clairvoyant Elise Rainier; she assisted in her endeavors by demon-busting sidekicks, Specs and Tucker, played by Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson respectively. The franchise has also introduced enduring spectral villains like the hideous “Old woman” and the “Lipstick-Face Demon”.
Sinister (Launched 2012)
Sinister’s franchise power and future potential has everything to do with the iconic villain it introduces: The pre-Babylonian deity Bughuul, aka “Mr. Boogie” played by Nick King. While there are currently only 2 films in the series, Bughuul is the kind of stylish, menacing bad guy horror fans love revisiting. Key elements like creepy children, the retro projector, and 8 mm murder films are also enduring and compelling.
Hatchet (Launched 2006)
Adam Green’s Hatchet Trilogy is an exemplar of 1980’s retro nostalgia, and pure joy for horror fans who came of age rooting for Jason, Michael, and Leatherface as they slaughtered endless waves of promiscuous bimbos and douche-bags. Like the films that inspired it, the Hatchet franchise features excessively gory practical FX and dark comedy. At the same time, it’s completely self-aware and self-eviscerating, featuring some of the genre’s favorite actors and icons of yesteryear. Victor Crowley (played by Kane Hodder) is another bona fide 21st Century heavyweight of horror.
Jeepers Creepers (Launched 2001)
While the crimes of writer/director Victor Salva should never be forgotten or trivialized, there’s no denying that horror fans love Jeepers Creepers. The titular “Creeper” and the mythology surrounding him are both pure genre gold; elements of Southern Gothic and creature horror make for an awesome combination. The long awaited 3rd chapter in the franchise is currently in the works, but Salva’s history is proving to be a potential obstacle, already causing several minor production stalls. Still, it seems fairly certain that the film will eventually reach its audience.
28 Days/Weeks Later (Launched 2002)
Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later has been hugely influential; while setting a higher standard for virus horror, aspects the film’s rabid “infected” also permeated the zombie subgenre (most obviously in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead). While this led to an ongoing “Runners vs Shamblers” debate among purist, it’s become a lasting innovation. 28 Days/Weeks Later also benefit from unflinchingly bleak cinematography, exquisite acting, and a gritty brooding soundtrack. The fact that a 3rd chapter (obviously titled 28 Months Later) has yet to materialize is a shame and a lost opportunity for franchise owners 20th Century Fox.
Resident Evil (Launched in 2002)
The best and most successful franchise based on a video game, the Resident Evil films reflect both a surge in gamming popularity and the intricate storytelling programmers and creators were blending into the experience. While there’s a flawless continuity to Alice’s quest to take down the Umbrella Corp, each chapter is very distinct. The first employs haunted house tropes taking place entirely in an underground laboratory; Apocalypse (2004) takes place above ground in a decimated Raccoon City; Extinction (2007) has a Mad Max feel, playing out in a desert wasteland; Afterlife (2010) involves a seemingly impossible quest to launch an airplane from the top of a skyscraper; Retribution (2012) takes place on a freighter at sea. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter will hit theaters in 2017.
Underworld (Launched in 2003)
While the first two entries in the Underworld Franchise have an excellent neo-noir aesthetic, part 3, Rise of the Lycans (2009) is the cream of the crop, taking place in a quintessentially Gothic realm. The prequel takes viewers centuries back in time, explaining the origins of both the vampire and werewolf mythologies. Each chapter features an identifiable stylization that’s pure eye-candy. While Kate Beckinsale carries the series as the “Death Dealer” Selene, Bill Nighy’s Viktor is both regal and hypnotic, combining aspects of horror’s greatest vampires. Part 4, Awakening (2012) may have jumped the shark by unfolding in a dystopian laboratory, but a 5th installment, Blood Wars, and a 6th as-yet-unnamed chapter, are both in the works; there’s also talk of an Underworld TV series.
Final Destination (Launched 2000)
The Final Destination franchise is quintessential 21st Century, reflecting a societal shift from fear of random maniacs to a more pervasive fear of death itself: The idea that any moment could be your last and your fate is inescapable. There’s a nihilistic futility to the premise, yet characters display the powerful human desire to thumb our noses at Father Time, fighting every inevitable step towards oblivion. The semi-regular appearance of horror icon Tony Todd as a mortician, who may also be death incarnate, is a great asset. The franchise actually succeeded at constantly one-upping itself with a 5th chapter (released in 2011) that wraps up the entire story quite nicely.
Saw (Launched in 2004)
The feature film debut from director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, Saw, essentially created the torture porn subgenre and introduced Jigsaw (played by Tobin Bell), another powerhouse among 21st Century horror villains. As opposed to Kevin Spacey’s nameless sociopath in Seven (1995) who’s guided by an arcane standard of morality, Tobin’s John Kramer punishes those who take life for granted—and oh does he punish them! Not bad for a character who dies at the end of the 3rd chapter. Through a lineage of protégés and converts, Jigsaw has endured through 6 sequels with a 7th, tentatively titled Legacy, currently in the works. Saw also gave us Billy, the tricycle riding ventriloquist’s dummy who serves as Jigsaw’s mouthpiece.
Wolf Creek (Launched in 2005)
Mick Taylor (played by John Jarratt) is one hell of a sadistic psychopath, and the unforgiving Australian Outback is a hell of a killing field. Part of what gives the Wolf Creek franchise staying power is that it takes inspiration from an actual string of murders involving tourists backpacking through the Bush. While 2013’s sequel didn’t match the near-perfection of the original (by quite a bit) there’s hope for redemption; Mick is set to match wits against vengeful young American Lucy Fry (Eve Thorogood) in a six-part series on the Australian streaming service Stan later this year.
Hostel (Launched in 2005)
While horror fans were first turned on to Eli Roth after the release of Cabin Fever in 2002, it was the Hostel that made him an infamous household name, establishing him as a premier provocateur of no-holds-barred torture porn. But the Hostel films aren’t merely gory; the first 2 especially can be seen as morality tales, warnings to entitled Americans who would travel to developing nations seeking drunken sexual escapades. The idea of a torture-for-profit company (Elite Hunting) that caters to wealthy sadists is rich for exploration.
Paranormal Activity (Launched in 2007)
The Paranormal Activity franchise helped establish Jason Blum and his production company, Blumhouse, as major players in the horror arena; the series has a total of 5 chapters and an excellent “spin-off”, The Marked Ones, which targeted a large Latino fan base. While there are a couple misfires (parts 2 and 4 definitely underwhelmed), consistent innovations (including a prequel and a 3-D installment) kept the franchise compelling and profitable.
REC (Launched in 2007)
The first installment of the Spanish horror franchise REC was a knock-out, an exemplar of found footage and 21st Century virus horror with outstanding production and a killer cast. The 2nd film picks up right where the first movie left off, creating incredible continuity and establishing a mythology that combines an outbreak scenario with elements of religious horror. While REC 3: Génesis (released in 2012) was a bit of an aberration (abandoning the franchise’s established format and descending into black comedy), REC 4: Apocalypse was a worthy conclusion. The American remake, Quarantine (2008), was nearly a shot-for-shot recreation of REC, but it failed at establishing franchise potential by deviating significantly from the source material in a direct-to-video sequel.
Cloverfield (Launched in 2008)
Cloverfield helped establish J.J. Abrams and his production company, Bad Robot, as major players in the horror sci-fi arena. This year’s “spiritual successor”, 10 Cloverfield Lane felt like a stand-alone, but clues suggest an overarching “Clover-verse” that incorporates both films. The success of major creative deviations in terms of mood and presentation means that the direction of next chapter in the Cloverfield franchise is impossible to predict, but exciting to ponder.
The Purge (Launched in 2013)
Sometimes, a film series reflects real-life events and anxieties so accurately, it’s scary; The Purge franchise reflects fears many American have about an increasingly authoritarian government while simultaneously speaking to a growing international perception of America as a corrupt institution run by war-mongers. The concept of a reoccurring annual “Purge Night”, wherein all crime is legal for 12 hours, has plenty of potential for innovation. While the first installment is a spin on the popular home invasion subgenre of horror, part 2, Anarchy (2014) is a dystopian slaughter-fest reminiscent of Escape from New York. A 3rd chapter, Election Year, is slated for release this July. Is it a coincidence that this actually is an election year in America? I think not!