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Third Time's the Harm
by Patrick Storck

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For the sake of this argument we are going to exclude LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING. There are several reasons. For one, the trilogy is telling one long story broken into three major parts, as opposed to most trilogies that are three separate but interconnected stories. Also unlike most part threes, this was part of the package deal when part one was produced. Often you get a part two and three as franchise deals after part one is a success, but rarely do you see part three planned and paid for from the moment part one is greennlit. RETURN OF THE KING is an anomaly, and as such contradicts the point of this article, as it is considered by many to be the best LORD OF THE RINGS movie. Damn inconvenient, isn't it?

That said, when is the last time you saw a part three that was the best of a series? Sometimes they're a satisfying finish, or better than the second one, a "return to form," but the best out of all of them? I can't think of any. It makes me wonder if it's worth considering doing a part three, should the opportunity arise, since I'll be making a clearly lesser work than something else I've done.

Horror is a breeding ground for sequels, and why not, since you kill off characters regularly and always destroy the villain? Actually, stepping back, that really makes no sense. Anyway, in horror, part three is often where long-running franchises get their legs for being a series. Part one sets up a premise, location, tone, villain, and so forth. Part two usually gets rushed out before too many copycats can flood the market. The ideas aren't very good, the stakes and budget are raised as almost a backhand to the work and events of part one, and generally the sequel fails in public opinion. Still, it usually makes money and we get at least another chapter.

Part three is where everyone can look at what went wrong with part two that worked in part one. Usually it's a matter of people who didn't come back both in front of and behind the camera. Instead of tossing the increased budget at the people who would make a good movie, the money gets put into splashy visuals for the advertisements. Part three is where "by popular demand" key players come back to help "reinvigorate the series." A lot of that means protecting residuals for the first film, since every time a sequel comes out there's renewed interest in part one, new merchandise, repeat airings, increased rentals of purchases.

The third horror film is where a lot of the iconic bits come from. Jason gets his hockey mask, Freddy gets much quicker with a joke and more elaborate in his "dream logic." It's where the ideas are really laid out to keep the line going. If you're at part three, you should pretty much be ready to knock out a part four and on down soon, or leave enough of a sandbox for new people to play in.

This can backfire, as was the case with HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. Carpenter felt there was rally no realistic way to continue the Michael Myers plot line, so his intention was to make the series an anthology. Every year or two release a new HALLOWEEN movie themed around the holiday, with only the thinnest connections or references. New writers and directors could come on board, or Carpenter could come back and put something out under the banner, but it would be a regular thing. As we all know by now, that didn't work out too well.

Either way, the big problem with horror part threes are that they're made with dollars as the motivation over creativity, inspiration, and art. You're reusing ideas to some degree, and you're definitely not going to give a sense of absolute closure, since the idea is to keep the gravy train rolling. There's a lot of fun but not depth to the average horror part three.

In the big budget trilogy, usually reserved for sci-fi or fantasy, part three is typically cleanup. Part two generally sets up all of the tension, the plots, the location, the big questions. It's where we see betrayals, new characters, fantastic effects, character growth, and everything they can throw at us to make sure we come back for the big finale. In other words, part two makes a lot of promises that part three might not be able to keep. Part three is all payoff. It's the big confrontations, spectacle, the touching death or two, the big speech, all of the answers. When are answers really more fun than questions?

If part three came out the month after part two it wouldn't be so bad, but with months to years for fans to speculate, build up the things they know have to happen in one way or another, there's no way to win. You could make something absolutely brilliant, but you'll still have people out there saying that wasn't how they saw it happening, and they thought this character should have done that, and the ending was all wrong. That they could have done a better job. Truth be told, they could do a better job telling the events they imagined while they were waiting, at least for them to watch. They'd then have to deal with everyone else's expectations. Still, it's not their story to finish.

In super hero movies, part three is especially toxic. Part two is generally an improvement on part one in effects, story, character, pretty much everything. Part three is an implosion. BATMAN FOREVER, SPIDER-MAN 3, X3, SUPERMAN III, all of these are massive failures compared to the one before. Luckily there hasn't been an X4 or a SPIDER-MAN 4 yet, but if they go the way of BATMAN & ROBIN or SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE they could set back Marvel movies for a decade.

I'm not really saying there is one solid reason that the third movie in a series is a disappointment. Hell, I'm not even saying they're disappointments universally. They are just inherently disposed to not be the best of the series. Part one is frequently the best, part two isn't unheard of (like the above super hero movies, or GODFATHER, or LETHAL WEAPON). In longer series you get a lot of debate, like a person's favorite Bond film (while good, it's rarely GOLDFINGER as the all-time favorite). I just thought it was interesting.

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.

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