Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In space?: 17 film franchises that took strange left turns

Illustration for article titled In space?: 17 film franchises that took strange left turns

1. Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997)
The fourth entry in the Leprechaun franchise retains little beyond the concept of a diminutive, demonic, wisecracking Irish stereotype (Warwick Davis) picking off meatheaded Americans. Pretty much everything else goes out the window in a space “epic” with ClipArt visual effects, a confusing subplot about royal succession on a far-off planet, and a bizarre amount of screen time dedicated to a naked German cyborg who won’t stop making Wizard Of Oz references. Much as in the wacky Friday The 13th franchise entry Jason X, the outer-space setting comes off as a desperate ploy to continue a horror series without having to pay any attention to continuity or the laws of reality. But it’s especially jarring to see Davis’ leprechaun dancing around a tinny spaceship in his green hat and tartan vest, cracking wise in a Lucky Charms accent about how you should “always use a prophylactic.” (That’s after he bursts through one space marine’s crotch.) Of course, the franchise took an even stranger turn later with Leprechaun: In The Hood, which stars Ice-T and gleefully plumbs every cheap Irish and African-American stereotype imaginable.

2. Friday The 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
Before Jason went to space, he took a different left-turn detour. Apart from the hockey mask and the constant killing of horny teens, killer Jason Voorhees is pretty much defined by his ability to hide in the woods around Camp Crystal Lake as he picks off his victims. But a giant guy smelling of pond water and looking like a reject from the New York Rangers is bound to stick out in New York. Nonetheless, the Friday The 13th franchise, sensing that viewers might have gotten tired of its endless, camp-bound kill-rinse-repeat cycle, branched out with its eighth entry, sending Jason to the big city… eventually. In spite of the promise of the title and posters with the killer holding a knife over New York beneath the words “New York has a new problem,” much of Jason Takes Manhattan takes place on a New York-bound boat that only reaches its destination in time for the film’s third act, when Jason wreaks havoc in Times Square. Typical tourist.

3. Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)
Jason wasn’t the first character to depart familiar environs for the Big Apple when his long-running series risked getting stale. For the sixth Tarzan film starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, the jungle lovers head to New York when Boy, their adopted son, ends up in the hands of some unscrupulous circus promoters. Tarzan does not understand the modern ways of doing things, be it in the busy streets of Manhattan or the court system where he and Jane spend much of the film fighting for Boy’s return. But the adventure eventually prevails over legal drama, and soon enough, Tarzan’s treating the urban jungle like the land he knew back home, even jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. This was the final Weissmuller Tarzan movie, but it’s a fun one, proving that a hard left can be good for a franchise when it hits a dead end.

4. Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971)
Speaking of dead ends, it seemed like the original Planet Of The Apes film reached one at the end of 1970’s Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, which ends (spoiler ahead, natch) with an Earth-destroying nuclear explosion. But wait: Seems like three intelligent apes escaped back through time to the era from which Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts traveled in the first Planet Of The Apes film. The enjoyably loopy, then incredibly dark Escape From The Planet Of The Apes follows their attempts to fit into the world of the early ’70s, where they’re greeted first as celebrities, then as threats to humanity. But could the humans’ abuse of the apes bring about the grim, ape-dominated future they’re trying to prevent? For the answer, please consult Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, two sequels made possible by Escape’s unexpected turn.

5. Oh! Heavenly Dog (1980)
Granted, Oh! Heavenly Dog doesn’t feature Benji’s name in the title like its predecessors, Benji and For The Love Of Benji, but the poster confirms it falls within the franchise, as the loveable mutt pulled co-billing alongside his human counterpart, Chevy Chase. In the film, Chase plays a P.I. who gets killed while working on a case. After a quick stop in the afterlife, he’s sent back to earth in the form of a dog—played by Benji, of course—to solve the mystery that led to his murder. That’s right: After two family-friendly films that found “the most expressive face in dogdom” rescuing kidnapped kids and being chased around Greece by secret agents, someone made the decision to give Benji’s demographic a sudden growth spurt by teaming him with a Saturday Night Live alumnus and giving him a chance to gaze longingly at Jane Seymour in a bubble bath, then bury his nose within her soapy bosom.

6. Another Thin Man (1939)
The whole appeal of the Thin Man series of comic mysteries is based on the rapport between William Powell and Myrna Loy as the wisecrackimg Nick and Nora Charles. In the original The Thin Man, they were a screwball image of a perfect married couple: sexy, fun-loving, mutually adoring, rich, perpetually drunk, and blissfully free of ties and obligations. Unfortunately, the people who made the sequels didn’t seem to know that the title of the first movie referred to the murder victim, not Nick. So maybe it’s not surprising that, with the third film, they decided that it would spice things up to have Nick and Nora become parents. After all, who better to be entrusted with the care of a baby than a couple of freewheeling party people whose favorite pastimes were investigating murders and getting plastered? As bad ideas go, it was an especially pointless one, since Nick and Nora already had an ideal surrogate child in their Scottish terrier, Asta. In the next movie in the series, Shadow Of The Thin Man, Nick Jr. was subjected to what fans of daytime dramas call SORAS (for Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome), going from infancy to young boyhood in the space of two years. In the sixth and final film, Song Of The Thin Man, he was played by the 11-year-old Dean Stockwell. But he never did learn to do any cool tricks like Asta.

7. Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977)
After three increasingly long and ambitious movies extolling the heroism of truth-telling, ass-kicking political radical and man-of-action Billy Jack, writer-director-star Tom Laughlin went all in with this political melodrama, which really is an official remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. (The rights were awarded to Laughlin by Frank Capra, Jr., who is listed in the credits as this film’s producer, and whose father issues must rival those of Luke Skywalker.) The bad guys are powerful politicians in the pocket of the nuclear-power industry. After one of their opponents in the U.S. Senate dies, they arrange to have Billy Jack—convicted felon, multiple murderer, and whistleblower on My Lai—appointed to fill the vacant seat for the few months until the next election, on the theory that this “half-breed nutcase” will be less of a threat to them than a skilled politician. As a remake, the movie differs radically from the original in some of its specifics, such as the fact that the big-money boys in Capra’s film never threatened to have Jimmy Stewart whacked. As a Billy Jack movie, it suffers from adhering too closely to Capra’s prototype. Billy always had a way with words, but his box-office hits usually built up to the moment when he realized that the time for talk was past, and began distributing cans of whup-ass to all deserving parties. Billy Jack Goes To Washington, however, climaxes with Laughlin delivering a filibuster on the Senate floor, which so impresses the chief villain, a corrupt senator played by E.G. Marshall, that he loudly confesses his foul deeds and throws himself on the mercy of the court. The movie, which was given a meager release into a world where Billy Jack’s cultural moment had passed, essentially marked the end of Laughlin’s movie career, though the IMDB insists he appears somewhere in the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep and the 1981 flop The Legend Of The Lone Ranger.


8. Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! (1989)
Imagine you’re a producer in the implausible position of making a second sequel to a low-grade slasher movie about a psychically damaged killer who dresses up as Santa Claus. Who better to tap than the director of the cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop, as well as a pair of existential Westerns and a movie about a mute cockfighter? It would be a substantial understatement to say that Monte Hellman wasn’t the obvious choice for Silent Night, Deadly Night 3, and more so to observe that it isn’t exactly a traditional sequel. By his own account, Hellman set out to make a comedy, which explains why the movie’s scalpel-wielding “coma victim” has a metal dome screwed into his skull, one he covers with a knit cap when the weather grows chilly. Throw in a smattering of psychic power, and you’re about as far from slice-and-dice as you can get.


9. Bud Abbott And Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
By the late ’40s, Universal’s roster of movie monsters—Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula—had taken on a near-camp tinge, thanks to years of familiarity: The original Frankenstein and Dracula both came out in 1931, The Wolf Man in 1941. The studio even doubled the creatures’ waning star power via 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, then piled a bunch of monsters together in films like House Of Frankenstein and House Of Dracula. So why not go even further and throw in a couple of slapstick ringers for good measure? The title of 1948’s Bud Abbott And Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein is misleading: Not only does Frankie (Glenn Strange) show up to scare the wits out of Bud and Lou (not difficult), so do Wolfie (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Drac (Béla Lugosi). For Abbott and Costello, it was the first of a series of “Meets” films that paired them with Jekyll & Hyde, the Invisible Man, Captain Kidd, and “The Killer, Boris Karloff.” For the monsters, it was more or less the end of the road.

10. Shaft In Africa (1973)
The trailer says it all: “Shaft is back—where he’s never been before—hitting the Motherland like a black tornado!” That’s right: The black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks, the ultimate self-sufficient movie hero, spends his second sequel (the first was 1972’s Shaft’s Big Score) posing as a slave to crack open a European slavery ring. “I’m not James Bond, Sam Spade,” he tells the man who hires him, and that sums up this goofy movie as well as any of the comic-relief moments in which Richard Roundtree rides a camel. 

11. Ernest Goes To Africa (1997)
It seems likely that selecting the subject matter for the cinematic adventures of well-meaning ignoramus Ernest P. Worrell (Jim Varney) was way more fun than the experience of making—or watching—any of the nine “Ernest” films. From 1987 to 1998, Ernest went to camp, to jail, and to school, joined a basketball team and the U.S. Army, saved both Christmas and Halloween, and, in Ernest Rides Again, set a precedent for rewriting established American history long before the release of National Treasure. Oh, and did we mention that he also went to Africa? A certain black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks had already set a precedent for visiting the Dark Continent, but why send Ernest there? Why not Ernest Down Under? Or even Ernest In Outer Space? Although it was filmed on location in Johannesburg (sorry about that, by the way, Johannesburg), given that the DVD cover for this straight-to-video “classic” features Ernest wearing a tribal mask, it should come as no surprise that Ernest Goes To Africa was ultimately as politically incorrect as it was unfunny. Still, perhaps the film deserves some credit for the scene in which Ernest uses his yo-yo skills to take down an opponent via a kick-ass around-the-world move. Or perhaps not.

12. Babe: Pig In The City (1998)
The beloved Chris Noonan-directed 1995 children’s movie Babe marked something of a departure for writer-producer George Miller, at the time better known for the intense drama Lorenzo’s Oil and the Mad Max films. Babe’s gentle tone was far removed from that of a pummeling blockbuster, but the same can’t be said of the film’s dark, almost emotionally apocalyptic sequel, Babe: Pig In The City, a pitch-black comedy that sends Babe into a nightmarish metropolis full of shadows, threats, and, most terrifyingly, Mickey Rooney. Pig In The City’s ominous tone and dark humor scared away much of the family audience that flocked to the decidedly less traumatizing original, but the film went on to pick up a devoted cult following.

13. Bride Of Chucky (1998)
While the first three movies of the Child’s Play series diverge in setting and characters, they follow a basic pattern. Chucky, a doll infused with the spirit of a serial killer and voiced by Brad Dourif, wants to become human again, and the only way he can do it is by stealing the body of a boy named Andy. But Andy doesn’t appear in Bride Of Chucky, the fourth film. Screenwriter Don Mancini junked almost everything from the previous films to help create the best movie in the franchise, a horror/black-comedy hybrid directed with style and wit by Ronny Yu. Bride introduces Jennifer Tilly as an ex-girlfriend and accomplice of Chucky’s from back when he was human. Tilly resurrects her rubberized Romeo, but the doll turns on her and transfers her soul into another doll. The two then go on a rampage, tormenting a pair of clean-nosed teens (including a pre-ubiquity Katherine Heigl) in pursuit of a magical doohickey that will make them human again. It’s really just an excuse for a lot of elaborate, gory murders, but there’s enough humor here to make the entry feel fresh, less a reiteration of the franchise’s long-stale premise than a grim cartoon about two squabbling, psychotic Cabbage Patch Kids.

14. Alphaville (1965)
In America, Eddie Constantine was a failed singer. A few years after he relocated to France in the ’50s, he was a movie star, thanks to a string of low-budget action movies in which he played hard-boiled secret agent Lemmy Caution. Where Johnny Hallyday was “the French Elvis,” Constantine became the French Bogart, with the added attraction of him actually being American. Prior to Alphaville, Constantine starred in seven Lemmy Caution movies, though those films were apparently too pedestrian, and Constantine himself too pale a shade of Bogart to establish an identity in America, outside the occasional magazine article about how weird the French are. Then Jean-Luc Godard had the inspiration of using Constantine, playing Lemmy once again, as the antihero of his science-fiction detective story Alphaville, set in a futuristic landscape made out of undoctored locations in the modern Paris of 1965. Godard’s pop-culture joke had real ramifications for Constantine’s career: Having participated in subverting his signature character, he wasn’t offered another starring role as Lemmy, though he continued to reprise the role on TV and in small appearances in movies until 1991, when he donned Lemmy’s trenchcoat for the last time in Godard’s Germany Year 90 Nine Zero. Today, thanks to Alphaville, the routine Lemmy Caution movies live on in the same way as the otherwise-obscure poems Lewis Carroll parodied in the Wonderland books.

15. Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster (1971)
Everyone knows the original Godzilla (Gojira for the purists) was a sobering cautionary tale about the dangers of radioactivity and the nuclear arms race. But after 10 films and 17 years in the business, Godzilla, like a lot of other stars of his generation, was in danger of seeming out-of-touch as the ’60s morphed into the early ’70s. Writer-director Yoshimitsu Banno decided to try to save the big fella’s career by getting him back in touch with his roots, via a green vehicle that has him battling a grotesque, destructive monster born of environmental pollution. The film also includes trippy animated interludes, Godzilla flying through the air by the power of his atomic halitosis, and in the English-language version, a theme song (“Save The Earth”) that’s part Vegas, part Children’s Television Workshop. After completing this picture, Banno immediately set to work on another anti-pollution Godzilla movie, but after longtime Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka viewed Smog Monster, he reportedly severed ties with Banno and blackballed him within the Toho Company.

16. Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982)
John Carpenter felt that the story he’d begun in Halloween had come to a satisfactory conclusion in Halloween II, and only agreed to the studio’s pleas for another sequel if it didn’t even drop the name of Michael Myers. Carpenter reasoned that “Halloween” could become the umbrella title for an anthology series of horror stories planned for release to theaters every October. What he wound up with, thanks to writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace, was a stupid, aggressively unpleasant film about an evil toy mogul (Dan O’Herlihy) who plans to wreak apocalyptic mayhem on Mischief Night by broadcasting a TV commercial that, when viewed by children wearing his special Stonehenge-enhanced masks, will transform the tots’ heads into masses of insects and poisonous snakes. The film’s performance at the box office ended all talk of an anthology series, and within six years, Michael Myers was resurrected and back at it. Halloween III’s most lasting legacy turned out to be an intense, one-sided feud between Carpenter and the late cult science-fiction writer Nigel Kneale, who was commissioned to write an original screenplay for the film that was rejected, even though there’s literally no possibility that it wasn’t better than Wallace’s shooting script.

17. Sherlock Holmes And The Voice Of Terror (1942)
Basil Rathbone, the movies’ definitive Sherlock Holmes, along with Nigel Bruce as his faithful Dr. Watson, made the classic The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes in 1939 for 20th Century Fox. Typecast and joined at the hip, the actors reprised the characters on radio, then took their act to Universal. Voice Of Terror, their first film for the new studio, began with a crawl explaining that Holmes and Watson were “timeless,” which turned out to be a cute way of explaining that Universal thought they would resonate better with contemporary audiences if they were living in the 1940s and fighting Nazi spies. This Billy Pilgrim-ish relaunch kept the series going for 12 films, even though the dialogue became leaden with wartime propaganda speeches, and although you can actually see Rathbone’s interest in continuing to play the role die when, at Watson’s urging, he leaves his funny-looking deerstalker hat behind and puts on a fedora before venturing outside.