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The Rules Every Good Horror Sequel Must Follow

The bigger the horror hit, the harder it can be to pull off a solid sequel. But nothing's impossible. For follow-ups to avoid being buried in the back of our minds forevermore, directors must play by these rules.
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If we’ve learned one lesson from scary movies, it’s that the nightmare is never really over. Cinematic evil-doers often return when we least expect them to. But for any sequel to be truly successful, there are certain rules that must be followed by the director. This, of course, is especially true for the horror genre. And the rules are unique and unflinching.

Sequels are a fantastic opportunity to expand beloved screamfests into even more terrifying territory. Sadly, that’s not a foolproof endeavor. The scariest thing about most sequels is how bad they are. When a follow-up fails, it’s usually because its creators forgot to abide by the inescapable rules of a horror sequel. Here are things that must happen for it to work. Or as I call them, the lucky (to survive) seven.

Rule #1: Higher Body Count

Michael leaving burning house unscathed in Halloween Kills
Youtube/Blumhouse Productions/Miramax

In a horror sequel, the supporting cast and cameos are just as important as the lead characters. And a higher body count is crucial. We need more victims, more survivors, surprise characters, and familiar faces, or it’s not going to be much fun for anyone. Here’s a fun fact though: Halloween Kills has the highest body count of its entire franchise. The others don’t even come close.

Inevitably, the audience will be meeting a few new characters. So smart casting is key. Oftentimes, the original cast is heavily what makes the fear fest worthy of a sequel. But no matter how many new people are brought on to persevere, throw us off, or be killed off, they must be characters we’ll care about to some degree, which brings us to the next rule.

Rule #2: The Original Cast MUST Return

Remember I Know What You Did Last Summer? You may also remember I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. But what about the other sequel that came out in 2006? I’m guessing not. Critics and audiences alike agree that the original cast for this teen-horror hit was so strong, it practically made the movie. The first follow-up was saved by keeping a couple of its most beloved leads, even though that one barely survived.

In stark contrast, the second sequel’s bland and bizarre cast quickly faded to a faint memory, and the movie fizzled out with them. Obviously, it’s not always possible to bring back an entire OG cast. Still, someone crucial to the first film must always return. If they don’t, the sequel is doomed from the start. Cursed, even. And whatever directors do, they must never start the sequel by killing off the previous lone survivor. That doesn’t count.

GIPHY/New Line Cinema

Rule #3: Keep The Same Horror Tone

A sequel is no time to concoct an entirely new concept with entirely new fear factors. It’s a continuation. While that might seem obvious, many sequels fall prey to this pitfall, creating a body of work that fully deviates from the tone of its predecessor, and it just doesn’t work. This is horror, after all. The tone matters.

Think new scares with old scare tactics. We need the same quirks and elements that made the first movie successful, or we won’t have new reasons to jump. Franchises must evolve, but wiping out what made an original great will undercut growth and scariness. For example, the Paranormal Activity series would not be what it is without its crucial consistency of tone.

Blumhouse Productions

Rule #4: Raise The Stakes

zombie cat in pet Semetery eating a steak
Youtube/Di Bonaventura Pictures

Horror sequels are a chance to tie up loose ends, and that goes for both movies. However, if you’re going to take a second whack at it, go big or go home. No matter who comes back from the dead or reveals themselves the true villain, what happens in round two must raise the stakes in one way or another.

Ultimately, audiences need to be pulled back in. Whatever hooked them the first time around, there needs to be more of it, not less. The second time around, there needs to be more blood, more shock, more action, more intrigue. With that said, bigger does not always mean better.

Rule #5: Use That Bigger Budget Wisely

giant CGI alien on neon light filled spaceship
Youtube/Reverse Engineering

Congratulations horror director, you’ve made it to a sequel. This likely means you’ll have a bigger budget and a fairly tough time figuring out how to make the same magic happen again. My advice? Don’t get too heavy-handed with the CGI. The digitized elements should enhance what’s happening, not become the entire focus.

Relying on special effects to do all the heavy lifting comes off as lazy. Sure, some movie money must go into CGI but choose wisely. The quality of digital monsters will always do more for a sequel than the sheer quantity. So don’t overdo it. If everything scary was made on a computer, what makes it feel real will be lost.

Rule #6: We Need a Hero

Most of any movie’s success lies in the powerful hands of its lead. From start to finish, we need to root for them, especially for a sequel to work. If they’re genuine and resilient, we’re with them every step of the treacherous way, even if we don’t really know where things are going. But if they’re shallow or unrealistic, we’ll be unable to connect, relate, or care.

If the main character is a new character, they need to come across like a real person. They must seem capable of growing when it’s all screamed and done. After all, sequel leads have just as much to prove, if not more, than the sequel itself. And if the first movie had a true hero or an unforgettable villain, creating a copycat character to keep things going is ill-advised.

GIPHY/Miramax

Rule #7: Respect The Original

No matter what, a horror sequel must be able to stand on its own creepy feet. In order to do that, it has to turn to its already strong foundation for guidance. The first movie did well for a reason and those reasons cannot be dismissed or dismantled. The original must be respected. Because no matter how you slice it, for better or for worse, comparisons are going to be made.

The greatest challenge horror sequels face is not being seen as a sham. They must become their own entity without living in the shadow of the original. The trick is figuring out who and what made the first movie so special, holding onto that for dear life, then hitting the ground running through a fresh and fearless lens. Otherwise, every aspect is in danger of becoming cheesy, unmemorable, and horrifically hollow faster than you can say “look out!”