The other (obscenely late) night, I watched the prequel to a modestly successful movie franchise. I’d never watched any other movies in the series, and I was surprised by how puzzled I was by the experience. For weeks afterward, a question nagged at me.
Are movie prequels ever any good?
Before we dive headlong into this probably controversial topic (Star Wars, mes amis!), let’s consider two relevant lists on the subject:
No, the punchline isn’t that the lists are identical. It’s that the “worst” prequels vastly outnumber the “best” in Screenrant’s respective rankings. But there’s a problem. Many of the entries in their parallel posts aren’t really prequels.
What is a prequel? And are all prequels actually bad?
Prequel: A literary, dramatic, or cinematic work whose narrative takes place before that of a preexisting work.
That’s what a prequel is. Now let’s consider what it is not.
If a book was written or a movie filmed before a more popular subsequent entry in the series, that first work is not the prequel to the later lauded work. That means Red Dragon, which Thomas Harris published in 1981, is not the prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, which came out in 1988. The Silence of the Lambs is the sequel to Red Dragon. That goes for the cinematic adaptations of both books.
If a property in a popular series is only superficially positioned earlier in time than a previous entry in the series, it isn’t a prequel. It took Screenrant pointing out that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom technically takes place a year before the first film in the series, Raiders of the Lost Ark, for me to notice this fact about two movies I’ve watched a ridiculous number of times. Nothing about Temple informs Raiders. It’s not a prequel.
Nor is Casino Royale a prequel. It’s author Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book. Just because it took Hollywood an inordinate amount of time to commit it to film doesn’t make it a prequel to the 007 series. Same deal with The Hobbit.
The Godfather II is most assuredly not a prequel. It’s a sequel with flashbacks. I can attest to this because I once mainlined all three Godfather movies in a single reckless day, the head-spinning result of which was that The Godfather II left me with a working vocabulary of Italian mobster threats that I later put to use whilst watching Goodfellas, and the generally panned Godfather III struck me as absolutely fantastic because it heralded the end of Mario Puzo’s tedious odyssey into the inner workings of La Cosa Nostra. Also, there was a callback murder-cannoli from the first film, this time with a side of opera.
The only films on Screenrant’s dual lists that I can say for sure are prequels come from the Star Wars universe. Of the rest, I remain blissfully ignorant. And that got me to thinking.
Have I ever consumed a prequel on purpose?
Yes, I have. Thrice:
- The various prequels and prequels-to-prequels of the Flowers in the Attic universe
- Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (ominously an Alan Smithee movie)
- Retro Puppet Master (even more ominously starring The Room alumnus Greg Sestero)
I’d read the various Flowers in the Attic books as a gnarly pre-teen, when I should have been engaging in wholesome sports or attempting to spray my hair into a 1980s atrocity-sculpture or something. And I’d seen my fair share of Hellraiser movies prior to cutting class as an edgy actual-teen to watch it in a near-empty theater with a free matinee ticket I’d obtained by Certain Means.
I’d never seen any of the Puppet Master movies prior to watching The Room and reading Sestero’s memoir about it, The Disaster Artist, as an irritable AGE REACTED.
That’s when it hit me: does anyone ever consume a prequel — be it movie, book, play, TV show or musical — without having first familiarized themselves with the original media?
Was I doing something breathtakingly groundbreaking?
This is the sum total of what I knew about Retro Puppet Master before watching it:
- Greg Sestero was very proud of starring in it
- While writing my review of Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust, I learned that the producer’s most notable credit is the Puppet Master series
- The original Puppet Master film was a B-movie that I had hazy memories of seeing on the shelves of Blockbuster back in the dark Before Times that preceded Netflix
In The Disaster Artist, Sestero recounts his audition for Retro Puppet Master, inauspiciously held where Ed Wood made several of his notoriously bad movies. Ironically enough, Sestero was up against James Franco for the starring role. James Franco would later direct the film adaptation of Sestero’s book and star as Sestero’s pal Tommy Wiseau.
Like me, Sestero went into Retro Puppet Master completely uninformed about the Puppet Master cinematic universe. As he recalls:
“I’d never seen any of the Puppet Master films, but I felt instantly attracted to [the role of] André Toulon. For one thing, Toulon was European, and I’d always felt as European as I did American. For another thing, Retro Puppet Master was a prequel that showed Toulon as a young Parisian puppeteer before he went mad with power and became the Puppet Master.”
As an ill omen of his performance in the film, Sestero psyched himself up for the audition by channeling the worst acting seen on screen prior to the work of Tommy Wiseau: that of Star Wars prequel star Hayden Christensen.
Recalled Sestero, “Like any good Star Wars nerd, I thought, Do it like you’re doing Anakin Skywalker. An Anakin Skywalker who talks to puppets.”
Sestero couldn’t produce the British accent that the role called for. But he managed to turn up the wattage on the good looks that had made him a successful male model, and offered the filmmakers a French accent that charmed them into offering him the part. And then, like Moira Rose’s Eastern European stint on the set of The Crows Have Eyes III, Sestero was off to glamorous Bucharest to shoot the movie that he thought would be his big break.
It wasn’t. But damn, was he handsome back then!
Poor pre-The Room Greg Sestero! Though a native French speaker, he couldn’t produce a credible French accent on camera. I have no doubt his spoken French is flawless. But his Retro Puppet Master French accent consisted of nothing more than the addition of Ys to random words. Thus the line, “Let her go!” became “Lyet hyer goh!” And every word of dialogue was delivered in the same husky, hushed tone, whether his character was supposed to be terrified, enamored, vengeful or shocked. I suppose I shouldn’t judge: I’m a native English speaker, but like Sestero I can’t do a British accent. And it’s entirely possible that I, too, lack variation in tone and volume. I don’t claim to be an actor, however.
Leaving aside Sestero’s performance, the entire movie flummoxed me. I’d love to recount the plot, but all I can recall is the cinematography, which was larded with Dutch angles. The camera constantly and gently rocked from side to side, especially when the villains — some kind of resurrected mummy-men — were in frame. It was as if the movie were filmed on a ship a-sail upon the high seas.
I have to admit, those mummies were pretty cool, though I have no idea who they were, why they were resurrected, or what was behind their unquenchable desire to kill Greg Sestero. Look at them, rocking bitchin’ shades and bowlers, rolling up to Belle Époque Paris like a trio of Droogs in kickass Matrix trench coats:
Are they important later in the Puppet Master series? I have no clue.
Along with Sestero and his Egyptian nemeses, there was a rich chick who could do a British accent, thank you very much, and whose most important act was to sneak out of her cushy hôtel particulier to attend one of the lamest puppet shows ever enacted on stage or screen. This sad little spectacle could be summarized as follows: “A bunch of marionettes spout existential crap like low-rent Jean-Paul Sartres and, like Sartre, look like ugly wooden dolls.” Somehow, in the midst of this dreary dreck, she falls for Greg Sestero, their puppeteer.
Deaths occur, puppets get imbued with souls, evil mummies try to kill everyone, puppets kill ’em back. Just a regular Thursday for me, honestly.
The only real surprise in this confusing movie came at the end. It didn’t just impress me, it also stuck with Sestero because it was part of his audition for the role.
“The audition script,” he writes in The Disaster Artist, “was four pages of me speaking to newly arisen puppets, whom Toulon has brought to life with a secret potion. In this audition I was also expected to theatrically bestow upon Toulon’s puppets their names as living beings: Dr. Death, Six Shooter, Cyclops, Blade, Tunneler. It was all monologue, basically, and easily the strangest thing I’d ever gone out for.”
This scene remained in the movie, and it was far and away his best performance in the entire film.
Sestero’s approach to the scene, he recalls in his book, was the same one he took during the audition. “They’d placed facsimiles of all the puppets on the floor, so I sat down and started playing with them, saying my line with a French accent. I was used to playing with Star Wars figures, so that’s what I pretended I was doing. I was five years old, I was Anakin Skywalker, I was a nice French boy who’d grow up to be evil.”
There’s something I’ve noticed after years of consuming bad books and movies. Usually they wander along half-asleep, dreaming a dull dream, from the lazy start until the lifeless end. But sometimes — just sometimes — there’s a brief moment when they “wake up” and become momentarily brilliant. In this scene, Retro Puppet Master “wakes up.”
Sestero is mesmerizing as he interacts with the newly living puppets. His husky, gentle speech pattern becomes reminiscent of the low-key, soothing tones of Mr. Rogers. The creepy puppets become as inoffensive as King Friday, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Tiger, and the rest. The viewer wants to watch him quietly murmur at his puppets for hours. If only Sestero had been offered a gig as host of a children’s show before sinking to the sub-basement that was The Room! He would have been a huge success.
So, to return to our original question: are prequels always bad?
Prequels are, in a sense, fodder for fans. They’re delicious slices of insight into the origins of the story and characters they love.
But what if you’re not a fan? If a narrative can’t stand alone as an independent form of media, should it even exist separate from its source material?
Are prequels only for fans?
That seems nonsensical. If that were true, prequels would only be provided as bonus material alongside the original media, like DVD commentaries, bloopers and deleted scenes.
Since that’s not the case, a prequel must be said to be “good” only if it’s enjoyable and comprehensible to people unfamiliar with the original movie or book.
I guess I’ve got to intentionally watch some prequels on purpose to find out. If you’ve got any non-Star Wars suggestions, send ’em my way.