Some film trilogies get regular boxsets and remain on seeming ongoing rotation – but here are some that have become overlooked.
You’ve produced a film that people have chosen to see, and film critics have praised. You now have a decision to make. Do you stand by your guns, keeping your film as a standalone story? Or do you decide to go further down the rabbit hole, continuing the narrative you have established in the first film in a potential sequel?
Suppose this sequel proves to be critically or commercially successful. Do you dare produce a third movie and automatically create a film trilogy? Throughout film history, writers, producer, directors and studio executives have decided to capitalise on successful motion pictures to create film trilogies. However, for some reason or another, not all movie trilogies have been successful. Not all trilogies manage to stand the test of time.
Here’s some films that made it to trilogy boxsets – but whilst one or two of the individual films remain talked about, the broader trilogies less so…
THE VIRGIL TIBBS TRILOGY
In The Heat Of The Night (1967), They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970), The Organization (1971)
By 1967, Sidney Poitier was one of the biggest actors in Hollywood. After making his debut in 1955’s Blackboard Jungle, he’d since received 12 major award nominations. In 1964, Poitier became the first black actor to win a leading Academy Award for 1964’s Lilies Of The Field. However, in 1967, Poitier would star in not just one, but three hit films: To Sir, With Love, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and his major success of the year, In The Heat Of The Night.
Norman Jewison’s detective drama saw Poitier portray Virgil Tibbs, a black police detective involved in a murder case while stuck in a small town in Mississippi. Here, Virgil must face widespread racism from the locals and his colleagues, while forming a reluctant partnership with local police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger).
In The Heat Of The Night would prove to be a critical and commercial success. From a production budget of $2 million (approximately $15.5 million inflation-adjusted to 2021), the film would bring in $24.4 million ($190 million in 2021). Noted U.S. film critic Bosley Crowther called In The Heat Of The Night “The most powerful film I have seen in a long time”. At the 40th Academy Awards, the film would walk away with five Oscars including Best Actor for Rod Steiger, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.
Its legacy has lasted throughout the years. 2007 would see the film’s induction into the U.S. National Film Registry. Yet don’t be fooled into thinking – by the fact that all the attention is on the first movie – that Virgil Tibbs’ story is a standalone one. Sidney Poitier would return to play him in two sequels, released in 1970 and 1971.
The first , They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (taken from the famous line uttered by Poitier in the original film), sees Virgil investigating the murder of a call girl in San Francisco. Aside from Poitier, only the original film’s producer Alan Mirisch and composer Quincy Jones would return. However, Alan Trustman (The Thomas Crown Affair) would write the screenplay. Unfortunately, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! could not recapture the success of In The Heat Of The Night. The film’s domestic box office gross would only amount to $2.35 million ($15 million in 2021), while the original movie had grossed over $20 million in North America alone. The film would also not receive the critical acclaim that its predecessor had enjoyed.
Still, the second sequel arrived a year later. Entitled The Organization, the film sees Virgil Tibbs teaming with a group of ‘urban revolutionaries’ to expose a company operating as a front for a drug ring. The Organization would perform even worse than They Call Me Mister Tibbs though, receiving mostly negative reviews and managing poor box office returns.
The Virgil Tibbs trilogy is, I’d argue, a classic case of not pushing your luck. In The Heat Of The Night is sufficient as a standalone film and didn’t need follow-ups. Turning Virgil into just another police detective meant that They Call Me Mister Tibbs and The Organization lacked the original film’s impact. In The Heat Of The Night was released at such a culturally significant moment. The film seized this environment to create an entertaining and thrilling think-piece that captured critics’ and audience minds. Such is the unnecessary existence of these two sequels and the original film’s legacy, many people would not even know that there were sequels to In The Heat Of The Night at all…
It’s Alive (1974), It Lives Again (1978), It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)
Of all film genres, I’d argue it’s horror that tends to be the most sequel-friendly . Think Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Child’s Play and It’s Alive? All of these films have been successful enough to produce more than one follow-up. Yet while the other examples have gone on to become franchises with entries crossing into double figures, It’s Alive decided to cut its losses after just three films.
What was the premise that led to the creation of such a horror trilogy? Killer mutant babies.
In 1974, Warner Bros released the first, entitled It’s Alive. The film would feature music from frequent Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, North By Northwest, Vertigo), early makeup effects by Rick Baker (An American Werewolf In London) and direction from blaxploitation filmmaker Larry Cohen (Black Caesar). It revolves around a baby, who is born mutated, complete with fangs and claws. Not long after birth, the baby begins attacking and killing everything in sight before disappearing. Now, the father of this newborn has to find it before it kills again.
It’s Alive would post decent box office numbers, grossing $7.1 million ($37.5 million) in revenue. Contemporary critical reviews were overwhelmingly negative with Gene Siskel, Vincent Canby and Leonard Maltin posting low star ratings. However, modern criticism has been more positive towards the film, with Kim Newman and Slant Magazine’s Joshua Vasquez praising the film.
Four years on from the first film’s modest success, Warner Bros would release the sequel to It’s Alive, named It Lives Again. This sequel now sees three mutant babies on the loose killing people. Simultaneously, the father from the original film warns expecting couples about the chaos their newborns could cause if they don’t protect them.
It Lives Again, would not reach anywhere near the modest success of It’s Alive, grossing just $1.5 million ($5.9 million) at the North American box office. The film would be criticised for being sillier than its predecessor, with critics from Variety to The New York Times including this statement in both positive and negative reviews.
Following the failure of It Lives Again to replicate the success of It’s Alive, it seemed for many years that the two films would simply exist as a duology. However, in 1987, Warner Bros and Larry Cohen would return with the third film It’s Alive III: Island Of The Alive. This third entry sees a group of these mutant babies transported and quarantined on a remote island, away from regular society. Several years later, an expedition to the island finds that the babies have aged and advanced and are starting to reproduce. It didn’t work. Neither audiences nor critics were impressed.
Still, one year after It’s Alive III: Island Of The Alive’s release, the film’s opening sequence was used as a quick clip in the 1988 Dirty Harry sequel The Dead Pool. The film sees ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, of course) investigating the murder of a film director, and the sequence forms part of the director’s back catalogue. On the director’s commentary for It’s Alive III, director Larry Cohen spoke about The Dead Pool using his opening sequence. He commented that “more people probably saw this sequence as part of Dirty Harry than saw it as part of It’s Alive III.”
That remark alone provides an example of how well-remembered the It’s Alive trilogy is within the movie industry, let alone amongst film fans.
Oh, God! (1978), Oh, God! Book II (1980), Oh, God! You Devil (1984)
In today’s cinema landscape, I wonder how possible it would be to make a commercially successful film in which God – as played by an 84-year-old comedian – chooses a supermarket worker – as played by a famous singer – to spread his message throughout the world. Yet in 1978, director Carl Reiner, producer Jerry Weintraub and writer Larry Gelbart would strike it lucky with Oh, God! Starring George Burns as God and John Denver as the supermarket worker, the film would become the ninth highest-grossing film of the year after taking $51 million at the box office ($208 million). With this unique concept proving to be a huge success, it was no surprise that studio Warner Bros would commission a sequel. It would arrive just two years later.
None of Reiner, Weintraub and Gelbart or even John Denver would return for the 1980 sequel Oh, God! Book II. George Burns would return as God, this time turning to an 11-year-old girl and her friends to help spread his message to the world. With a similar premise and lacking the previous film’s star power, it is no surprise that Oh, God! Book II did not achieve the success of Oh, God, bringing in $14 million ($45 million) at the domestic box office. However, this failure would not deter the release of a third Oh, God movie.
This third in this unlikely trilogy would arrive in 1984. With a screenplay written by Andrew Bergman and directed by Ted Bogart (helmer of many TV movies), Oh, God! You Devil sees George play both God and the Devil, as the two forces battle over a rock star’s life. Using a screenplay that Andrew Bergman later stated “was just an attempt to salvage something that…was going nowhere”, the film would receive negative reviews from critics. However, Oh, God! You Devil would financially improve upon Oh, God! Book II, grossing $21 million ($53 million) at the U.S. box office. Still, Warners cut its losses there, and the saga was left at three films…
THE BLACK STALLION
The Black Stallion (1979), The Black Stallion Returns (1983), The Young Black Stallion (2003)
Of all the films released where animals are the focus, equine features have proved to be among the most popular. Beginning with films like The Derby in 1895 and Barnet Horse Fair in 1896, there’s continued to be a steady stream of horsing around. While there have been plenty of standalone movies, a horse film series has been rare. Black Beauty alone has seen eight film adaptations, but none of these adaptations shares any connection. Series such as Flicka and My Little Pony have gone direct to home video, and only one movie about a horse has received direct cinematic sequels.
In 1979, United Artists would release The Black Stallion. Based on Walter Farley’s book, the story involves a teenage boy named Alec Ramsey and an Arabian stallion. Following a shipwreck, the two find themselves stranded on a desert island. Forming a friendship and a dependency upon one another, the bond the two form continues after their eventual rescue, as the two take to the racetrack to find success.
The Black Stallion would receive the backing of Francis Ford Coppola through his American Zoetrope production company. Coppola’s father Carmine, known for the iconic score to The Godfather, would compose the film’s music. The movie also feature Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr and Hoyt Axton amongst its supporting cast.
The Black Stallion would prove to be a hit. The film would gross $37.8 million ($135.6 million) at the box office against a $2.7m ($9.7m) budget. It would also garner two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor for Rooney and Best Film Editing, along with a special gong for sound editing. In 2002, the film would be inducted into the U.S. National Film Registry, cementing its critical legacy.
Four years later, the black stallion would return to cinema screens worldwide with, well, The Black Stallion Returns. Francis Ford Coppola would return to his producing role and young lead Kelly Reno would be back too. The Black Stallion Returns sees Alec travel to Morocco to rescue his Black Stallion from a Sheik who claims to be the horse’s original owner. Lightning didn’t strike twice, though: the film would fail to capture the public’s imagination in the same way that its predecessor had. The sequel would gross just $12 million ($31.3m) at the box office and receive mixed reviews from critics, who considered the film boring and regarded the film’s portrayal of Moroccans as offensive.
Fans of The Black Stallion and its sequel would get a third film though, but they’d have to wait for it – 20 years, to be exact. The Young Black Stallion would arrive in 2004, a prequel film that tells the Black Stallion’s story before he ever meets Alec Ramsey. The film would only last 50 minutes and would be released exclusively to IMAX cinemas. Critics would praise the film’s visuals but would in turn criticise anything that couldn’t be enhanced by the IMAX technology, including the plot, script and acting quality. However, the film would manage to gross $9.6 million at the worldwide box office.
THE CARE BEARS
The Care Bears Movie (1985), Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation (1986), The Care Bears Adventure In Wonderland (1987)
In the 1980s, toy franchises became fodder for movies. The resultant films’ plots were thin, with these productions primarily serving as blatant marketing for the toy lines attached to them. 1986 would see Transformers: The Movie and My Little Pony: The Movie in cinemas, while GI Joe: The Movie would go direct-to-video the following year. However, the only toy franchise that would manage to eke an entire trilogy of cinematic releases out of their products in this era would be the Care Bears. For three straight years during the 1980s, a new Care Bears film would be released into worldwide cinemas by Canadian animation studio Nelvana.
First, Nelvana would team with The Samuel Goldwyn Company to release The Care Bears Movie in 1985. Featuring Mickey Rooney and Harry Dean Stanton, it saw the titular creatures trying to help two orphans who have lost the ability to care. Meanwhile, an evil spirit corrupts the mind of a magician’s apprentice, urging him to rid the world of its caring. A simple enough plot to fill a 77-minute runtime. The Care Bears Movie would gross $34 million from a $4 million budget, becoming the world’s most profitable animated movie not produced by Disney.
Just eleven months after the release of The Care Bears Movie, Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation entered cinemas worldwide. The second film would even get a better distribution company in Columbia Pictures. In this prequel (despite the film receiving the subtitle A New Generation), the Care Bears would face their first Caring mission: helping a young girl improve her social status at a summer camp. However, an evil wizard also tries to help the girl, but only if she offers him a favour in return.
Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation would not prove anywhere near as successful as the first film, grossing $12 million at the worldwide box office. However, that would not stop Nelvana from producing the third film just 13 months later. So in 1987, The Care Bears Adventure in Wonderland would enter UK cinemas, hoping to recapture the first film’s success while making up for the second entry’s failure.
For this third entry, Canadian production company Cineplex Odeon Films would replace Columbia Pictures as the film’s distributor. The Care Bears Adventure In Wonderland saw the creatures try to save a princess from (of course) an evil wizard while enlisting a girl named Alice to take her place in Wonderland. Despite being produced on a similar budget to the previous two entries ($5m), The Care Bears Adventure In Wonderland would struggle to break even commercially ($6m). With three Care Bears films in as many years, cinema audience interest waned very quickly.
While Transformers and My Little Pony have received further cinematic releases in later years, the Care Bears have not been so lucky. The plush toys have continued to sell, but the series has not received a feature film adaptation since 1987. Many still remember the first Care Bears film, but they probably wouldn’t even know that anybody had made any more if asked to recall the sequels.
WHIT STILLMAN’S DOOMED-BOURGEOIS-IN-LOVE SERIES
Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days Of Disco (1998)
There’s a name for a boxset.
Compared with the rest of the films discussed in this article, this next lesser-known trilogy is different from the rest. It’s not a trilogy of movies based upon sequels to a successful first entry. A single character does not define these films. The movies are not even based on a book series. Instead, it’s a single director that connects them: Whit Stillman.
In the 1990s, Stillman would produce three films that he would later collate into a trilogy under that title ‘Doomed Bourgeois In Love’. This trilogy is not one created by financial success, rather the wishes of the person behind it.
The first entry is 1990’s Metropolitan. The film would serve as Stillman’s film debut as he would write, produce and direct the project. It follows a group of wealthy young Manhattanites as they navigate their way through the city’s debutante balls, finding love along the way. Made on a budget of $225,000 and featuring a cast of unknown actors, Metropolitan would prove to be a critical and box office success. The film would earn $2.9 million ($5.8m) at the box office and earn Stillman an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Four years after the success of Metropolitan, 1994’s Barcelona would act as the second part of the trio. With an increased budget of $3.2 million to use, Stillman still decided to use a cast of lesser-known actors including a pre-Oscar win Mira Sorvino. Set and filmed entirely in the Spanish city, Barcelona focuses on brothers Ted and Fred Boynton. Ted is a salesman working for the Spanish branch of a US company. Fred is a naval officer who has set foot on the island to perform PR for an American fleet that will arrive later. Throughout the film, these two brothers find love and hate in the Catalan capital.
Barcelona would prove to be more successful than Metropolitan. The film would attain $7.2 million in box office receipts. Despite not earning an Oscar nomination this time around, it’d still appear on many critic’s year-end top-10 lists.
Part three would see Stillman return to New York. His attention would turn to the city’s club scene in the early 1980s in a film appropriately titled The Last Days Of Disco. The film looks at the club scene through the eyes of two recent college graduates who start to frequent an exclusive nightclub in the city. Stillman would cast twenty-something actors Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny as his two college graduates. Both of these actors would go on to more significant projects in later years.
Despite being made on Stillman’s largest budget to date ($8 million), The Last Days Of Disco would even fail to break even financially, grossing just $3 million. However, it’d still receive positive notices from critics.
After the release of The Last Days Of Disco, 13 years would pass before Whit Stillman directed his next film, 2011’s Damsels In Distress. In 2016, he would release his most recent effort, Love And Friendship, a period comedy of manners that once again starred Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny in leading roles.
Since 1990, Stillman has directed five films, with the ‘Doomed Bourgeois In Love’ trilogy making up a significant part of his filmography. Who knows, though? Maybe there’s another loosely linked trilogy ahead…
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