10 great threequels

Which are the franchises that nailed their third part?

Matthew Thrift

The Godfather Part III (1990)

The Godfather Part III (1990)

The Godfather Part II (1974), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), Bride of Frankenstein (1935)… We’re all familiar by now with the well-rehearsed canon of sequels that surpass their originals. But what about that even more difficult third album?

We’re not talking here about the third part of great trilogies – those third films that capped a series of releases that were always planned as a trio. Hence no The Return of the King (2003) or Return of the Jedi (1983).

We’re also not looking for the third parts of conceptual trilogies – those more loosely linked triptychs in which each part riffs on rather than exactly continues the previous entries. That means no Tokyo Story (1953), no Through the Olive Trees (1994) and – nope – no The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

We’ve done all that here.

By threequel, we’re talking about films that were made simply because their preceding instalments made some bunce, or at least proved critically successful enough to warrant going back to the well.

They may not be the best films in their respective series, but these 10 prove that – on rare occasions when all the variables slot into place – third time can prove a charm.

Another Thin Man (1939)

Director W. S. Van Dyke

Another Thin Man (1939)

The powers that be at MGM weren’t expecting much from their B-quickie adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man, in 1934. A booze-sodden mix of murder mystery and screwball banter, the film proved a huge hit, its success almost entirely down to the sparkling chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy’s Nick and Nora Charles, a reluctant detective and his heiress wife.

Five sequels would follow, with original director W.S. Van Dyke back for the first three, before his suicide in 1943. By the third film, the formula was well established, with a convoluted investigation playing second fiddle to the duo’s repartee, before the cast are united for the culprit’s unmasking.

Van Dyke strings the comic set-pieces together with efficiency, smart enough to let his leads forge the rhythm of any given scene. There’s a new addition to the Charles clan in the form of one-year-old Nick Jr, but scene-stealing, somersaulting mutt Asta still refuses to be upstaged.

Goldfinger (1964)

Director Guy Hamilton

Goldfinger (1964)

Whether or not you think Goldfinger is the best James Bond movie, it certainly marks the point at which the franchise found its formulaic groove. Bond emerges in a wetsuit with a seagull strapped to his head for what director Guy Hamilton (replacing Terence Young) describes as the “wonderful piece of nonsense” of the pre-credits sequence, stripping a layer to reveal the immaculate white tux underneath. A kiss, a double-cross and a “positively shocking” bathtub takedown leads us to the series’ most iconic title sequence.

The best villain? The best henchman? Surely the best car, right? The retrograde sexual politics definitely stake their claim for the most wince-inducing, but the most surprising element in revisiting Goldfinger lies in our favourite Bond’s uselessness. Opening heroics aside, 007 is effectively foiled at every turn, the day saved by a CIA agent who pushes him out of the way in the nick of time.

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

Director Blake Edwards

Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

The Pink Panther (1963) and A Shot in the Dark (1964) may have come in quick succession, but it would be another 11 years before Peter Sellers and director Blake Edwards would reteam for a third entry in the Inspector Clouseau saga. Both were in need of a hit – and the money – so when Lew Grade came calling with a production deal, neither were in much of a position to refuse.

The final product plays out like two completely different films squabbling for dominance – one a Sellers-led farce, the other a more serious crime picture showing off Edwards’ directing chops. The opening heist sequence, wherein guest star Christopher Plummer lifts the world-famous Pink Panther diamond, is one of Edwards’ very best, but, as ever, the series’ raison d’être lies in Sellers’ hapless imbecility, first glimpsed here strolling down the street, swinging his truncheon into his face.

The slapstick set-pieces mount up, but none surpass the inspired lunacy of Cato’s (Burt Kwouk) surprise attacks.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Director George Miller

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

The first two films in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic trilogy – before his return to the wastelands with the magnificent Fury Road in 2015 – were stripped-down exercises in genre kinetics. The second outing with Mel Gibson, The Road Warrior (1981), seemed especially impassable (at least at the time) in its chase-movie demolition derby. The only route open for the third film was to opt for more of just about everything.

A sprawling first act introduces us to Bartertown, presided over by none other than Tina Turner’s Auntie, a ruler beholden to the whims of a methane-controlling double-act known as Master Blaster. Things threaten to stall in the mid-section, involving a tribe of lost kids living on the edge of the desert, but Beyond Thunderdome proves its mettle in a third act chase that reprises The Road Warrior’s fiercest moments in miniature.

The least of the series, perhaps, but also the most conceptually substantial, it boasts a kickass theme song from Turner in ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’.

Day of the Dead (1985)

Director George A. Romero

Day of the Dead (1985)

Given its action trappings and readily accessible social commentary, it’s little surprise that Dawn of the Dead (1978) remains the most celebrated entry in George A. Romero’s zombie franchise, following his game-changing debut, Night of the Living Dead (1968). But it’s the third entry that remains the bleakest (and, for many, the best) of these shuffling nightmares. It’s also the one that sees effects maestro Tom Savini at the peak of his gut-spilling powers.

The notion that ‘humans are the real monsters’ dates back to the earliest days of the horror movie, but rarely has it been so forensically examined as it is here. Day of the Dead centres on a scientist in an underground bunker who’s attempting to eke the humanity out of his undead subject, Bub (Sherman Howard). But his project is thwarted by the unstable marines led by Joseph Pilato’s Rhodes, leading to an unforgiving finale that makes no bones about the deserved fate of humankind.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Director Chuck Russell

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

From his first appearance in Wes Craven’s peerless original, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Freddy Krueger’s “bastard son of a thousand maniacs” proved a ubiquitous presence through the rest of the 1980s. The film spawned TV shows and video games alongside the six sequels that appeared almost annually before Craven’s own soft reboot in 1994 with New Nightmare. No matter how old you were, there was little escaping the pop-cultural mantra that, at some point, “Freddy’s coming for you…”

These days, the first sequel, Freddy’s Revenge (1985) has been reclaimed as a queer horror classic, but it’s Chuck Russell’s third entry that remains the best in the series this side of Craven.

Featuring a breakout turn from Patricia Arquette, Dream Warriors sees a group of sleep-deprived teens in a psychiatric hospital fend off Freddy’s nocturnal advances. Visually rich and imaginative, it shows little interest in exploring the razor-fingered one’s backstory, maintaining the boogeyman credentials that would disappear to unfortunate comic returns as the series progressed.

A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991)

Director Ching Siu-tung

A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991)

Adapted from the ghost stories of Pu Songling (whose work also served as inspiration for King Hu’s 1971 masterpiece, A Touch of Zen), the original A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) was a monster smash, quickly heralded as one of the key works of the Hong Kong new wave. Directed by action maestro Ching Siu-tung, and produced by the legendary Tsui Hark (who also served as unofficial co-director), its expressionistic blend of romantic melodrama and supernatural wuxia thrills proved at once nostalgic and hugely influential.

A 1990 sequel upped the budget and larks, and a third instalment followed just a year later. Chungking Express star Tony Leung takes over from Leslie Cheung as the tax collector forced to spend the night in a spooky temple, falling in love with the returning Joey Wang, once again playing a ghost held captive by a thousand-year-old tree demon.

Ostensibly set 100 years after the first film, it’s effectively a remake – the Evil Dead 2 (1987) of the series, if you will. Leaning heavier on the special effects, it’s held in less esteem than its predecessors. But it remains an atmospherically charged cap to the trilogy (ahead of a lame reboot 20 years later), with a knockout finale that sees Leung transform into a golden, flying buddha.

Alien 3 (1992)

Director David Fincher

Alien 3 (1992)

No one in their right mind would make a case for the third instalment as the best of the Alien franchise, over Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s respective genre classics. Least of all its own director, David Fincher, who to this day proves tight-lipped on the troubled production of the debut feature he effectively disowned.

Said production is unflinchingly recounted in one of the great home video extras, the three-hour making-of documentary, Wreckage and Rage (2003), which charts the breakdown of Kiwi filmmaker Vincent Ward’s original ‘wooden planet’ concept through to replacement director Fincher’s own bust-ups with the studio.

The theatrical release may be the massively compromised product of competing forces, but it remains a fine, nihilistic addition to the Xenomorph canon. The original quartet of pictures – before Sir Ridley’s later, cynical gutting – stand unique in movie franchise history for allowing the application of a singular directorial vision to each chapter in Lt Ripley’s story. For better or worse, perhaps, but you’ll find none of Marvel’s stylistic homogeneity here.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Director Lee Unkrich

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Only the third animated feature to receive an Oscar nomination for best picture – following Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Up (2009) – Toy Story 3 may not scale the giddily inventive heights of the 1999 Toy Story sequel, but it doubles down on the reach for thematic, metaphorical profundity that’s become a staple of Pixar’s mature output.

Some might argue it’s a cynical gambit – it’s certainly as forceful a reckoning with fears of abandonment and death to be found in any kids film this side of Studio Ghibli – but such is the creative confidence in character and storytelling that even the hardest hearts may struggle to hold it together during the finale’s emotional pay off.

For all its poignancy, it’s through the set pieces that Toy Story 3 truly soars. Magnificently staged, the action beats share Spielberg’s eye for those off-the-cuff grace notes that weave wit into rhythm to dazzling effect.

Before Midnight (2013)

Director Richard Linklater

Before Midnight

“It really is the lowest grossing film of all time to inspire a trilogy,” said Ethan Hawke of Before Sunrise (1995). “Some critics liked it but the movie bombed at the box office, so the idea we would make a sequel to this movie was so arrogant.”

It took nine years for the filmmaking trio of Hawke, co-star Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater to return to Jesse and Celine with Before Sunset (2004), the first film’s twentysomethings now in their 30s, the streets of Vienna replaced with those of Paris.

Fast-forward another nine years, and we’re in Greece. Meeting up with the pair again is like meeting up with old friends. They’re now into their 40s, and so little, but so much, has changed. A blazing hotel row provides the emotional centrepiece, with a role-played meet-cute later providing a hesitant reconciliation.

As wondrously satisfying as Before Midnight proves, who wouldn’t welcome a cinematic postcard from the fiftysomething couple when 2022 rolls around?

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