One of movies' first prequels was actually a play first: Lillian Hellman followed up her classic 1939 stage drama The Little Foxes (filmed in 1941 with Bette Davis) with a similarly successful 1946 play, which became this 1948 film. A very dark portrait of the rise of a ruthless Southern clan, it ratcheted up the melodrama of the beloved earlier film to eleven. Maybe that’s why it’s not remembered as well today.
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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
On one level, the third installment in Sergio Leone and Clint
Eastwood's Man With No Name trilogy is a prequel in name only; for the
most part, there's no indication it predates its predecessors. But
watching the film, we may wonder, Hey, what happened to Eastwood's
trademark poncho from the earlier films? And then, late in the film, when he gives a dying soldier water and then tenderly picks up the man's poncho and puts it on, we suddenly realize the time frame — and in this poncho origin story we begin to understand something about this supposedly amoral antihero that adds a touching additional dimension to the prior films: That beneath his cool façade lurks a surprising wellspring of compassion, symbolized by that iconic vestment. A prequel that,
instead of merely grubbing for money, retroactively makes the earlier
films more poignant? Do not get used to it, moviegoers.
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The Nightcomers (1971)
This is an interesting oddity: a cinematic prequel to a literary classic. Michael Winner's thriller is meant to depict the events preceding Henry James's novella The Turn of the Screw (which had been earlier filmed as The Innocents in 1961). So, now we get to see those supposed ghosts from the James novel in their human incarnations (including Marlon Brando!) and we see how the orphans Flora and Miles became so demonic.
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The Godfather Part II (1974)
Francis Ford Coppola had to be dragged into doing the original Godfather film, considering it too pulpy for him. But after it made mountains of cash and won a slew of Oscars, the project started to seem far less lowbrow. Coppola’s decision to make the next film not just a sequel but also a prequel – telling not only the further adventures of Michael Corleone, but also the early life of his father Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro as a young Marlon Brando) – was a measure of the director's ambition. Interestingly enough, his pal George Lucas reportedly told him after an early rough cut screening that the whole prequel thing wasn't gonna fly.
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Butch and Sundance: The Early Years (1979)
A sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was basically out of the question after the original's infamous ending, and they weren’t going to get Newman and Redford for a prequel. But, determined to tell this tale, the folks behind this film went with Tom Berenger and William Katt, thus marking this as one of the earliest incarnations of the Let’s-Get-Lesser-Actors-to-Play-Younger-Versions-of-Great-Actors'-Iconic-Creations genre – a tradition carried forth in later years by such films as Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd, Van Wilder: Freshman Year, and Hannibal Rising. "This is not a necessary film, and that's really its most crucial shortcoming," said Roger Ebert at the time, and his words could apply to any number of prequels.
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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
George Lucas didn’t want the Nazis to be the bad guys again, so the second film in the Indiana Jones series was set in 1935, a few years before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film actually makes the most sense as a prequel; it would have been hard to accept Indiana Jones as a wise-cracking skeptic after that rather, er, divine finale to Raiders. None of that, of course, stopped Lucas and Steven Spielberg from making a third film that was a proper sequel, with the Nazis as villains again and a characteristically cynical Indy.
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Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)
The watershed first "beginning" of the now-typical horror-film prequel (See also: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning). But, not unrelated, also a desperate, last-ditch attempt to eke out more money from a moribund franchise. This fourth installment in the Psycho series actually brought back screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who had written Hitchcock’s original classic and who wisely pretended that Psychos II and III did not happen. Somewhat like Godfather Part II, this story is actually both a sequel and a prequel, featuring both the new challenges facing an older Norman Bates (played again by Anthony Perkins) and flashbacks to his childhood (with E.T.’s Henry Thomas playing Young Norman). There is some inherent fascination here, though: We’ve heard so much about Norman and his mother that, despite the lameness of the film, we still get a charge out of finally seeing their relationship depicted onscreen.
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Star Wars prequels (1999–2005)
Of course, these are the films that made the prequel concept safe for everyone else: After all the money was finally counted, it became practically de rigeur for every franchise to consider doing one, or two, or three. So, did George Lucas always plan on doing these? Reports differ. But perhaps the more intriguing question would be whether his initial decision to even mull the idea of a prequel had anything to do with his mentor Francis Ford Coppola's success with The Godfather Part II.
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Red Dragon (2002)
This one is not just a prequel, but also a remake: Michael Mann had already filmed Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon as Manhunter in 1986, with Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter (purposefully misspelled "Lecktor" to get around a copyright issue). Though lovely, that film didn't make Hannibal a household name. Then Anthony Hopkins's iteration of the character took off with 1991's Silence of the Lambs and its 2001 sequel Hannibal; suddenly the world had a need for yet another go-round, and so Brett Ratner took on the earlier novel. But 2007 found another even more extreme prequel: Hannibal Rising, which featured actor Gaspard Ulliel as a young Lecter in the wake of World War II. And that seemed to have put a stop to that … at least until the cartoon Cannibal Babies starts up.
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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
The X-Men franchise — a series of prequels, prequels stuffed into sequels, and reboots that are pre- with a hint of se-quelized — are enough to make a timeline explode. First Class promises an early look at Magneto and Professor Xavier, though we already got a look at their younger days in X-Men: The Last Stand. Meanwhile, X-Men Origins: Wolverine focused on the earlier years of Hugh Jackman's hero, and the developing sequel to that (called, even more confusingly, The Wolverine) will still be a prequel to the first X-Men. And little-known fact: The 2000 cartoon series X-Men: Evolution all took place in the imagination of unsung X-Man Autismo as he stared at his Mutant Academy snow globe.
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Star Trek (2009)
J.J. Abrams's hit is more a reboot, an attempt to bring a fresh take to the Star Trek series. But late in the film, he gives us none other than Leonard Nimoy as an aging Spock who, Yoda-like, mentors a young Kirk. And so, in utilizing some weird space-time trickery we're still not sure we understand, Abrams and team establish their film as not just a reboot, but also a prequel and a sequel – the rare hat-trick that not even the X-Men could pull off. And in doing so, they also freed themselves to basically do whatever the hell they want in subsequent films. Well played, sirs.