Third Time Lucky?

In a world overrun by film sequels, our trusty reporter viewed over a dozen Part III movies in hopes of answering the unasked question: "Are Part IIIs really different from Part IIs or Part VIs?"

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People are always asking each other, "If you were marooned on a desert island, what books or records or movies would you want to bring along with you?" Excuse me for asking, but why do people always assume that they're going to get a choice? Why don't people realize that if they're unlucky enough to be stranded on a desert island, they're probably also going to be unlucky enough to be stranded there with a bunch of books by Norman Vincent Peale, a bunch of records by ABBA and Kenny Rankin and the Bee Gees, and a bunch of movies starring Kay Lenz and Jan-Michael Vincent? The first thing that people unfortunate enough to get marooned on desert islands have to get through their thick heads is that room service is no longer available.

The desert island we will be discussing today is a tiny sand bar lost amid a vast but remote archipelago in the Tasman Sea, several thousand miles off the coast of nowhere. For the purposes of this article, try to imagine that you are trapped on this island, that you realize that you are never, ever going to be rescued, and that the only things you have to entertain you are a VCR, a TV and a stack of movies that are Part III in a series where you haven't already seen Parts I and II. The $64,000 question then: Is it worth spending your time watching these movies, or should you just find some shade somewhere and lie down and die?

The answer to this question is not as obvious as it would seem. For, although on the surface it would seem that Part IIIs are usually the last and worst installments in series that were never very good in the first place, this is not entirely true. The Exorcist III is better than Exorcist II: The Heretic, just as Jaws 3-D is better than Jaws 2. This does not mean that Jaws 3-D and The Exorcist III do not suck--they do; it merely means that when we talk about how badly they suck, we must be very careful to remember that even though they suck, they do not suck as much as the films immediately preceding them. Jaws 2 and Exorcist II really suck. Or, as they like to say on ESPN, Jaws 2 and Exorcist II suck big time. As opposed to ESPN. (This sort of Jesuitical nitpicking can be very helpful in wiling away the hours on a desert island.)

It is also important to remember that there have been several Part IIIs that were actually fairly decent movies. Return of the Jedi (Star Wars III) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Raiders of the Lost Ark III) were both pretty entertaining, as was Alien3. Unfortunately, because everyone saw one or more of the early installments in these enormously popular series, we will not be including them in our Desert Island Collection. The same goes for Back to the Future Part III, The Godfather, Part III, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Psycho III and Poltergeist III, as well as The Return of the Secaucus 7 III, which one studio has had the gall to market as Peter's Friends. Our investigation will be limited to Part IIIs where the person trapped on the desert island did not see Part I or Part II.

For the purposes of this article, that person will be me, and since I am not now, nor have I ever been a moron (though once, in a momentary lapse of reason, I did suggest that Keanu Reeves could act), I will now state that I have never seen Rocky or Rocky II, Rambo or Rambo: First Blood Part II, Lethal Weapon or Lethal Weapon 2, The Karate Kid or The Karate Kid, Part II, Police Academy or Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, or any of the Is or IIs laying smooth the path for Angel III, Deathstalker III, Stepfather III, Howling III, Basket Case 3, Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge, Goodbye Emmanuelle (Emmanuelle 3) or Child's Play 3. And, shocking as it may seem to some readers--let's say the Siskels and Eberts at Sing Sing and San Quentin--I have never seen Silent Night, Deadly Night or Silent Night, Deadly Night Part II, either.

There are two questions that quickly pose themselves in a rigorously scientific investigation such as this. First, do movies that are Part III make sense in and of themselves, or do you have to have seen Parts I and II to understand what is going on? In other words, is Deathstalker III, like Shakespeare's Richard III, a free-standing work of art that can be understood and appreciated on its own merits without any familiarity with the events that transpire in its two predecessors? Or is it just another pile of shit?

Second, is there something about all Part IIIs that links them with all the other Part IIIs, something that sets them apart from Part IIs, Part IVs or Part VIIIs? And if there is something unique about Part IIIs that makes them different from Part IVs or Part VIIIs, is this unique feature something that also makes them better? Put another way: Is the uniqueness of Part IIIs, as opposed to the uniqueness of Part VIIs, something that will make you happy to have them in your permanent--and final--video library as you sit there awaiting death on that godforsaken desert island of yours, or is it something that's going to make you wish you were stranded on a desert island with nothing but a VCR, a TV and a bunch of movies that were Part V or Part VIII in a series where you hadn't already seen Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI and VII? If you can see what I'm driving at.

To answer these questions, let's take a closer look at the world of Part IIIs, or what film historians refer to as mundus cinematicum tertium partibus.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of Part IIIs. The first group consists of films that are the direct descendants of Part Is, and are thus the latest, and hopefully the concluding, installments of epic sagas where there is some kind of unifying vision. The Godfather, Part III, Alien3, Rocky III, Child's Play 3, The Stepfather III and Police Academy 3: Back in Training all fall into this category, either because they were all directed by the same gasbag director, because they all feature the same ensemble of fabulously talented performers who appear again and again, or because they all maintain a consistently low level of cinematic excellence. In short, because they are films so bad that it would take a sage with the intellectual subtlety of Solomon, Ptolemy, Galileo and Bill Moyers rolled into one to tell whether Steve Guttenberg was worse in Police Academy 3 than he was in Police Academy or Police Academy 2.

The second group consists of films that are only a distant cousin, a barely recognizable niece, or the bastard grandchild--twice removed by marriage--of the original movies. Included in this group are properties such as Jaws 3-D, Howling III, The Exorcist III and Amityville 3-D--films that bear little or no thematic or qualitative relation to the films that launched the series in the first place. In short, films that bite the big one.

By and large, Part IIIs are relatively easy to tell apart from Part Is and Part IIs. In high-class Part Is, when the credits roll at the end of the film, you tend to see a lot of names like Brando, Hitchcock, Spielberg and Pacino. By Part II, you're already venturing into Danny Aiello and Harry Dean Stanton territory, and by Part III you've got Sofia Coppola on your hands. A similar thing happens in low-budget, trashy Part IIIs. While The Howling, which is set in California, includes names like John Sayles and Patrick Macnee in the credits, by the time you get to Howling III, you're seeing names like Imogen Annesley and Dasha Blahova at the top of the bill, and instead of taking place in California, the film is shot in the Australian outback, where it's cheaper to make werewolf movies, because you can hire authentic Australian townies to play the lead roles and thus save on all that makeup. As a form of shorthand, it is best to think of this brand of Part IIIs--low-end Part IIIs--as funeral urns in which are interred the ashes of actresses who used to be on "Three's Company."

Another way to look at it is this: If you turn on the TV set and a movie featuring Gregory Harrison appears on the screen, you are probably still in the relatively safe DMZ of Part IIs. On the other hand, if you tune in a movie and the names Mitzi Kapture, Tedra Gabriel, Leigh Biolos or Edward A. Warschilka Jr. appear anywhere near the top of the credits, you are probably well across the border into Part III-land and might even be way out there in the dreaded Part V-ville. This is also true if the words "Directed by Frank Henenlotter," "Special appearance by Martin Kove," or "Richard Roundtree as Lt. Doniger" appear in the credits. And if Jerry Weintraub's name turns up anywhere, five will get you 10 that you're deep into Part III territory. At which point, there is only one thing to do: For God's sake, get out of that house!!!!

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