Right now, thanks to Disney properties like Marvel and Star Wars, shared universes are all the rage. An IP can’t just exist as a single film, or even a series. No, everything has to have movies, a long-form television show, an animated spin-off on a streaming service, and two or three YouTube channels that post random clips from all three. Movies are about as commodified as humanly possible now, franchised to hell and pimped out to every form of alternative media under the sun.
But this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.
For pretty much as long as there’s been TV, there’ve been weird, low-budget, small-screen offshoots of major movie franchises. These were all the rage in the 80s and 90s, with everything from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Back to the Future to Robocop getting television shows bearing their name, with varying levels of quality. A lot of the time, as with Robocop, these shows would be animated, child-friendly adaptations of decidedly adult-themed films. Even Troma studios, who have made offensive and obscene material their entire business model, got in on the action with Toxic Crusaders serving as a baffling cartoon adaptation of their gory, nudity-filled Toxic Avenger franchise.
And as with all things, the horror genre dipped its toe into this trend as well. From cheap tie-ins just coasting off of the name of the brand to full-fledged sequels and remakes, let’s take a look at some of the most noteworthy ventures the genre has made into the world of television.
Friday the 13th: The Series
Starting on the “cheap tie-ins” end of the spectrum, we have Friday the 13th: The Series, a show that has absolutely nothing at all to do with the franchise which it steals its name from. Originally titled The 13th Hour, it was decided that the show would benefit from piggy-backing off of the slasher series and its notoriety, especially amongst younger viewers, so the Friday moniker was lazily and hastily slapped on. Viewers tuning in expecting to see a hulking brute in a hockey mask slaughter horny teenagers were surprised to find a program about an antique store that sells cursed items. More of a precursor to shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Warehouse 13 than anything resembling the horror staple, it was cancelled after three short seasons. Although it may have been a rip-off in terms of branding, it was actually received decently well enough, and was known for pushing a lot of boundaries for what could be aired on daytime TV at the time. Still though, a show born out of blatant manipulation probably deserved to die a little sooner, so it should be thankful it made it as far as it did.
Freddy’s Nightmares, which aired from 1988 to 1990, followed in the vein of such shows as The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt as an anthology horror program, with each episode containing two unrelated stories featuring a variety of guest stars and filmmakers. While this might initially sound about as related to A Nightmare on Elm Street as Friday the 13th: The Series was to its namesake franchise, Freddy’s Nightmares differed in two major ways, which made it a genuinely fun time for horror fans: One, the show was hosted by Freddy Krueger himself, with star Robert Englund returning to the sweater and fedora that made him famous as the show’s sinister master of ceremonies. Think the Crypt Keeper, only with a snarkier sense of humor. And two, the show actually did expand on the mythology of the movies in interesting ways. Freddy himself featured in about eight of the 44 produced episodes, some serving as mini Elm Street movies. And the pilot episode (directed by Texas Chain Saw Massacre creator Tobe Hooper) actually showed Freddy’s backstory, something that had only been touched upon in the films. While maybe not the full Nightmare on Elm Street experience some fans were expecting, it still featured enough of the iconic killer to keep most solidly entertained, one hour at a time.
Ash vs Evil Dead
For years, fans of Sam Raimi’s seminal Evil Dead franchise prayed for a return for hero Ash Williams and star Bruce Campbell to the big screen. And after a (pretty solid) remake in 2013 that wiped the continuity clean with a new protagonist and darker, gritter tone, it seemed like there was no real hope of that happening. Lo and behold, in 2015, fans were blessed with the return of the king: Ash vs Evil Dead, produced by and aired on Starz, which served as a direct sequel to Army of Darkness. Catching up with an older Ash, still working a dead-end job and living life as a general shmuck, the Necronomicon surfaces once again, forcing our aging and out of shape hero to once again don his trademark chainsaw hand and combat the forces of evil. Hilarious, gross, and genuinely suspenseful, the show was everything fans of the series had wanted for years. Sadly, it was canceled after three seasons, but with rumors of an animated revival in the works, hope still exists for Campbell and his mighty chin to return in some form or another.
Another series that used its jump to TV to further its existing storyline, Chucky is one of best uses of the television format that I’ve seen yet within the genre. I’ve talked before about how impressive it is that the Child’s Play/Chucky franchise has maintained such a consistent tone, quality, and continuity since its inception in 1988, and this show is no exception: Much like with Ash vs Evil Dead, Chucky is a direct continuation of the plot of the films, picking up after the events of Cult of Chucky. Airing on both the SyFy and USA networks, the show manages to perfectly match the manic, darkly funny, irreverent tone of the films and translate them seamlessly to the long-form format. And they get away with some stuff that I’m shocked was allowed to air. Likeable kid protagonists, poignant social commentary, and, as always, a phenomenal performance from returning Chucky actor Brad Dourif make this one of my favorite things on TV right now, and I can’t wait to see what sick, twisted fun series creator Don Mancini has in store for season 2 (which is already off to a fantastic start).
Whereas Ash vs Evil Dead and Chucky both fully embraced their existing continuities and continued on as if they were new installments in their respective film series’, not every horror property that makes the jump to TV does the same. The Exorcist, for instance, which aired between 2016 and 2017 on Fox, decided to take the ‘rebootquel (or re-quel)’ route, serving as a direct sequel to the original Exorcist film and ignoring the numerous terrible sequels. Whereas other entries on this list have kept all or some of their respective franchises’s iconic casts and characters, The Exorcist is more or less a clean slate, given that some of the actors from the 1971 first film have died, some (like Max von Sydow) were much too big and busy for a network television show, and some (in the case of Linda Blair) have stopped acting altogether. Despite not featuring any of the film’s main characters, the show still carried on its spirit admirably, following a pair of exorcists as they investigate similar cases of demonic possession. While nowhere near as effective as the film (how could it be?), it was still a solid horror series in its own right, full of suspense and fun, Catholic-y goodness.
While those are just some of the more noteworthy examples, there’s plenty of others out there waiting to be binged (provided you can track them down). And the trend doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, either, with HBO Max reportedly working on a series based on the Hellraiser films, as well as Hulu developing a TV spin-off of the Alien franchise headed by Noah Hawley (of Fargo and Legion fame). As cinemas struggle for business, and the Hollywood film industry still struggling to claw back from the pandemic era, television may very well be the place for major franchises to continue their stories. And, frankly, I’m all for it.
Provided, you know, they’re actually any good.
Let me know if you’ve seen any of these, and what you thought of them!