The 25 Best Prequel Movies of All Time

It may seem like prequels are a modern Hollywood fad, but the concept of telling a story that takes place before another story goes back centuries — to the historical plays of William Shakespeare and before that, to the realm of Arthurian legends (Heck, for all we know “Gilgamesh: The Beginning” is still out there somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered).

The point is, prequels may be trendy — we sure do seem to be getting more of them lately — but they’re all part of a great artistic tradition. And while not all prequels hold up to the original, or even justify their own existence (COUGHfantasticbeastsCOUGH), there have been more great prequel films than most people realize.

For this list, we’re going to narrow the playing field a bit by generally avoiding “interquels” (films that take place between two other stories) unless they’re part of a prequel series. That means we’re also going to pass over films like “The Godfather Part II,” which is half sequel and half prequel, and time travel films like “Back to the Future Part III” or J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” which are either sequels or prequels depending on your perspective (but we’ll cut the prequels some slack if they have a short framing device).

Without further ado, check out TheWrap’s Top 25 Movie Prequels, below:

“The Seventh Victim” (1943)

<em>The Seventh Victim</em>, RKO Radio Pictures
The Seventh Victim, RKO Radio Pictures

The prequel to Jacques Tourneur’s seminal horror classic “Cat People” (1942) doesn’t have any cat people — come to think of it, Robert Wise’s underrated sequel “The Curse of the Cat People” is pretty light on cat people, too — but it’s a ripping thriller starring Kim Hunter, in her feature film debut, as an innocent girl who uncovers a satanic cult while searching for her missing sister. Tom Conway costars as Dr. Louis Judd, who died in “Cat People” and arguably deserved it. He’s still a suspicious cad in this prequel, but director Mark Robson (“Valley of the Dolls”) shows that he had at least some redeeming qualities. Atmospheric, tense filmmaking.

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Produzioni Europee Associati

The third film in Sergio Leone’s legendary “Man With No Name” trilogy doesn’t call much attention to the fact that it’s a prequel, but unlike “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More” it takes place during the American Civil War, not after, and we also get to find out where Clint Eastwood “Blondie” got his iconic poncho (finding out where heroes acquired their outfits and trinkets hadn’t become an annoying prequel cliché yet). Good ol’ Eastwood stars opposite Lee Van Cleef as “The Bad” and Eli Wallach as “The Ugly,” while they cross paths, cross each other and cross the American west in search of stolen Confederate gold. Few films can claim to surpass “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” in their excitement and grandeur … and most of them can’t back it up.

“Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985)

Young Sherlock Holmes
Young Sherlock Holmes, Paramount Pictures

Written by Chris Columbus (“The Goonies”) and directed by Barry Levinson (“The Natural”), the overlooked but wonderful “Young Sherlock Holmes” stars Nicholas Rowe as the famous super sleuth in his teen years, who gets thrown out of boarding schools and sets out to solve a series of mysterious murders. Along the way he uncovers an ancient cult, pilots an anachronistic flying machine and begins a chain of events that cement his destiny, for better and for worse. A classy production, wonderfully acted and historically noteworthy: a hallucination of a knight in a stained glass window coming to life was a milestone in computer-generated imagery (CGI).

“Psycho IV: The Beginning” (1990)

Psycho IV: The Beginning
Psycho IV: The Beginning, Universal Television

The “Psycho” sequels are all pretty underrated, but then again they had an uphill battle, coming after one of the most influential motion pictures ever made. In this made-for-tv prequel from made-for-tv horror luminary Mick Garris (“The Stand”), Anthony Perkins returns as Norman Bates, who — for reasons only revealed at the end — finally tells the story of how he became a murderer. Henry Thomas (“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”) plays young Norman in a subtle and chameleonic performance that gives Perkins a run for his money, and Olivia Hussey (“Black Christmas”) plays his domineering and abusive mother, Norma. Original “Psycho” screenwriter Joseph Stefano returned to write this final installment, which tells Norman’s origin and also brings his saga to an end. A remarkably smart and effective horror prequel, and probably Mick Garris’ best movie to date.

“Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge” (1991)

Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge
Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge, Full Moon Entertainment

Perhaps “Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge” should be graded on a bit of a curve. Like all of Full Moon’s “Puppet Master” movies it’s been made on a budget, but unlike most of them it’s got ambition. “Toulon’s Revenge” reveals the origin of the genius toymaker and his strange, deadly creations, and brings new pathos to the franchise: Toulon was a subversive political satirist in Germany during World War II, and when the Nazis — led by the frequently-despicable Richard Lynch (“Invasion U.S.A.”) — arrive to silence his influential voice and steal his creations, in the hopes of creating immortal Nazi soldiers. Toulon escapes and orders his loyal minions — Jester, Leech Woman, Tunneler, Pinhead, Six Shooter and eventually Blade — to exact his revenge. To this day, “Puppet Master III” remains the best installment of the 15-film franchise (although to be fair, only a couple of the others are even in the running).

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, New Line Cinema

There was one question on everybody’s mind during the first season-and-a-half of “Twin Peaks,” and that was “Who killed Laura Palmer?” The episode where the killer is revealed is still — and you can say this for several episodes of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s classic series — one of the best hours of television ever made, but it wasn’t until “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” that Lynch showed the world what really happened the night Laura died. Fans weren’t happy with “Fire Walk With Me” at first, since the film jettisons most of the show’s ensemble cast and folksy charm, but his approach to the tragedy as a grim, resolved, unwavering march towards certain doom is wholly terrifying and earned the film a much-deserved reappraisal in later years. Sheryl Lee’s tortured performance as Laura Palmer is one for the ages.

“Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002)

Better Luck Tomorrow
Better Luck Tomorrow, Paramount Pictures MTV Films

Justin Lin may not have known he was making a prequel to “The Fast and the Furious” when he directed his first feature — a low-budget indie drama about gifted Asian American teens who gradually sink into a life of crime — but he did know he was transforming it into a prequel when he transferred the suave character Han, played by Sung Kang, into “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Then of course Lin also consciously transformed the fourth, fifth and sixth “Fast and Furious” films into interquels, taking place between “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Tokyo Drift,” so maybe he just likes these types of films as a concept (his Naval Academy drama “Annapolis” also takes place in the same universe). In any case, “Better Luck Tomorrow” was the film that put Lin on the map and with good cause: It’s a riveting lo-fi thriller, whether you care how many ludicrous car chases Han eventually gets involved in or not.

“Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” (2005)

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, 20th Century Fox

The “Star Wars” prequel trilogy is such a mess that it took 133 episodes of the animated “The Clone Wars” TV series to recontexualize them and make them look good (or at least better). Taken on their own, “The Phantom Menace” doesn’t work despite some throwback Republic serial charms, “Attack of the Clones” struggles with baseline competence and might very well be the worst “Star Wars” movie, but “Revenge of the Sith” mostly hits hard. It’s the culmination of Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader, a path that will lead him to slaughter children (for the second time!), inadvertently cause the death of his wife, and wind up limbless on a volcano planet. There’s still lots of embarrassing dialogue and plot points that don’t make sense but “Revenge of the Sith” finally gets back to the “opera” part of this space opera, and ends on a relatively high note.

“Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” (2005)

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, Warner Bros. Pictures

Paul Schrader’s mature and non-sensationalist “Exorcist” prequel panicked the studio, who enlisted Renny Carlin (“Cliffhanger”) to reshoot most of the film and transform it into “Exorcist: The Beginning,” a fast-paced but nonsensical potboiler. When nobody liked that, Paul Schrader was given a pittance to finish his original cut, which turned out to be one of the better exorcism movies despite obvious post-production problems (especially the embarrassing CGI). “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” stars Stellan Skarsgård as a young Father Lancaster Merrin, who first encounters supernatural evil in British Kenya in 1947. A teenager is possessed by a demon, and eventually he’ll have to get exorcised, but the real evil in Schrader’s vision stems from colonialist racism, through which little supernatural prods lead to moral collapse and horrifying murder.

“X-Men: First Class” (2011)

X-Men: First Class
X-Men: First Class, 20th Century Fox

The first “X-Men” movie prequel, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” is a bit more amusing that it gets credit for, but it’s still an embarrassingly shoddy production. Luckily, Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” — which focuses on a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), whose friendship turns to rivalry — is so slick and satisfying it almost makes you forget how disappointed you were by the last installment (actually, the last two). Professor X and Magneto enlist the first team of superhero mutants to fight the Nazi who destroyed Magneto’s life, culminating in a showdown during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Vaughn brings a welcome 1960s James Bond aesthetic to the production, and even manages to make the old-fashioned X-Men comic book costumes, originally rejected because no one thought they would look good on camera, look really good on camera.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel Studios

The fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, back when it was just an ambitious cinematic experiment and not the most popular film franchise of all time, takes us back to World War II for the origin of Captain America. Chris Evans stars as a whisper thin young man who wants to fight bullies overseas but isn’t healthy enough to enlist, who gets transformed into a superhero by a German refugee scientist, and fights the evil Nazi, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Marvel wisely enlisted Joe Johnson to direct this adventure, who recaptured the wondrous bravado from his first World War II superhero movie “The Rocketeer,” which is still one of the best superhero movies ever made. “Captain America: The First Avenger” remains of the best MCU movies, operating as a satisfying stand alone adventure and a prequel to the grander story that doesn’t just set up plot points like the Infinity Stones, but gives Cap one of the best and most emotional backstories of any modern cinematic hero.

“Final Destination 5” (2011)

Final Destination 5
Final Destination 5, Warner Bros. Pictures

The makers of “Final Destination 5” put film critics who write about prequels in an uncomfortable position. It’s arguably wrong to include this film on a list of the best prequels ever made, because the revelation that it’s a prequel is technically supposed to be a surprise. Then again, you could argue that it’s definitely wrong to leave it off the list because this film deserves to be praised. Like all the “Final Destination” movies, the final installment (for now) begins with a horrifying tragedy that kills many people, which then turns out to have been a psychic prediction of the future. A few people survive who weren’t supposed to, so Death manipulates the world around them so they’ll get killed anyway in a series of bizarre, freak accidents. “Final Destination 5” understands that we’re here for the carnage, and unleashes some of the better kills in the franchise, while introducing a new wrinkle to the lore about how survivors can save themselves if they commit murder, which leads to a satisfyingly bleak finale.

“Paranormal Activity 3” (2011)

Paranormal Activity 3
Paranormal Activity 3, Paramount Pictures

Several of the “Paranormal Activity” movies are prequels to the original, influential, ultra-low budget horror classic, but only “Paranormal Activity 3” is just as scary. This found footage horror movie takes place in 1988, before digital cameras were cheap, convenient and everywhere, so all the action takes place on clunky VHS cameras. That should have been a logistical nightmare but directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish”) find ways to get clever with it, even setting the camera up on a swivel so that it moves back and forth at regular intervals, setting up some unforgettable jump scares. The plot involves another family besieged by the demonic “Tobi,” and ultimately adds new lore to the franchise — probably not for the better — but the atmosphere is top notch and the frights are as frightful as the “Paranormal Activity” series ever got.

“Monsters University” (2013)

Monsters University
Monsters University, Disney/Pixar

The prequel to Pixar’s heartwrenching, imaginative and exhilarating “Monsters Inc.” finds the lovable Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. Sullivan (John Goodman) meeting each other in college, and forming a bond over their shared love of scaring. The problem is that Mike, who always dreamt of terrifying children for money, is extremely bad at it. Dan Scanlon’s hilarious film treats college comedy clichés as serious cinematic inspiration, packing the film with kid-friendly frat house humor before revealing the film’s true purpose isn’t to teach kids that they can do anything if they set their minds to it. Instead, “Monsters University” offers a wise and compassionate treatise on how to accept failure and make the most of it. This is one of Pixar’s most underrated films.

“Ouija: Origin of Evil” (2016)

<em>Ouija: Origin of Evil</em>, Universal Pictures
Ouija: Origin of Evil, Universal Pictures

The 2014 product placement horror movie “Ouija” was borderline incompetent but it made over $100 million off a tiny budget, so it’s no surprise that we got a follow-up. What is a surprise is that the prequel, “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” is genuinely a great horror movie. Directed, edited and co-written by Mike Flanagan — before he made a huge name for himself as the director of “Doctor Sleep” and several hit Netflix mini-series — the film tells the story of a single mother and her two daughters, who eke out a living as fake psychics. When the youngest girl, Doris (Lulu Wilson, who also starred in the fine horror prequel “Annabelle: Creation”), develops real psychic powers after toying with a Ouija board, it seems like a godsend. But of course, these magical abilities were sent by the devil instead. Engrossing, classy, frightening stuff, which only gets derailed at the very last minute because Flanagan’s film has to end where the first “Ouija” (unfortunately) began.

“Kong: Skull Island” (2017)

Kong: Skull Island
Kong: Skull Island, Warner Bros. Pictures

Legendary’s “Monsterverse” began with “Godzilla” (2014), a profitable misfire that used the giant monster to remind us of 9/11’s horrors without having anything whatsoever to say about that. The prequel, “Kong: Skull Island,” introduces a rebooted version of Godzilla’s giant gorilla nemesis, King Kong, as an allegory for the Viet Cong, and actually does have something to say about it. It says something obvious and clunky, but at least it actually says something. Samuel L. Jackson plays an unbalanced soldier leading a team of scientists to an island full of monsters in the final days of the Vietnam War, only to watch most of his men die at the hands of a huge ape. It’s up to the civilians and scientists to not only get out alive, but also save Kong from an ill-advised violent military invasion, which will destabilize the region and leave everyone in more danger than before. Impressively filmed and memorably told, “Skull Island” is one of the best King Kong films.

“Wonder Woman” (2017)

Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman, Warner Bros. Pictures

The fourth film in the ill-fated DC Extended Universe is one of the best in the franchise, which despite cranking out some of the worst superhero movies of the modern era, also produced a few of the best. Patty Jenkins takes the action way back to World War I, where American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on an island of magical Amazons, and falls in love with a warrior named Diana (Gal Gadot), who wants to end the conflict by killing Ares, the God of War. Romantic and funny and exciting, with rousing sequences of heroism that inspire as well as entertain, “Wonder Woman” only falters in its climax, which takes an intelligent story and devolves it into tedious CGI bluster. Even that can’t really ruin the experience. If the rest of the DCEU movies had been even close to this good, the franchise wouldn’t have needed a reboot.

“The First Purge” (2018)

The First Purge
The First Purge, Universal Pictures

When all is said and done, James DeMonaco’s “The Purge” series will probably be the definitive movie series of its generation. Taking place in a near future where America declares all crime legal for one day out of the year, these films place the divisions and moral deterioration of the contemporary United States under a microscope, blows them up, and then blows them up some more. “The First Purge” tackles the difficult job of explaining how this concept became law in the first place, and does an admirable job, showing that Americans initially used The Purge as an excuse to simply party, before partisan politicians intentionally transformed it into a bloodbath as an excuse to exterminate poor people and people of color. Though hardly the best “Purge” movie, it smartly answers a difficult question and captures our attention with its disturbing violence and grim politics.

“Bumblebee” (2018)

Bumblebee, Paramount Pictures

The first live-action “Transformers” movie that wasn’t directed by Michael Bay is, unsurprisingly, the most visually coherent. Travis Knight’s “Bumblebee” takes place in the 1980s, when a teenager named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) gets a beat-up old Volkswagen Beetle as a birthday present. The car turns out to be Bumblebee, a shapeshifting alien robot hiding out from other, evil alien robots. Although Knight tones down the spectacle, he scales up the emotional connection we have to these characters, developing a film that’s intentionally derivative of classic “magical friend” movies like “E.T” and “Flight of the Navigator.” The thing is, those old-fashioned stories are still crowdpleasers, no matter how familiar they are. Even though “Bumblebee” made less money than its predecessors, it’s the most satisfying and enjoyable “Transformers” movie by far.

“Army of Thieves” (2021)

Army of Thieves
Army of Thieves, Netflix

Zack Snyder’s first post-DCEU film was a weirdly ambitious zombie heist film about mercenaries stealing money from a casino vault in a Las Vegas overrun by the undead. It’s a pretty fun flick that introduces an unusual amount of mythology, including robot zombies (which we still have no explanation for) and, more to the point, a legendary history of uncrackable vaults. “Army of Thieves” tells the origin story of the team’s safecracker, Ludwig (Matthias Schweighöfer, who also directed), a naive wallflower of a locksmith who gets whisked away on a stirring adventure, where he’s forced to unlock the most notoriously secure vaults in history, under impossibly high-pressure conditions. Schweighöfer’s film captures the freewheeling charm and glossy romance of classic films like “Topkapi” and “The Castle of Cagliostro,” and that’s no easy feat.

“Prey” (2022)

Prey, Hulu

After the weird and damn near total misfire that was “The Predator” — a film which turned the title monster, an alien trophy hunter who visits Earth to fight the most dangerous game, into utter dreck about global warming and gene-manipulation — Dan Trachtenberg brought the franchise back to its roots. “Prey” stars Amber Midthunder as Nara, a young Comanche woman in the early 18th century who wants to hunt like her brother, and whose quest to prove herself turns into a fight to the death with a space monster. Naru has no frame of reference for this creature, and seems completely outmatched, but with her skills and her guile and her very, very good dog Sarii, she overcomes the odds. “Prey” reminds us what made “Predator” work in the first place: a simple survival tale with a sci-fi bent, a skewering of old-school machismo and a scary-ass monster. It’s the second best film in the series, right after the original.

“Orphan: First Kill” (2022)

Orphan First Kill
Orphan First Kill, Paramount Players

The second “Orphan” movie assumes you already know the twist from the original, so you’ve been warned. Isabelle Fuhrman returns as Leena, a grown woman with a rare condition that makes her look like a child, who just happens to be a murderous maniac. The first film was told from the perspective of the American family who took her in and gradually uncovered her secret, and “Orphan: First Kill” tells a similar tale but from Leena’s perspective, revealing just how difficult it is to maintain that façade, to suspenseful and sometimes comical effect. The other hitch in her villainous plan is that her new “mother,” played with campy brilliance by Julia Stiles, is just as evil as she is. It’s a miracle “First Kill” works at all. That it’s also a twisted treat is a welcome bonus.

“Pearl” (2022)

Pearl, A24

Ti West’s “X” told a story about a group of pornographers in the 1970s, whose production gets attacked by a homicidal elderly woman named Pearl. It was an acclaimed retro slasher but the prequel, fittingly titled “Pearl,” outstrips it in every way. Mia Goth, who played the older Pearl under heavy makeup, is now a young girl in World War I, surviving a national pandemic and barely holding her bloodthirsty impulses — and her raging libido — in check. As she waits for her young husband to return from the war, and as she struggles to live with her puritanical mother at the edge of town, she turns to violence to pursue her dreams of love and stardom. Weirdly funny and terribly tragic, “Pearl” gives Goth one of her best roles, a woman whose dreams are sympathetic and whose actions are shocking and unforgivable.

“Saw X” (2023)

Saw X
Saw X, Lionsgate

The makers of the “Saw” franchise made a pretty big mistake when they killed off the series’ villain, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), way back in the third installment. Jigsaw’s acolytes and copycats kept the franchise afloat for six more films, but he once again reclaimed the center stage in the tenth installment, a prequel where he travels to Mexico in search of an experimental cure for his brain cancer. When he discovers it was all a con, he turns his serial killer engineering ingenuity against the heartless criminals who prey on the most vulnerable. “Saw X” doesn’t have the series’ most elaborate death traps (he was working with what he had on hand), but it’s the most dramatic and emotional story in the whole saga, making us root for the bad guy because the other bad guys are much, much worse (albeit less creative or grisly).

“Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” (2024)

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga
Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, Warner Bros. Pictures

George Miller’s long, long, long-awaited post-apocalyptic sequel “Mad Max: Fury Road” introduced the world to Furiosa, a cyborg warrior trucker played by Charlize Theron, and one of the best action heroes of the modern era. It took about a decade but we finally found out her origin in “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” where Alyla Browne and Anya Taylor-Joy play her from childhood to adulthood, as she’s kidnapped and dragged around the desert by the villainous Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), before finding an unlikely new employer in the fascistic Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme). Miller’s cinematic dynamism is on full-display, unleashing one amazing action set piece after another, but unlike the “Mad Max” movies, “Furiosa” takes on the tone of a tragic Greek epic, with far-reaching consequences, a bizarre ensemble cast of characters, and a powerful hero’s journey. It may have underwhelmed at the box office, but time will no doubt be very, very kind to this grand and gruesome adventure.

Did your favorite prequel make the cut?

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