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Monday, February 15, 2021

Superhero Blockbusters and the Horror Genre: Killer Clowns, Masked Maniacs, and Ferocious Beasts

A man dressed as a bat fighting a murderous clown. Sinning gargoyles hunting down a child with magical powers. A goblin tossing pumpkins at a teenager bitten by a deadly spider. No, these aren’t technically horror films, but superhero epics share more in common with the genre than you might think.

Scholar Judith Hess Wright has explained that films in the horror genre are often stories that depict a status quo alongside an “othered” event/person/creature that disrupts the pre-established order. In many horror films from the 1930s the disruption to the social order, whether it was the immortal Count Dracula or the reanimated Frankenstein’s Monster, had to be defeated in order to restore the film’s world back to its “good” social order prior to the introduction of the othered event or creature.

Obviously in recent years the DNA of the horror genre has been twisted and innovated to tell unique and diverse stories that reflect an ever-changing society. Regardless, it’s safe to say that almost all tales in horror are kick-started by something strange, abnormal, or even paranormal causing a shift in the normalcy of the world inhabited by the protagonist; kickstarting a journey where said protagonist must defeat the cause of this shift to restore normalcy. 

Horror directors like Scott Derrickson, James Wan, and David F. Sandberg have moved from terrifying projects like Sinister and The Conjuring to superhero epics like Doctor Strange and Aquaman. Many people suggest the early horror films of these blockbuster directors offered a low-budget starting point to their careers which ended up resulting in studios trusting them with higher budget, riskier superhero projects. But on the other hand, perhaps the transition from these terrifying films to large-scale epics has had just as much to do with an overlap in familiar elements from both genres. The financial stakes may seem quite different, but the ingredients of the stories themselves are quite similar.

Let’s take a look at the history of horror movie elements creeping into our favorite contemporary superhero blockbusters.

Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) & Batman Returns

The most obvious example of horror-style elements invading a caped crusader’s big-screen debut is Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. The Batman comic series has had its fair amount of run-ins with the genre, often pitting the Dark Knight against foes dressed as scarecrows, clowns, and even a butcher wearing a pig mask. Burton, famously known for his spooktacular work on films such as Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, depicts Batman’s Gotham City as a gothic, gargoyle-infested city of fear. It’s as whimsical as it is terrifying. 

The social order of Gotham City is one of continuous crime, with Batman (Michael Keaton) doing the best he can to keep it relatively safe whenever possible. Of course Batman’s steady desire to keep things right is thrown off guard when the mobster-turned clown Joker (Jack Nicholson) becomes hell-bent on bringing Gotham to its knees. The Batman/Joker dynamic has been recreated countless times, but Burton makes use of horror-adjacent visuals and interactions to add his signature style to this tale. 

A terrifying sequence after Joker’s dip in a vat of chemical acid has him undergoing facial reconstructive surgery. Afterwards he eerily removes his bloodied bandages and cackles at the sight of his deformed face in a rusty mirror. It’s the birth of a supervillain, and a monster at the same time. Replace the protagonist of this film with any other character besides Batman, and it would 100% be a horror film about a homicidal clown taking over a gothic city.

Burton’s knack for twisting the iconic visuals of Batman’s rogues gallery continues in Batman Returns, where a new enemy threatens the safety of Gotham. Danny DeVito stars as infamous villain The Penguin, this time being depicted as a deformed penguin/human hybrid creature. His eventual demise at the end of the film is especially grisly and full of putrid ooze. Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) of course also makes her big-screen debut, sporting a catsuit covered in ominous white stitches. 

Burton’s two Batman films are a clear example of a horror director injecting genre-adjacent visuals and set-pieces into blockbuster superhero stories. 

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy

Like Batman, Spider-Man also frequently faces off against ghoulish villains in his comic series. The iconic Green Goblin character even uses flaming Jack-O-Lanterns as his weapon of choice. Sam Raimi, famously known for his work on the Evil Dead franchise, stepped into the director’s chair for the first live-action Spider-Man trilogy. 

Peter Parker is a typical New York City teenager, until he is bitten by a radioactive spider that grants him superhuman abilities. As with most of these films, the “Normalcy” of the pre-established world is now broken with the introduction of this otherworldly change. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin wreaks havoc on the city, prompting Spider-Man to fight his first foe. 

Once again, a superhero film is using horror-adjacent visuals in the form of Dafoe’s terrifying Green Goblin. The elongated green face and razor sharp teeth are something straight out of a horror science fiction film. Early costume tests for the film revealed an even more harrowing visual approach to the Goblin’s menacing face. 

Raimi’s knack for the bizarre and stylized, as seen in The Evil Dead, continues throughout this Spider-Man trilogy. Villains like Doctor Octopus, Sandman, and Venom make use of extensive creature design to make their on-screen debuts as unsettling as possible. Notable horror moments throughout the trilogy include Eddie Brock’s gut-wrenching Venom transformation, Doctor Octopus’ mechanical arm surgery (a similar sequence to Joker’s surgery in Batman), and Sandman turning into a gigantic mud monster in the middle of New York City. These films are filled to the brim with horror scenarios that consistently disrupt the normalcy established by the film’s world. 

David F. Sandberg’s Shazam / James Wan’s Aquaman

Known amongst the horror community for his fantastic short films, David F. Sandberg broke into Hollywood with his horror short-turned feature Lights Out. Shortly after, Sandberg tackled The Conjuring spin-off Annabelle: Creation, which was met with positive fan and critical reception. Most recently, the rising director completed Shazam!, a blockbuster entry into DC’s extensive cinematic universe. 

While nowhere near as dark and twisted as his former projects, Shazam still retained much of Sandberg’s famous horror directing DNA. Sandberg’s goofy and dim-witted superhero protagonist (Zachary Levi) is matched up against ancient gargoyle-like creatures representing the Seven Deadly sins. For one of DC’s most light-hearted, colorful experiences, the design of these menacing creatures was quite intense and one scene in particular truly oozes of Sandberg’s terrifying talent. 

During a board-room meeting featuring villain Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), the ensemble of sinful creatures is released upon a group of unsuspecting businessmen. The silhouettes of the creatures are seen through a blurred glass window as they jump from victim to victim dismembering and swallowing the fresh meat. While the gore is obviously silhouetted for ratings reasons, the chilling shadows and blood-curdling screams coming from the enclosed boardroom would fit at home in any creature feature. 

Director James Wan, also well-known for his work in The Conjuring universe, added his own dose of terror to his mega-blockbuster Aquaman. One sequence showcases terrifying trench monsters emerging from the depths of the sea. These creatures are even getting their own horror spin-off movie, reportedly coming soon.

(As a bonus, the infamous Annabelle doll can be seen sitting amongst the ocean floor during a quick moment in Wan’s Aquaman!)

Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange

Scott Derrickson, paired with frequent collaborator C. Robert Cargill, has made his mark on the horror genre with standouts like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister. For superhero fans, Derrickson is praised for his direction on Marvel’s Doctor Strange film starring Benedict Cumberbatch. While the magic-infused superhero outing isn’t obviously reminiscent of the horror genre, one sequence in particular shows Derrickson’s knack for the visually bizarre and unsettling. 

When the “Ancient One” tells Doctor Strange to “Open your eyes” he is suddenly transported down a rabbit hole of inter-dimensional madness. Later on in this trip, Strange finds himself in a cavern seemingly built up by faces, which then quickly shift into hands. He looks down at his own realization that several mini-hands are growing off his fingers leading to an absolutely bizarre and terrifying body-horror sequence as the miniature hands claw and grasp all over his body. He is then thrown into a giant-recreation of his own eyeball where he plummets down some more whimsical tunnels. This entire sequence could honestly fit right at home in one of Lovecraft’s reality-bending tales. 

While there’s simply too many instances to write paragraphs about, I figured I’d make sure to note all of the horror-elements found in a slew of the recent gritty interpretations of comic book characters from DC’s film division. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad sports a cannibalistic Killer Croc character who even is wheeled out of prison Hannibal Lecter style, face mask and all. Not to mention the antagonist of the film is an ancient being named Incubus who assumes a physical form after absorbing the flesh of humans in a gruesome sequence at a subway station. Jared Leto’s purring, snarling, and cackling Joker tortures Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) with electroshock therapy in an intense Arkham Asylum breakout scene.

Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman depicts the caped crusader as a frightening physical force branding criminals with a bat insignia and at times even murdering them. Additionally, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor uses the blood from his sliced palm to resurrect an ancient monstrosity named Doomsday.

Birds of Prey’s leading villains include the egotistical Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who sports a menacing black skull mask, and the sadistic Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), who takes pleasure in literally slicing people’s faces off.

Justice League has a scene where Superman’s literal corpse is dug out from his grave, with Ezra Miller’s The Flash even making a “Pet Sematary” remark.

And finally, one of the villains in Wonder Woman even sports a Phantom of the Opera-style mask to cover up facial scarring.

Whether it’s Marvel, DC, or even Sony, audiences continue to be drawn to countless stories of Heroes vs. Villains. And the future of Horror’s dark dance with Superhero epics shows no signs of slowing, as films like Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness, sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage, the Jared Leto-starring vampire movie Morbius, Zack Snyder’s rated “R” Justice League cut (with a twisted new look for Joker), and James Gunn’s bloody The Suicide Squad creep up on the horizon. 

Not unlike the forbidden pages of a grisly Fangoria, the twisted tales from classic superhero comic books continue to introduce countless fans to the exciting darkness of storytelling. 


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