Brightburn is delivering a horror-bent twist to the familiar Superman origin story this weekend, and it’s got a lot of people excited about the idea of injecting horror into the superhero cinema landscape. But horror and superheroes have been mixing it up at the movies for almost forty years. The two genres aren’t actually strange bedfellows. In fact, superhero horror movies have showcased some of the best of both worlds over the years. Let’s take a look back at how creepshows with capes have made their mark in cinema history.
Marshes and Mutations: The ‘80s
Though comic books had long embraced the idea of mashing together superheroes and horror, it wasn’t until 1982 that this particular genre blend made its way to the big screen. After making his name with controversial fare like The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven became attached to Swamp Thing, an adaptation of the cult favorite comic book by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. Craven wrote and directed the film with the intention of showcasing his variety as a filmmaker. Still, the finished movie featured enough monster fare that it still felt at home in the horror genre.
Swamp Thing received a decent critical reception and became a beloved gem thanks to home video and numerous airings on cable stations. Swamp Thing was successful enough to earn a sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing, in 1989. Though this follow-up leaned more on a cartoonish tone (and a noticeably lower budget), it still managed to find a following once it hit video. It’s fair to call Swamp Thing the grandfather of superhero horror movies.
If Swamp Thing is the grandfather, then The Toxic Avenger would be the kooky uncle that lets you watch all the movies your parents won’t allow you to see. Directed by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, the founders of Troma Entertainment, 1984’s The Toxic Avenger is a trashy parody of superhero stories and over-the-top monster movies. The film is filled to the brim with scuzzy characters, ridiculous gore, and a charmingly juvenile sense of humor. The movie became an essential watch for lovers of slimeball cinema, and it spawned three sequels and a children’s cartoon (which is kind of insane).
The ‘80s might not have been the heyday of superhero horror, but these two entries set a foundation that would help the sub-genre grow in the following decade…
Superhero Horror Rises, Falls, and Rises Again: The ‘90s
With the gargantuan success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 — one could argue Burton’s film returned the Caped Crusader back to his horror-tinged roots — superheroes and comic book adaptations were getting scooped up by movie studios. And thanks to Batman’s darker tone, it meant that a number of new superhero films would be rubbing elbows with the horror genre.
Before he’d change superhero cinema forever with his Spider-Man films, Sam Raimi created his own masked vigilante in 1990 with Darkman. Inspired by the classic Universal Monsters like the Invisible Man and Frankenstein, Darkman mixes mad science with mobster mayhem to create a wholly unique and dynamic experience that still holds up today. Thanks to strong reviews and an impressive performance at the box office, Darkman would get two direct-to-video sequels and cement itself as the first great superhero horror film of the 1990s.
However, it was 1994’s The Crow that would take superhero horror to a new height. Adapted from James O’Barr’s underground comic, director Alex Proyas brought incredible style and mood to this story about an avenging spirit. Tragically, lead actor Brandon Lee was injured on set and died during surgery. Even though this horrific accident will always cast a shadow over the movie, The Crow yet again proved that critics and audiences were ready to support superhero horror. Unfortunately, this would also usher in a period of superhero horror that wasn’t quite as warmly received.
The first film that didn’t quite land the way it should have was The Shadow. Released barely two months after The Crow, this celebration of pulpy action couldn’t find its footing with audiences or critics. To be fair, director Russell Mulcahy brings a ton of impressive flair to the film, but it never definitively commits to either a darker noir tone or flighty fun. Still, it’s maintained a steady stream of support over the years though it’s certainly the movie that leans the least into its horror elements.
But if you’re looking for the real stinker of superhero horror, it’s going to be a movie you’ve likely never heard of. Directed by Jim Wynorski (who also helmed The Return of Swamp Thing) and based on the comic book character created by Forrest J. Ackerman and Trina Robbins, Vampirella was a direct-to-video cheapie released in 1996 that starred Talisa Soto – most movie fans will recognize her as Princess Kitana from Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation – and Roger Daltrey. Yes, the lead singer of The Who was the vampiric villain in the clunky superhero horror movie. Even Wynorski has disowned this movie and says it’s the one film he regrets making. Only those with the strongest stomachs for bad, bad movies should track this one down.
And yet, the theater wasn’t exactly delivering top-notch superhero horror either. In 1997, Todd McFarlane’s monstrous superhero Spawn made his big screen debut in… well, Spawn. Director Mark A.Z. Dippé made his directorial debut with this digital effects extravaganza. While it did decent business at the box office, critics tore Spawn to shreds and its reputation seems to have only gotten worse over the years. The ‘90s started off strong for superhero horror, but Spawn almost ended the sub-genre on a low note for the decade, thanks in large part to the movie’s ambitious special effects outpacing the technology of the time.
Until, that is, a little movie from director Stephen Norrington brought a Marvel Comics character to life. Blade sliced its way into theaters in 1998 and the superhero movie renaissance began in full. Starring Wesley Snipes as a vampire hunter who is also half-vampire, Blade perfectly blended crowd-pleasing action with gonzo horror and gore in a way that audiences had never seen before. It was a bonafide smash hit and paved the way for comic book cinema to be taken seriously as blockbuster events. It’d end up receiving two sequels and continues to be one of the highlights of superhero movies, horror or otherwise.
The ‘90s had some high highs and some low lows, but it was the decade that really set the bar for superhero movies. Who would have thought things would only get better?
Mainstream Mania: The ‘00s
By the ‘00s, superhero horror movies were hitting their stride with wide audiences. Still, there would always be lesser known fare making its way to home video. Faust: Love of the Damned was a direct-to-video adaptation of an extreme underground comic by Tim Vigil and David Quinn. Even though it seems like a riff on Spawn, Faust: Love of the Damned actually predated Spawn’s creation. This was developed by director Brian Yuzna, the demented genius behind goopy cult classics like Society. Though it flew under the radar, it’s begun to get some love from fans of wacky effects films. It’s not for everybody (it might not be for most people), but it’s a bloody little gem in the superhero horror sub-genre.
As far as the mainstream was concerned, superhero horror had gotten to a point where a clever filmmaker could do something incredibly fresh with the genre. Enter M. Night Shyamalan and Unbreakable. Hot off the success of his horror film The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan applied his twisty storytelling techniques to the superhero archetype and created a thriller that is often regarded as one of the best superhero films ever made. And thanks to Unbreakable’s sequels, Split and Glass, this retroactive first entry in a trilogy has become even more beloved over time. It might not seem like a horror movie at first, but just wait until that final act where things get much darker than you expect.
If Unbreakable was too subtle with its horror influences, Hellboy was an all-out explosion of effects-heavy monsters and comic book action. Guillermo del Toro directed this 2004 ode to creature craziness, adapting the widely acclaimed comic series by Mike Mignola. Though its box office wasn’t stellar, Hellboy found favor when it hit home video and fans were able to pore over the incredible effects work and charming performances. The 2008 sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, would receive a similar reception and has gained newfound appreciation in the years since its release, often being cited as one of the most underrated superhero movies of all time. They ain’t wrong.
2004 also brought audiences Van Helsing, a Universal monsters mashup directed by Stephen Sommers. Sommers had found enormous success with his new version of The Mummy, and he had Hugh Jackman in the title role as a badass monster hunter. What could go wrong? Well, Van Helsing ended up being pretty despised by critics and its overall success at the box office relied on international audiences to turn a profit. It was clearly positioned to be a franchise starter — there was an animated prequel film — but its lackluster reception made it fairly dead on arrival.
Wanting to get back into the business of superhero horror, DC Comics got Francis Lawrence to direct an adaptation of Constantine, based on the rakish sorcerer character created by Alan Moore. Fans were perturbed since the comic book John Constantine was a blonde Englishman and the 2005 film turned him into a smoldering American played by Keanu Reeves, while critics were mixed on the movie’s darker tone and nasty spirit. It was another case of home video helping a movie find its audience, and Constantine maintains a significant following to this day. It’s pretty crazy to look back and think that a studio would spend $100 million on a movie where a chain-smoking magician does battle with a demon made out of bugs. That happens in the movie!
Meanwhile, Marvel had a TV movie/direct-to-video adaptation of Man-Thing hit the same year as Constantine. Man-Thing is kind of Marvel’s version of Swamp Thing, and the response to the movie was not exactly positive. It was considered for theatrical release, but disastrous test screenings forced Marvel to sell it off to the Sci-Fi Channel (now SYFY) instead. It’s not a terrible movie but it’s definitely not on par with many of the other entries in superhero horror. This one is for die-hards only.
Marvel would bounce back with Ghost Rider in 2007, just a year before the Marvel Cinematic Universe would kick off with Iron Man. Starring Nicolas Cage as the Spirit of Vengeance, the movie was written and directed by Daredevil writer/director Mark Steven Johnson. While still firmly planted in heroic action and a fun tone, Ghost Rider never let up with its horror elements. It did good business but critics were pretty savage. Even though it would get an even edgier (and less successful) sequel in 2011, Ghost Rider is another movie like The Shadow that doesn’t feel like it can decide what sandbox it wants to play in. Still, you get Nicolas Cage going full Nicolas Cage and that’s always a treat.
The ‘00s were a wild time for superhero horror, but most movies in the sub-genre were trying to be as broadly appealing as they could be. This led to them leaning more toward superhero fare and less toward horror. Would things change once 2010 rolled around?
The State of Superhero Horror: The ‘10s and Beyond
This decade got off to a rocky start with another DC Comics adaptation: Jonah Hex. Directed by Jimmy Hayward, this Western spin on supernatural action/horror had a solid cast and some good production value, but it fell into that same trap of pushing its horror elements to the side in favor of a more mass appeal mood. You’ll see good turns from Josh Brolin and Michael Fassbender, but this felt like a remnant of the previous decade.
Taking inspiration from horror films like Carrie and comic book storytelling, 2012 brought us Chronicle from director Josh Trank. This found-footage approach to a group of teens that develop telekinetic superpowers was a bold new approach to the story, and it went to some surprisingly dark places. It ended up being a sleeper hit and critics heaped praise on this bizarre little hybrid movie. Its success would lead Trank to direct an adaptation of one of the most famous superhero teams of all time.
Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four was released in 2015 but it seems like it’s been ages since its debut. The film was roundly derided by critics and audiences had little to no interest in a grim take on superheroes while the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in full swing. Trank’s original vision for the movie was supposed to be inspired by David Cronenberg, applying a body horror take on the classic superhero family that echoed their comic book origins. Elements of that remain in the finished film, but it’s apparent that the studio attempted to reshape Trank’s movie into something more commercial and less horror-focused. It’s a shame we’ll never get to see the intended version of Fantastic Four, but what we’re left with is a fascinating example of a studio getting cold feet with something they didn’t understand.
Besides the sequels that have been previously mentioned, the ‘10s have been sorely lacking in superhero horror fare. This might have something to do with the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and superheroes being viewed as more marketable and palatable properties. But, the sub-genre is making a comeback in the later part of the ‘10s. Venom was a huge success in 2018, and Sony is currently in production on another horror-flavored character from the Spider-Man universe, Morbius. We just got a brand new Hellboy film, and we’re waiting to see what will happen with the unabashedly creepy The New Mutants. Brightburn is looking to be a big deal for the sub-genre. And craziest of all, the two films that kickstarted this whole endeavor — Swamp Thing and The Toxic Avenger — are getting revived as a streaming series and a remake, respectively. It all comes full circle.
Superhero horror is here to stay, and it’s exciting to see Brightburn leading the way for all new forays into this niche. It just goes to show that putting superpowers and scares together can be a win-win for both genres.
Brightburn is in theaters this weekend. Get your tickets here.