There are two wolves inside me: one looking forward to the Five Nights at Freddy’s movie, and one eagerly awaiting the sequel to Across the Spider-Verse. I’m probably not alone, because horror movies and superhero flicks have joined forces recently to practically save movie theaters. Between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Blumhouse, the two genres have in their own way proven to be integral tentpoles of the entertainment, which is deeply rewarding for anyone who was made fun of as a kid for reading comic books at recess or talking non-stop about monster movies. I should know: I was both. Years later, I get to see two of my personal passions rise in stature to become two of the dominant forces in popular culture and have held a tight grip on the public discourse.
The ironic thing is that while both of these genres are entirely distinct spaces with only the occasional overlap, their histories are quite intertwined throughout cinematic history. We can go straight back to the source in the Golden Age of Comic Books, which was driven in popularity by tales of both superheroics a la Batman, and the bone-chillers of E.C. Comics.
But staying focused on the medium of film, the superhero genre not only owes a great deal to the world of horror cinema but it’s been shaped by it. The “boom” of superhero films that started with Tim Burton’s Batman was in many ways the product of the popularity behind scary movies of generations prior, with its gothic imagery, dark sensibilities, and psychologically warped characters. That’s probably why there’s an entire subset of superhero flicks that borrow thematically and visually from creature features, serial-killer procedurals, and exploitation cinema.
Most of these superhero-horror hybrids were produced between the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman duology until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man rewrote the rulebook. Thankfully, there are still genre auteurs who have carried the torch, giving fans like me a plethora of superhero-horror. To celebrate that, here’s a list of the best examples of Superhero Flicks that took substantial influence from the horror genre, either in substance or style. We’re not just talking about any film that owes its existence to comic-book IP. This list is exclusively about movies that provide vehicles for a titular hero, so the likes of Werewolf by Night will not be included.
10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Unfortunately, I have to kick off this list by talking about Joss Whedon. Ugh. But you just can’t talk about superhero horror without talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While the franchise became a sensation with the hit television show starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, it first began as a low-budget production that was actually dismissed when it came out in 1992. While the story of a cheerleader-turned-vampire slayer would take the world by storm only five years later, audiences and critics didn’t take to this more satirical take. To be honest, it’s not hard to see why looking back because not only does Kirsty Swanson just lack the compelling presence that Gellar had, but Whedon’s vision was so distorted by interference and conflicting interests that he eventually had the original draft re-published as a pilot.
Still, this is an important artifact of pop culture because it laid the foundation for a mythology that would give us one of horror’s greatest heroines. Plus, if you’re in the mood for a goofier take on the Buffy world, this original 1992 version has plenty of camp value. Not to mention its stacked cast, which not only includes Donald Sutherland and Rutger Hauer, but the late great Paul Reubens in what was his first prominent role after his infamous 1991 arrest.
9. Swamp Thing (1982)
The first comic-book adaptation of the list, Swamp Thing has to be included because it was directed by none other than Wes Craven. Unfortunately, this was actually an attempt of Craven’s to start his transition out of the thriller genre, and he didn’t take full advantage of the titular character’s roots in pulp horror. Instead, his take on the character treads a line between a charming if unimpressive science-fiction fable, and an absolute piece of shlock that sees Swamp Thing fighting a mutant hedgehog in the climax.
Adrienne Barbeau (Escape from New York) stars as an FBI agent sent to oversee a project run by Dr. Alec Holland played by the underrated Ray Wise (Twin Peaks). He’s concocting a chemical that’ll allow plant life to grow anywhere. But after a diabolical genius sabotages the project to steal the formula, Holland is mutated into the eponymous Swamp Thing, a hulking monster that looks suspiciously like a stunt-man in a rubber suit. What follows is a series of cat-and-mouse games between Barbeua, the villain and his goons, and Swamp Thing himself, whose superpower appears to be throwing actors into nearby lakes.
Swamp Thing is a curiosity that’s only gotten more curious since the modern boom of superhero movies. At its best, the film is Craven’s ode to the B-Movies of his youth. At its worst, it’s an attempt to cash in on the success of Richard Donner’s Superman. While it’s not without its redeeming qualities, particularly the performances of Barbeau and Wise, this early effort isn’t going to impress either fans of creature features or DC Comics.
8. Guyver: Dark Hero (1994)
It’d be tempting to put the original Guyver on this list seeing as how it was produced by Brian Yuzna, who produced Re-Animator and directed Society. It even features genre favorites from David Hale and Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill. But this direct-to-video sequel ups the ante in every way, from the action setpieces and monster design to the atmosphere and storytelling. That’s not exactly saying much seeing as how the original Guyver was basically a seedy version of Power Rangers, but it’s quite an accomplishment considering its resources.
Adapted from a manga, Guyver: Dark Hero follows Sean, a young man who fights evil with the aid of a mysterious weapon that turns him into a super-soldier. Avoiding the kitsch tone of its predecessor, Dark Hero is, well, darker. It deals with psychological conflicts of justice and revenge, fleshes out an expansive alien mythology, and delivers some of the finest rubber-suited fight sequences since the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s corny but in all the right ways. It’s earnest and sincere in its attempts to entertain. If you’re willing to put up with some goofy shit, this one is worth checking out.
7. The Shadow (1994)
“Who knows how to capitalize on the success of Tim Burton’s Batman? The Shadow knows!” This adaptation of the famed radio play was produced in that glorious wave of retro pulp-hero action that followed the success of the aforementioned Batman. But unlike other movies of this wave, including Dick Tracy and The Phantom, The Shadow honored its titular character by bringing a sinister mood and atmosphere, giving it an edge over its competition.
Alec Baldwin stars as Lamont Cranston, a former opium drug lord who redeems himself after studying at a mystical Tibec monastery by becoming “The Shadow,” a mind-bending vigilante with a network of allies. The Shadow bombed at the box office because, well, who remembers The Shadow? But it’s steadily gained a cult following for folks who want to see a darker side to their superhero adventures. Or for anyone who wants to see Tim Curry go absolutely nuts. It helps that Baldwin really nails the character, giving him presence and menace, but with a light touch that also fits the movie’s dark sense of humor. It has the retro charm of The Rocketeer but the eerieness of the Batman movies. There’s even a scene of someone ripping off their face, straight out of Poltergeist.
6. The Batman (2022)
The most recent example on this list, The Batman director Matt Reeves is so adamant about embracing the character’s gothic roots that he set this most recent Batman reboot on the Halloween season. Taking a direct ode from serial-killer thrillers like Seven and Saw, this Batman flick sees Robert Pattinson’s Caped Crusader chasing down, amongst other things, the psychotic Riddler. Modeled directly after the Zodiac Killer, Paul Dano’s take on the classic Batman rogue is one of the creepier and unnerving supervillains to grace the screens. He even puts his victims through traps that would make Jigsaw cringe, particularly the Hamster trap.
While The Batman is often busy being more of a crime-drama, particularly when it shifts focus to John Turturro Carmine Falcone, it’s absolutely at its best when it submerges its character into the psychological subterranean of the Batman mythos. Matt Reeves was wise to take direct inspiration from horror cinema, something that he thankfully plans to double-down on if the rumors of a possible Mike Flannagan collaboration on The Batman II are to be believed. This film might be lower on the list than some would hope, but Matt Reeves is for all his talents carrying the baton here. Every entry on this list not only paved the way for superhero horror, but superhero cinema in general.
5. The Toxic Avenger (1984)
While film adaptations for Spiderman and Batman were stuck in development hell, Troma decided to create their own superhero, albeit one with a penchant for ultra-violence. In 1984, audiences were treated to The Toxic Avenger, a comically violent tale of a nerd who mutated into a hulking monster that seeks to both administer justice and punish the criminals responsible for his mutation. The Toxic Avenger is at its core a traditional origin superhero origin story. Like Peter Parker, Melvin is a feeble and unpopular geek who is given powers via radioactive mutation. Like The Thing, his love interest is a blind woman who loves him despite his disfigurement.
It’s these familiar tropes that probably welcomed audiences into the film, but it’s the classic Troma carnage and dark humor that’s made it a cult classic. When Toxie isn’t saving kids from speeding cars or opening popcorn jars for old ladies, he’s stabbing psychopaths in the face with a pair of scissors, or beating people to death with their own severed arms.
It’s actually a wonder how Toxie became such a household name in 1984, you wouldn’t think audiences would be able to stomach a movie where the main villains run over children for sport. Something we see in gory detail, by the way. But that’s just how much people love a good superhero, and for a while, The Toxic Avenger was your only alternative if you had given up on the Superman movies. And thankfully, after a series of sequels and television spin-offs, we have an upcoming reboot to provide a healthy alternative to the MCU.
4. Blade (1997)
The success of Blade has seemingly defied explanation. It was an adaptation of a D-List Marvel character and was released in the wake of flops like Batman & Robin and Steel. There wasn’t a worse time to be a comic-book movie, and here comes an obscure character whose most notable impression upon pop culture previously had been a guest appearance on Spider-Man: The Animated Series. If audiences hadn’t gone for Batman, why would they go for this guy? The answer’s simple: because people love a bad motherfucker like Wesley Snipes taking out vampires at a blood rave.
Blade didn’t just revamp its titular character, but the state of comic-book films. It was stylish, had attitude and swagger, and was the perfect antidote to anyone who wanted to get the cornball antics of Joel Schumacher out of their system. That’s because it’s a vampire movie first, and a damn good one, before it tries appealing to the comic book crowd. It thrived off of word-of-mouth by being not just the best superhero movie of the year, but probably one of the finest horror-action films of the decade. The formula here worked so perfectly, and was such a lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon, that the execs at Disney have struggled to crack the code and get their own Blade reboot off the ground.
And to anyone who doesn’t like this movie? Well, all I can say is that some motherfuckers are always trying to skate uphill.
3. Batman Returns (1992)
I’ve alluded to Tim Burton’s Batman many times, but Burton truly outdid himself with the sequel, Batman Returns. Fans will complain that this isn’t a “real” Batman movie because the focus is more on The Penguin and Catwoman. What little screen time Batman has shows him mercilessly killing his enemies. Sure, this isn’t really a “Batman” movie. If anything, Batman is the Final Girl to a carnival of carnage that turns comic-book archetypes into nightmare fuel. Every choice that Tim Burton made transforms what could be standard action fare into a psychologically rich, if unsettling, portrait of three traumatized outsiders who are seeking therapeutic expression through lethal personas.
Though Batman Returns has its share of action to appeal to audiences, you won’t remember the fistfights or Bat-gadgets. If you have any interest in the macabre, then you’ll remember Selina Kyle’s fingers being chewed on by alley cats before her nervous breakdown that transforms her into Catmwoman. You’ll remember the black vile that oozes from Danny Devito’s mouth before he bites into some poor schmuck’s nose. Honestly, Burton’s bizarro instincts were “too” potent here, because parents complained up a storm, resulting in Warner Bros. doing a kid-friendly soft-reboot with Batman Forever. While Burton’s vision continues to alienate many DC fans, us horror fiends will always be fascinated with his Batman duology.
2. Darkman (1990)
Produced in the immediate wake of Batman, director Sam Raimi had initially wanted to direct an adaptation of either The Shadow or Batman himself. Unable to get the rights, Raimi famously crafted his own super-anti-hero, one who would become a blend of The Shadow, The Invisible Man, and The Phantom of the Opera. And so, after becoming a genre favorite following Evil Dead II, Raimi made his first studio effort with Darkman, starring Liam Neeson as a benevolent scientist who seeks revenge against the men who disfigured him using his new abilities. Seeing a pattern here?
As derivative as Darkman sounds on paper, Raimi’s fusion of Universal Monster pathos, pulp-hero action, and his auteur sensibilities has made this film one of the most unique superhero films ever. A pitch-perfect blend of genres, Darkman is also a genuine tragedy that calls upon the classic movie monster more than any recent creature features we’ve gotten like A Quiet Place. It’s thrilling, darkly funny, well-acted, and an entirely original creation that should represent the culmination of the superhero-horror movement.
That being said, as I’ve discussed previously, Darkman’s mission of vengeance is so personal, the character’s arc so bleak, that you could make the argument that is really the origin story for a super-villain. The top entry of this list should be one film that blends these two genres so seamlessly that it not only offers horror cinema in the guise of a superhero, but a genuine hero that we cheer for along the way.
So what’s #1?
1. The Crow (1994)
Just as infamous for the on-set tragedy that resulted in the death of star Brandon Lee, The Crow isn’t just a grungy odyssey of revenge. It’s genuinely a haunting watch that transcends any genre tropes to become an indescribably powerful experience. But it draws upon both the superhero and horror genres the most, as we follow a murdered musician whose been brought back from the dead to avenge the murders of himself and his fiancee on “Devil’s Night”.
Based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, director Alex Proyas embraced The Crow’s comic-book roots to craft a world that was both gritty and fantastical, an urban dystopia that blends Detroit with German Expressionism. Brandon Lee’s iconic facepaint gives him the presence of a wraith and he murders his killers one by one in the manner of a slasher villain. If you’re looking to just get your kicks for either poetic justice or carnage candy, The Crow will get the job done and then some. But thanks to Lee’s endearing performance, Proyas’ visionary directing, and the metatextuality of its on-set tragedy, The Crow has become a peerless film that delivers the emotionally rich experience that few other films can, whether they be horror, superhero, or anything in between.