From about 2010 through 2015, audiences could rely on the regular appearance of sternly-worded editorials from just about every entertainment journalism outlet that the superhero film trend – that unstoppable pop culture steamroller – was on the verge of collapse. The editorialists, likely operating from a place of healthy blockbuster fatigue, kept on pointing out that big-budget superhero films had reach peaked saturation, and that the market wouldn’t allow this trend – which began in 2002 with the release of Sam Raimi’s mediocre SPIDER-MAN – to continue for much longer.
I think we can all relate to this. After a 15-year period of superhero flicks coming out at the rate of one every four months, even the staunchest teenage fan can feel burned out. It almost seems that little more can be done with the genre.
Except to remember that the genre once overlapped heavily with horror.
There was an epoch in Hollywood where comic book movies were not considered feasible entertainment. Comic books audiences, i.e. kids, were not seen to be worth the massive budgets and headache-inducing licensing deals that are required to bring a high-profile superheroes to the big screen, so comic books were largely left alone for a long time, only being relegated to huge-budget supra-marketing ploys like SUPERMAN and BATMAN. It wasn’t until the 1990s when superheroes had a chance to get their feet wet.
Horror, of course, has always been a money making genre, and as all trends rise and fall, horror has persisted. This is the best-known secret in Hollywood. Any and all major studios will frequently produce any number of low-budget, low-profile horror releases as a way of shoring up their coffers. A halfway-decent ghost story, even a cheap one, can earn a little extra scratch for everyone involved because everyone loves seeing a cheap thrill now and again (and again and again).
It should only make sense then that studios would first start testing out their superhero properties by blending them with horror. Luckily for the studios, the 1990s saw the release of innumerable superhero/horror properties that banked on the rise of irony and pop culture deconstruction that marked the decade.
In particular, I recall collecting a series of Marvel comic books in the 1990s that featured a newly-assembled gaggle of superhero teams living in their own corner of the Marvel universe called The Midnight Sons. These were superheroes that lived by night, had creepy, monster-like powers, and dealt with demons and evil deities rather than the usual muggers and bank robbers. The team involved demonic characters like Ghost Rider, the son of Dracula, Lilith (yes, that Lilith), Morbius the Living Vampire, Blade the vampire hunter, and a team of humans on the trail of a Necronomicon-like book called The Darkhold.
Following the success of 1994’s THE CROW, itself taking style cues from BATMAN, studios began looking around for horror comics to license and adapt. Where do we find a superhero that can be attached to an aesthetically ambitious production design, as well as feel kind of like a horror movie? Why not look to Marvel’s own Midnight Sons?
These, after all, were from a well-known comic book company, but were low-key enough that they could likely be licensed for cheap. As such, in 1998 New Line Cinema released the film BLADE starring Wesley Snipes. It was a superhero film, but more than that, it was a badass R-rated horror movie about a secret conspiracy of vampires and the tools one must use to kill them. There was a lot of blood, and it featured horror luminary Udo Kier as a vampire elder. BLADE is often hailed as one of the first superhero movies to mark the rise of the trend, but at the time the studios sold it as a stylized horror film.
Mixing superhero comics with horror also had a foothold in low-budget exploitation, so there was precedent for the studios to make something like BLADE. If you recall Wes Craven’s SWAMP THING, you’ll see that 1970s superhero deconstruction was already popping its head up. The 1990s, though, were the time for things to begin taking off in earnest. Yes, unfortunately, SPAWN was part of the movement. I won’t mention SPAWN. BLADE, however, was such a hit, it – uh – spawned two sequels.
By the early 2000s, superhero flicks were starting to come out with more regularity, and special effects technology was catching up to match images previously only drawn on paper. 2004 was the year of HELLBOY, Guillermo Del Toro’s pretty amazing adaptation of the superhero book. It was a hit and generated a sequel. To this day, HELLBOY is seen as perhaps the crowning achievement of horror/superhero flicks. 2005 had CONSTANTINE, a film about a dying psychic P.I. that exorcised demons. Although the film was clunky, it at least was based on a cool idea. I think fans of the comics were upset that the film was toned down from the dark hard-R source material.
2007 saw the release of GHOST RIDER, a perhaps-too-clean-and-not-well-liked adaptation of the Midnight Sons’ character. Ghost Rider focuses on a motorcycle stunt driver who makes a deal with the Devil, transforming him into an instrument of holy vengeance, becoming a ghoul with a flaming skull for a head and a flaming motorcycle. The image is awesome, but the film was perhaps too silly. The character was “redeemed” in a 2012 sequel called GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, which was a lot crazier, rated “R,” and brought the horror elements back.
2007 was also the year of 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, a comic book-based movie about an arctic station beset by vampires who were smart enough to move to an area of Earth where the night can last for a full month. It’s a great idea, and it was a mild hit, although it’s not necessarily a superhero movie. In 2010, the CONSTANTINE formula was repeated in DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT, a horror/comedy film that, while not very good, is still pretty enjoyable. Judge me if you must.
Collectively, however, the two GHOST RIDER films didn’t make a huge amount of money, and are often referred to with a scoff by many superhero fans. CONSTANTINE has gone on to be downright obscure, DYLAN DOG is widely hated, and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT is a footnote at best. HELLBOY was the only hit.
Given their overall middling success, it’s no wonder studios have shied away from the superhero horror movie in recent years. This is a pity, as the horror/superhero genre has so much potential, and so many more horrific back alleys to explore.
Horror is intrinsic to superhero movies, if one pauses to reflect. What is a superhero but a divinely enhanced human being who fights off the forces of evil a.k.a., The Devil? There is a moral absolutism to superheroes that makes them appealing. And, in order to balance the extreme righteousness of the superhero, one must include some form of evil for them to fight. Why not manifest that evil in the form of monsters, vampires, and other violent beasts or killers that lust for blood? The line between a superhero film and a horror superhero film lies only with the amount of blood allowed on screen.
There are many characters, of course, that have a lot of potential. Going back to just Marvel for horror fodder, one can find several iterations of The Son of Satan, also known as Hellstorm, a literal half-demon who would occasionally fight for good just to piss off his famous father. There is Terror, Inc., an obscure demon in a trench coat who possesses the body of whoever kills him. There’s the aforementioned Morbius the Living Vampire, a blood-drinker who is, get this, not undead. I’m fond of the X-FILES-like premise of THE DARKHOLD REDEEMERS. And who could forget bonkers characters like Moon Knight and Sleepwalker?
Horror and superheroes are not as uneasy a marriage as they get credit for. Perhaps the time has come to resurrect the genre.