The link between superhero movies and horror directors goes all the way back to the start. Before he made Superman: The Movie and took comic books to the big screen, Richard Donner was behind the camera of The Omen – one of the scariest films ever made. While Donner would subsequently become known for comedies, action movies and family friendly adventures, his first major success was over on the dark side of cinema. More than four decades later, there has continued to be an unbreakable connection between horror and superheroes, and it's arguably stronger now than it has ever been before.
This week sees the release of DC blockbuster Shazam!, which is helmed by David F. Sandberg. His only two previous director credits are on Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation – full-blooded horror films in every conceivable way. Sandberg's horror edge, however, creates an interesting tonal juggle at the heart of Shazam!. On the surface, it's one of the sunniest and funniest films to have emerged from the DC Comics world since Donner made you believe a man could fly, but there's darkness at play too.
Shazam! Image: Warner Bros.
Sandberg peppers the film with moments of really quite bleak horror. The opening movement of the movie essentially sketches the origin story of Mark Strong's villainous Doctor Sivana and it's a triumph. Throughout the film, the titular hero squares off against Sivana and the Seven Deadly Sins – demonic creatures that live within him until he unleashes them to do his bidding. These beings are genuinely creepy, capable of extraordinary violence – including sudden defenestration and head-munching that's every bit as graphic as the violence seen in the 15-certificate Venom last year.
There's a rich heritage of that sort of directorial casting in the recent DCEU as well, with James Wan – Saw creator and head honcho of the Conjuring universe – drafted in to helm last year's Aquaman . His horror chops can be glimpsed clearly in the scenes in which Jason Momoa's hero and his warrior companion Mera are attacked by the amphibious monsters known as The Trench. The scene felt like an homage to Guillermo del Toro, HP Lovecraft and Creature from the Black Lagoon , as well as being a throwback to Wan's horror origins. It clearly made an impression upstairs too, since Warner Bros is reportedly working on a spin-off movie based around The Trench - and it’s said to be a pure horror film.
Over at Marvel, meanwhile, Scott Derrickson went from Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil to directing Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange, and Slither director James Gunn has made some of the franchise's most memorable and acclaimed films with the two Guardians of the Galaxy outings. Even further back in time, the DCEU's former de facto leader Zack Snyder hopped into the comic book movie business after debuting with a remake of Dawn of the Dead, while Sam Raimi was known as a horror maestro for decades before he brought Spider-Man to the silver screen in 2002.
But what is it that causes this symbiosis? Why do superhero movies love horror directors, and why is that feeling so obviously mutual?
Superhero movies, like horror films, are often considered to be a lowbrow cinematic genre. People who make horror films are often pigeon-holed and separated from the world of 'auteur cinema' in a similar way to that experienced by those who make gargantuan blockbusters that are deemed to be nothing more than shameless cash-ins. And cash is something that the two genres also have in common. Horror and comic books are perhaps the two safest financial bets in Hollywood, with superheroes regularly reaching for billion-dollar box office totals while horror movies inevitably over-achieve based on their inherently low budgets. James Wan's Conjuring franchise – itself the closest horror equivalent to a superhero universe - passed $1bn worldwide last year with the release of The Nun.
But it's not just the somewhat marginalised position of horror directors that makes them a good fit for superhero films. In an interview with Collider, actor Willem Dafoe weighed in on the prominence of horror filmmakers in the superhero world, having worked with Raimi on Spider-Man and Wan on Aquaman.
“ Really fun, inventive directors come out of horror often ... [Wan] knows film language, Raimi knew film language ... Horror is a really good platform to mold these guys with good film language; it’s a good genre to strut their stuff.”
As Dafoe states, there's something about horror that gives filmmakers a real grasp of how to tell a story against considerable adversity and restriction. In the world of horror, those restrictions are often budgetary, whereas superhero movies are often confined by the needs of the studio in terms of selling other films, keeping comic book audiences happy and laying groundwork for sequels.
Horror movies are essentially a gateway drug for filmmakers, paving the way for their future career in cinema. It enables them to build up a magician's sleeve of cinematic tricks, while stretching the limits of genre codes and conventions to their most ragged edges. No one should be surprised that James Wan has become a terrific action director in films like Aquaman and Fast & Furious 7 because his horror movies show a remarkable command of how to engineer real scares from very well-worn tropes. Once you've managed to eke palpable tension from a miniscule budget in Saw, Nicole Kidman waving a trident around is a lot less difficult a task to manage.
The recent rise to the top of the superhero mountain for directors like Wan, Sandberg and Derrickson is a mark of the willingness to push through the boundaries of what audiences expect superhero movies to be. For years, comic book stories were either light and candy-coloured in the way of the original Superman films – Donner's horror edges were almost entirely smoothed off – or grey and moody like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy of Batman tales. Under the new era of macabre maestros turned superhero helmers, there's a different slant to both the light and the darkness.
Comedy has become Marvel's hallmark. Even its most serious films are quick-witted and enjoyable. Such a delicate tonal balancing act comes naturally to a horror director. There's the finest of lines between a scream and a laugh, or between horror and comedy, which is something that many of the best horror practitioners understand perfectly well. James Gunn, in particular, has married laughter with fright for most of his career and so had no problem amping up the first of those elements when he made Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014.
Meanwhile, horror directors are increasingly being given the opportunity to add seamless flashes of darkness to superhero movies. The aforementioned horror scenes in Shazam and Aquaman never feel shoehorned in or tonally awkward. These additions add a macabre twist to superhero films, while working as an organic part of the stories. The same is true of Doctor Strange , which makes the most of Derrickson's genre experience for its Steve Ditko-inspired dark fantasy sequences, as well as the monstrous figure of the black magic deity Dormammu – the only Marvel villain to ever be defeated solely as a result of how annoying Benedict Cumberbatch is.
Horror movies, like superhero tales, often defy the auteur theory. The director's job is not to cover the film with their hallmarks and ideas, but to work within the universe they are given and tell a story that best serves all of its different paymasters. When a director tries to become bigger than a superhero movie, the result is the bloat of The Dark Knight Rises or the indulgent chaos of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice . The superhero genre is one in which filmmakers are often best served to take a step back from their auteur instincts and simply steer the ship into the most entertaining possible waters.
For the final point on this, it's worth going back to Dafoe. In the same Collider interview, the actor said “horror directors have some major enthusiasm for what they're making” – and he's right. Like superhero fans, horror devotees are wildly passionate and supportive of the things they love, which is a trait shared by the filmmakers as well.
There's no sign of this particular trend – which is as old as the superhero movie itself – dying down any time soon. Whether they're asked to bring their love of the nightmarish and the evil to the fore in the superhero world or not, horror filmmakers bring a great deal of TLC to the table – terror, love and care.