In 1989, Tim Burton gave the world Batman, the first incarnation of the character on film in over 20 years. Starring Michael Keaton as the titular character, the film went on to earn over $400 million in the box office, a staggering number that propelled it to become the 5th highest grossing film ever in its time. It also kicked off a new franchise that spawned three more films over nearly a decade, which generated a combined total of well over $1 billion at the box office.
Hailed as being a dark and gritty take on the characters that were previously hokey and cheesy, Burton’s presentations were rated PG-13, letting parents know that they really weren’t meant for children. And while Batman brought us the maniacal Joker, played expertly by Jack Nicholson, it was 1992’s Batman Returns that really dove into the darkness of the character as well as the eeriness and vicious nature of the villains.
So, I’m going to posit a theory that might raise some eyebrows but all I ask is that you hear me out, alright? I believe that Batman Returns, on top of being a comic book superhero film, is a horror film.
Okay, let’s do this.
The film takes place during the end of the year holiday season, specifically celebrating and embracing Christmas as its backdrop. However, Gotham City is being spooked by an unknown, malevolent entity by the name of “The Penguin”. Said to be a hideous creature, the Penguin is the top headline of all newspapers and the talk of the town. There have only been occasional glimpses and no one seems to have any clue who or what the Penguin is…or what he wants.
While Gotham City wants to celebrate Christmas, it is being terrorized by a group of criminals known as the “Circus Gang”. True to their name, these hooligans look like something out of a carnival that Clive Barker would absolutely adore. From fire-breathers dressed as demons to flame-juggling stilt walkers to skeleton motorcycle riders (who have the coolest helmets/masks EVER) to an organ grinder with a freakin’ vulcan cannon in his music box, this gang is acutely aware that presentation is everything. In order to keep the people in a state of fear, the gang has to inspire terror, something they are completely capable of doing, as shown in the film’s early attack scene.
The movie has essentially four main characters: Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin, and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck. Side note, the name of Walken’s character isn’t happenstance. Maximillian “Max” Schreck was the actor who played Count Orlok in the German horror film Nosferatu.
The overall story here is that the Penguin was born deformed and his parents cast him into a small river in the city park. His crib floated into the zoo, where he was found and raised by penguins. Years later, he emerges from the sewers and gains the sympathy of Gotham, which he uses, per Shreck’s influence, to run for the Mayor of the city. Meanwhile, he’s working hard on his scheme to abduct and kill every first-born son of every citizen with the intention of drowning them, much like how he was nearly drowned in his infancy. Selina Kyle happens to get killed by Shreck only to come back a radically different person, one that decides to don a leather outfit and become Catwoman. Political backstabbing, superhero crimefighting, super villain shenanigans… It all sounds pretty rote when looking at it now, right?
But what makes Batman Returns a horror film on top of a superhero movie is this pervasive malevolence and disdain for human life throughout the film. There is an almost wanton glee in the death of people and the destruction of Gotham, which comes from Batman too. Many people were shocked by the ease in which Ben Affleck’s Batman casually kills people in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But he’s got nothing on Keaton, who will happily turn the Batmobile around so that he can jettison fire from his tailpipe onto a fire-breather. Or how about when he drops a guy through a manhole so that he can explode? No, this is the real killer Batman and he does it with efficiency, callousness, and even a sense of enjoyment.
But that doesn’t detract from the villainous natures of Cobblepot or Shreck. The former owns up to his evil nature, unafraid to hide it. He forces Shreck to help him emerge from the sewers by threatening to expose his shady business practices as well as the fact that Shreck killed a partner, something confirmed by Penguin flaunting and playing with a dismembered hand. As for the latter, he’s a monster in that he manipulates and deceives those around him with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Even the way he stalks up to Selina before pushing her out of the window shows that he is charming but absolutely ruthless. He is a sociopath who will do whatever it takes – and kill anyone in his path – to get what he feels he deserves.
Now, all of this isn’t enough to prove that Batman Returns is a horror movie, I’m aware. So let’s talk about some of the elements that do fall under a “horror umbrella”, shall we?
Since we just so recently spoke about Selina Kyle, let’s talk about her ghoulish resurrection. She was pushed out of a skyscraper, fell dozens of stories to her death, and was then licked back to life by cats with the strange new ability of having multiple lives. At first she looks like some ghastly image of her former self. Her skin is deathly gray, blood streaked across her face. She emotionally snaps, destroying her apartment with wild, exaggerated gestures, her fingers curled like, yes, a cat’s claws. She begins her journey as a villainess by proclaiming her home “Hell“.
But let’s not forget that her sadistic streak began before her demise. Remember when Batman saved her on the street? Her first impulse was to kick the clown that held her hostage, even though he’s incapable of defending himself because he’s, y’know, just been knocked the fuck out. Then, she picks up the taser that he held to her face and proceeds to test it on him, laughing at the outcome. She already had a sick streak in her, dying just gave her the freedom to let it all hang out.
As I’ve already written, Shreck is a monstrous persona, one that would be perfectly at ease sitting next to Hannibal Lecter, although he’s nowhere near as urbane and classy. However, he does like to work things out behind-the-scenes, presenting the public with one personality while living a totally different one in his private life. Capable of murder without flinching, he’d be right at home in any psychological horror/thriller. Just look at the above clip to see it in action.
His demise is perhaps the most gruesome of the film and it calls back to Selina’s initial taste of “being bad”. Her first foray into going against her meek ways was with the taser she took from the Circus Gang clown that was defeated by Batman. When killing Shreck, she uses that same taser to cook him into a smoking skeleton that hearkens back to the Joker’s shocking handshake.
Penguin is obviously the monster of the film. From his sharp teeth and black spittle to his deformed presentation, he openly admits to being “an animal” and “cold-blooded”. His behavior throughout the film is equal to that of a wild creature, one that can be playful one moment and then turn with frightening, dangerous intentions the next. While trying to coo to a young woman in his mayoral committee, he suddenly turns on a young man and bites him on the nose so severely that the man is disfigured and bleeding profusely.
But what makes his character so fascinating is the parallels between Penguin and God and Satan. Cobblepot’s ultimate plan, like Freddy Krueger, is to kidnap the first-born children of Gotham in their sleep. Essentially the 10th Biblical plague, in which God came down and slew the firstborn child of every family who was not protected by lamb’s blood, Cobblepot is going to bring tremendous terror and grief to those who he feels enslaved him.
However, Penguin is no God and that’s where his “palace” comes into play. Hidden in the depths of the abandoned Gotham Zoo, Cobblepot’s lair is cold and icy, an allusion to Dante’s Inferno, where the terrifying and grotesque Satan resides in the bowels of Hell, trapped in a frozen lake. Ultimately, that icy location becomes engulfed in flames, much like how we envision Hell.
With his hideous visage and almost inhuman appearance, Cobblepot is a force of pure evil that wants nothing more than to bring pain and suffering upon an entire population.
Look, I know I may be reaching a bit here and I’m 100% willing to admit it. But this movie was labeled as grotesque by parents and it’s easy to see why. DeVito’s Penguin gave countless children nightmares for years and Pfeiffer’s death is something out of a surreal fairy tale. Furthermore, this may very well be the darkest overall presentation of a Batman film ever. I can’t think of anything that comes close to how bleak and callous this entry is.
And before anyone starts with the whole “It’s not scary!” argument, let’s all remember that a lot of horror films aren’t scary to begin with. Frightening audiences is a bonus when it comes to horror, at least for us genre fans. What makes a horror film “horror” is how it presents itself, how there is this grim aura permeating throughout the film. In that, Batman Returns doles it out in spades.