DC Comics

Film Study: “Batman Returns” [1992] Is ACTUALLY A Horror Film!

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Anyone who knows me is aware that I am a fairly large fan of Tim Burton. Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated with films like Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks!, and of course; The Nightmare Before Christmas. Although I was not born until three years later, in the year 1989, Tim Burton gave the world his vision of Batman, the first version of the character on screen in over [at the time] 20 years! The film starred Michael Keaton as the title character, and the film went on to earn over $400 million in the box office: a number so staggering that pushed it to become the fifth highest grossing film ever. [In its time] With it, came a new franchise that spawned three more films/sequels over nearly a decade, which comes to a combined total of over $1 billion at the box office. During its release, Batman was praised for being a dark and gritty take on the character that were previously seen as cheesy. Burton’s film[s] were rated PG-13, a way of letting parents know that the tone/atmosphere was not meant for children. Even though Batman brought us the maniacal Joker, played expertly by Jack Nicholson, it was not until 1992’s Batman Returns that truly jumped into the darkness of the character as well as the scarier and more vicious nature of the villains within Gotham. So why am I bringing up Batman on a horror blog? Well, besides the fact that Batman is a darker type of hero, I want to talk about Batman Begins – and how after reading a similar theory online, I too believe besides being a superhero film, it is also a horror film! This post is going to kind of long, being as we are going into depth, but let’s talk about it! I may also come off as being bias in this film study, after all it is one of my favorite Batman films; especially with Michelle Pfeiffer playing Catwoman! Don’t believe me? Check out this picture of Me from when Stephanie and I went to a Wax Museum in Niagara Falls this past summer! Now, onto the actual film study, I am distracting myself!

Batman Returns has 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. As another quick side note, the name of Walken’s character isn’t random, as MaximillianMaxSchreck was the actor who played Count Orlok in the German horror film Nosferatu. The film takes place during the end of the year holiday season, where everyone in Gotham is celebrating and embracing Christmas. However, as expected, the city is being spooked by an unknown, evil entity who goes by the name of “The Penguin.” The Penguin is the top headline of all newspapers and the talk of the town, and has been said to be a hideous creature but no one knows this for sure, because there have only been occasional glimpses of him, and no one seems to have any clue who [or what] The Penguin is.. or what he wants. So, while the people of Gotham City want to celebrate Christmas, they are being terrorized by a group of criminals who call themselves the “Circus Gang.” True to their name, these low class villains look like something out of a carnival with fire-breathers dressed up as demons to flame-juggling stilt walkers, to skeleton motorcycle riders [who have the coolest helmets/masks ever] to even an organ grinder with a vulcan cannon in a music box. Clearly, this gang is fully aware that looks and being prepared is everything. Naturally, they get stopped by Batman and then the true villain is revealed and the movie shifts to a battle between The Penguin and The Batman.

The overall story of this version of The Penguin is that he was born deformed and his parents left him into a small river in a city park. When his crib floated into the zoo, he was found and raised by penguins. Years later, he rises from the sewers and gains the sympathy of Gotham, which he uses, thanks to Shreck’s influence, to run for the Mayor of the city. Meanwhile, he’s working hard on his evil scheme to abduct [and kill] every first-born son of every citizen with the intention of drowning them; his reasoning? So they can experience what he did as a child: nearly drowning. Selina Kyle comes into the picture when she happens to get killed by Shreck, only to come back a radically different person; one that decides to don a sexy leather outfit and become The Catwoman. So nothing overly horror-film like yet, just some political backstabbing, superhero crimefighting, super villain being super villains.. It all sounds pretty mechanical when looking at it now, right?

What makes Batman Returns a horror film on top of a superhero movie is this pervasive violence and dislike for human life sprinkled throughout the film. There is an almost a hidden smile in the death of people and during the destruction of Gotham, which comes from Batman himself too. Many people were shocked by just how easily Ben Affleck’s take on Batman casually killed people in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But if you compare the two, he’s got nothing on Keaton, who will happily turn the Batmobile back around, only to shoot flames from his tailpipe onto a fire-breather or how about that time when he drops a guy into a manhole.. who then later explodes? This is the real killer Batman and it is terrifying to know that he does it with efficiency, coldness, and even a sense of enjoyment.

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[the true face of EVIL]

But let us not forget the villainous natures of both Cobblepot and Shreck. The Penguin lives up to his evil nature, and seems unafraid to hide it. He is shown forcing Shreck to help him emerge from the sewers by threatening to expose his shady business practices, as well as sharing the fact that Shreck killed a partner. This was confirmed by Penguin when we see him flaunting [and playing with] a dismembered hand! As for Shreck himself, he’s a monster in way 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 Selina, only before pushing her out of a window shows that he is a charming but absolutely ruthless man. He is a sociopath who will do whatever it takes – and kill anyone in his path – to get what he feels he deserves.

Speaking of Selina Kyle, let’s talk about her 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 a strange ability of having multiple lives. At first she looks like some ghastly image of her former self. Her skin is pale and gray, and she is seen having blood streaked across her face. But then she [emotionally] snaps, destroying her apartment with wild/exaggerated anger, and we see her fingers are now curled like a cat’s claws. But do not forget that her sadistic streak began before she “died.” Remember when Batman saved her on the street? Instead of thanking him, her first impulse was to kick the guy that held her hostage, even though he’s incapable of defending himself because he’s just been knocked out. If that is not enough, she then picks up the taser that he held to her face and proceeds to test it on him, laughing at the [shocking] outcome! It seems that she already had a sick streak in her – dying just gave her the freedom to finally let it all out.

Quickly jumping back to Shreck, he is nothing short of a monstrous persona, one that would be perfectly at ease sitting next to Hannibal Lecter, although if we are being honest; he’s nowhere near as classy. However, he does like to do his dirty work behind-the-scenes, showing the public eye one personality while living a totally different one in his private life. In this “other life,” he is capable of murder without flinching, showing that he is just as calculated as someone like Patrick Bateman. Just look at the following clip to see his charming yet evil persona in action.

When Shreck finally meets his death, it is perhaps the most gruesome of the film and it calls back to Selina’s initial taste of “being bad.” When she does get to killing Shreck, she uses that same taser to cook him into a skeleton! But of course, she is not the real villain/monster; that title goes to The Penguin. From his sharp teeth and black spittle to his deformed overall presentation, he openly admits to being “an animal” and “cold-blooded.” Watching his behavior throughout the film is equal to that of a wild [and uncontrollable] creature, who can be playful one moment and then turn to a frightening and dangerous with monstrous intentions the next. While trying to coo to a young woman in his mayoral committee, he suddenly and abruptly turns on a young man, biting his nose so severely that the man is left disfigured and bleeding profusely!

What also makes his character so fascinating is the parallels between The Penguin and God and Satan. As previously discussed, Cobblepot’s ultimate end game is to kidnap the first-born children of Gotham in their sleep. This is essentially the 10th Biblical plague, in which God came down and slew the first-born child of every family who was not protected by lamb’s blood, Cobblepot plans to bring tremendous terror and grief to those who he feels enslaved him below the surface. However, as we all know, Penguin is no God and that’s where his “palace” comes into play. Hidden in the depths of the abandoned Gotham Zoo, Cobblepot’s “castle” is cold and icy, which could be seen as an allusion to Dante’s Inferno, where the terrifying [and grotesque] Satan lives within the bowels of Hell, trapped in a frozen lake. Ultimately, the icy location becomes engulfed in flames, much like how we -as people – envision Hell.


Now remember: this is just a theory, but when it first came out, this movie was labeled as grotesque by parents and I believe that its easy to see why. DeVito’s version of The Penguin gave countless children [including myself!] nightmares for a long time and seeing Pfeiffer die in such a violent fashion is something that kids were not meant to see. Furthermore, this may very well be the darkest overall presentation of a Batman film. I can’t think of anything that comes close to how bleak and dark this entry is.

Now, before anyone starts with the whole “It’s not scary!” argument, let’s all remember that a lot of horror films are not that scary to begin with. To frighten an audience is a bonus when it comes to horror, at least for us horror genre fans. What makes a horror film “horror” is how it presents itself, how there is this grim feeling surrounding the overall film. Based on the facts above, I believe that Batman Returns does this extremely well.

The real question is though, do You think Batman Begins is a horror film? Why or why not? Let me and Michelle Pfeiffer know in the comments! Be sure to also follow me over on my Facebook page! [we’re at over 180+ likes – let’s get to 200!] By clicking that “like” button, you’ll see every post from warrenisweird the very moment it’s been “gone live” online; and I also share links to articles and pictures/videos that will not be featured here on the blog. So go follow over there too! Every “like” helps me a ton, giving me the ability to write more posts for you to read, so be sure to tell the horror enthusiast in your life to do the same, and share The Facebook Page with your family and friends!

I’ve also been writing way more reviews on my Letterboxd account, this is because I’m trying to review every single movie I watch  – with each review [usually] posted the very next day after viewing! Are you interested yet? Check me out over there and click that “follow” button! I’m just bound to follow you back because I like reading other people’s thoughts on film, as well as writing reviews myself!

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THANKS FOR READING.