When looking at some of the most successful comic book movies to come out of DC and Marvel over the last two decades, it might be surprising to see that quite a few of them came from directors that were better known for horror than superheroes.
Before his Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi directed the equally iconic Evil Dead trilogy. Before Avengers and its sequel, Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and wrote Cabin the Woods. Before making $1 billion with Aquaman, James Wan was terrifying audiences with Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring.
Prior to bending worlds with Doctor Strange, Scott Derrickson explored demonic worlds with the Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us From Evil. And before hitting a much needed slam dunk for DC with Shazam!, David F. Sandberg was releasing creepy supernatural thrillers like Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation.
So what it is about horror directors that translates so well over to comic books and superheroes? Are there any overlaps between the two genres? What other horror directors would make great comic book films? That’s what we hope to explore, and more!
Suspension of Disbelief
Practically all fiction engages in some level of suspending the audience’s level of belief and realism, however genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror work overtime in this department. It’s here that creators have to take something that might be unrealistic or even silly, and make it believable. Sometimes this is done by taking a more lighthearted and intentionally campy tone.
Masterfully blending horror with comedy, Sam Raimi created an iconic trio of horror films that go so far over the top that they make you jump, make you laugh, then go full circle, making you jump again. What made his Evil Dead films so compelling was just how fun they are to watch.
Years later, he took the very same approach with his Spider-Man films. It was a time when the genre wasn’t a gritty or respected as it is today, so campy and over the top proved effective. Since his trilogy, there have been countless other Spider-Man films that are better adaptations of the source material, but none are quite as memorable or fun as his.
In a similar vein, Joss Whedon used meta humor and great character dynamic for Buffy and Cabin in the Woods. And that same approach also proved incredibly effective and successful with the ensemble that was The Avengers. Buffy was a blend of all kinds of unique supernatural beings, not unlike the many diverse personalities of the titular superhero team.
Besides completely revamping the haunted house genre and launching a whole new wave of demonic horror, 2011’s Insidious is particularly known for its depiction of “The Further”. Sure its name sounds like a cheap knockoff of “The Beyond”, but the ethereal world that James Wan created is both visually intriguing, and downright creepy.
So it’s no surprise that when Wan entered the world of DC, one of his film’s greatest accomplishments was the vastly fascinating world-building. Aquaman features a myriad of underwater kingdoms and creatures that each feel unique, complete with their own history and mythology.
Making up for the criticisms of Suicide Squad being too overly expositional, Aquaman shows rather than tells, and it serves to pique our interest in the vast worlds the Wan has created. He’s even discussed doing a horror spinoff about some of the deep sea terrors that we caught but a glimpse of, and honestly, that would be pretty amazing.
Of course, world-building doesn’t always have to be overt or explicit. Scott Derrickson portrayed skeptical characters going down supernatural rabbit holes in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and Deliver Us From Evil. Each of them features a character who denies the existence of this other world at first, but that world winds up consuming them.
In an eerie way, this also mirrors the plot of Doctor Strange. The titular doctor is desperately seeking any possible treatment of his hands so he can be a surgeon again, and he winds up coming a self-described “Master of the Mystic Arts”. Surely Marvel was familiar with his work on horror and saw his potential for this type of story.
And sadly, after promising he could go full horror with Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, he parted ways with them citing “creative differences”. However, the project (still slated to be the MCU’s first horror film) is now being directed by the aforementioned Sam Raimi, more on that here.
Horror’s Necessary “Dishonesty”
In a strange way, horror is the only genre that has to outright lie to its audience at the beginning. Countless slashers begin as teen comedies until the killing starts. Every haunted house movie usually starts as a family drama, until something supernatural invades. No movie does this better than From Dusk Till Dawn, which goes from gritty crime thriller to surprise vampire horror seemingly out of nowhere.
And it’s because of this that every horror director has to adept at other genres. David F. Sandberg’s Annabelle: Creation begins as a drama about a group of orphan girls trying to live together in a new home and find a family.
Interestingly, his DC film Shazam! begins almost the same way. Both feature a child protagonist moving into a new and unfamiliar home, and they both discover something of great power. One is a cursed demonic doll and the other is superpowers, but both films use the very same principles.
All of these directors consistently demonstrate the overlap in skills between making great horror and superhero movies. And it’s an overlap that we’ll certainly see more of in the future, especially with a Blade reboot in the works at Marvel!
Which horror directors would you like to see make a superhero movie? Who would you like to see behind MCU’s Blade? Let us know in the comments!