Thunder roars as sheets of rain ravage the exterior of a Gothic mansion; a woman in childbirth screams in agony from within. Soon, a second scream joins the chorus of pain; a child—but something’s wrong. A trained midwife recoils in abject terror and even the attending physician finds himself crippled with nausea. A monster is born.
This grim and grisly scenario sounds like the beginning of an R-Rated thriller, but it’s not; it’s the opening scene from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, released in 1992 and starring Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Not only is Batman Returns often forgotten on lists of subversive Christmas movies, it’s altogether deceptively bleak and harrowing, nearing the borders of legitimate horror.
From a gray, utilitarian aesthetic and admissions of psychopathy to scenes of mass shootings that would have an entirely different resonance if released today, Batman Returns is more of a non-traditional horror movie than your typical Tim Burton romp or superhero flick. For starters, we’re presented with a consistently overcast, decaying Gotham City where, despite an energy surplus, day-to-day existence resembles life in a crumbling former Soviet bloc state.
Our hero Bruce Wayne/Batman (Keaton) has always been moody and brooding, but the character acknowledges his dark side, making a self-comparison to the likes of Norman Bates and Ted Bundy. While plenty of caped crusaders live dual lives, few would group themselves with notorious serial killers. It hints at something truly dangerous lurking in the tortured playboy’s psyche.
Similarly, the anti-hero Catwoman (Pfeiffer) is unlike any other manifestation of the feline night-stalker. The canonical origins of Selina Kyle describe an orphan who took to thievery in order to survive life on the mean streets of Gotham. In Batman Returns, however, Catwoman is a revenant or a zombie. After behind murdered for being too smart, Kyle is resurrected by a gang of alley cats who literally breathe life back into her. Cats have long been associated with witchcraft and were even regarded as emissaries of Satan. Batman Returns insinuates a post-death barter with Old Scratch where Kyle traded her immortal soul for a chance to return to the Land of the Living—for revenge!
The true villain of Batman, though, is a fiend of rare cruelty and depravity. The fact that DiVito is a celebrated comedian is cheap subterfuge for a truly abominable heart. After surviving an attempted infanticide (his parents dumped him off a bridge like garbage), Oswald Cobblepot reemerges from the icy sewers as Penguin: A deformed monstrosity whose rise to social prominence hides nearly Biblical wrath.
Throughout Batman Returns, Penguin performs a litany of atrocities. He nearly bites a man’s nose off for what he perceives as a condescending attitude. During his run for Mayor, he molests a young staffer and, later, decides to kill Catwoman for denying his sexual advances; “You gave me all the signals!” he bemoans before sending Kyle off to her death (luckily, she has lives to spare).
Penguin/Cobblepot is a crime boss who organizes several terrorist plots against the city of Gotham, employing a gang of circus freaks (an extra terror for those suffering coulrophobia). This culminates in an attempt to kidnap and murder every first-born child in Gotham, a scenario reminiscent of God’s final plague upon Ancient Egypt. When this plot is foiled, he attempts to launch a missile assault on Gotham, an act which (if successful) would rack up a whopping 100,000 casualties! It’s a body count that would have put Jason Voorhees and his ilk to shame.
Penguin’s physical attributes are as twisted as his evil soul; his mouth oozes slime like the decaying gob of a drug addict and his flipper hands could be an allusion to a rash of birth defects suffered by children born to mothers who took the morning sickness drug thalidomide. It only takes a hint of real-life social tragedy to give a fictional character profound (and, in this case, terrifying) resonance.
Other connections between Batman Returns and the horror genre include the participation of FX legend Stan Winston (Aliens, Pumpkinhead, and Wrong Turn among many others) and body actor Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) plays the “Thin Clown”. It’s also worth noting that Christopher Walken’s corrupt character is named Max Shreck; it’s a shout-out to Max Schreck, the actor who played the Count Orlok in 1922’s Nosferatu, and this speaks to the character’s metaphorical blood-sucking.
While Christopher Nolan would steer the world of Batman into even darker territories in the 21st Century, Batman Returns is nonetheless more sinister than most manifestations of the seminal superhero. While Burton’s madcap methods of storytelling and Danny Elfman’s soaring score suggest a jaunty, adventurous experience, the film hides more terror in its subtext than most slasher flicks wear on their sleeves.
If it’s been a while, check out the trailer and synopsis for Batman Returns below. Viewed through modern lenses with an eye for horror, it’s a wellspring of intense terror and devious delights. Consider giving it a fresh watch for a subversive Christmas story like none other.
The monstrous Penguin (Danny DeVito), who lives in the sewers beneath Gotham, joins up with wicked shock-headed businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) to topple the Batman (Michael Keaton) once and for all. But when Shreck’s timid assistant, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), finds out and Shreck tries to kill her, she is transformed into the sexy Catwoman. She teams up with the Penguin and Shreck to destroy Batman, but sparks fly unexpectedly when she confronts the caped crusader.