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Why do so many horror Directors end up making superhero movies?

Unless you’ve been living in a lead-lined cave over the past decade, or just hate movies (and if so … why are you reading this?), then you’ll know about cinema’s current love affair with the superhero genre. With both Marvel studios and Warner’s DCEU branch mapping out prospective films well past the year 2020, along with Sony’s grab-bag of X-Men/Spiderman orientated characters, and various other comic-book inspired projects (James Wan has been trying to get “Malignant Man” off the ground for years), it’s not something that’s going away anytime soon. In the remaining months of this year, the next “Thor” movie will hit the box-office running, along with the tent-pole of the DCEU that is “Justice League”. But one thing about nearly all of these films that remains constantly intriguing is that so many of the directors have serious form and history with horror.

It’s something that first became noticeable with Sam Raimi. The director’s name will be forever linked with the “Evil Dead” trilogy, and he even made the sort-of superhero film “Darkman” in 1990. But he surprised many horror fans when he was named as the director of the first big-screen adaptation of “Spiderman” in 2002, which was something that even James Cameron had given up on. And it was a massive hit, leading to him directing the other two entries in the franchise. He still keeps his fingers in the genre pie with projects like “Drag Me to Hell” and the ongoing (and insanely brilliant) series of “Ash vs. Evil Dead”. But for the mainstream audience he is as much “Spider-Guy” as he is the “Evil Dead” director.

And this is just the tip of the media iceberg. If we go through the current roster of recent and upcoming superhero films, the genre connection is eye-opening;

  • James Wan is responsible for directing the “Conjuring” films, the first “Saw” movie, the initial “Insidious” and remains in a producing capacity overseeing all the connected movies in those franchises. But his biggest upcoming project is DCEU’s “Aquaman”, which is currently filming and set for release in late 2018.

  • David F. Sandberg saw great success with the feature-length version of his horror short “Lights Out”, and also scored good box-office and critical feedback with the Conjure-verse sequel “Annabelle: Creation”. He’s just been signed to direct the DCEU’s “Shazam!” which is going through pre-production and hoped to be released in 2019.

  • Director John Watts shot a host of comedy shorts before making the Eli-Roth produced horror “Clown” in 2014, closely followed by the genre tinged “Cop Car”. Then Marvel studios picked him up to make the 3rd version of “Spiderman”, with “Homecoming” going on to be another big film for the company, and he’s now being tapped for the sequel.

  • Although primarily involved in comedy, Taika Waititi went on from the superb vampire comedy “What We Do in the Shadows”, to wrangling Thor in the upcoming Marvel studio’s “Thor: Ragnarok”.

  • Zack Snyder has been a lynchpin for the DCEU franchise with his Superman movies and the soon-to-be-released “Justice League”. But let’s not forget that his first feature-length film was the thoroughly respectable remake of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” in 2004, one of the few modern horror reboots to be a critical and financial success.

  • With the biggest superhero hit this year looking to be the surprisingly good “Wonder Woman”, even director Patty Jenkins’ first movie (“Monster” with Charlize Theron in 2003) could be described to be a horror of sorts, with its grim depiction of true-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

  • Neil Marshall started with the low-budget high-fun werewolf movie “Dog Soldiers” in 2002, before moving onto the “Game of Thrones” and “Hannibal” TV series. He is now signed to direct a darker superhero with the reboot of “Hellboy” for 2018.

  • James Gunn started writing and directing Troma films, and then made the fun throwback horror “Slither” in 2006. Now he is one of the most important directors in the Marvel studio roster, with his “Guardians of the Galaxy” films slaying the box-office.

  • And we’ll finish on a classic horror-to-superhero transition …. Acclaimed director Richard Donner went from a prolific career in television to making the all-time classic horror “The Omen” in 1976. Two years after that he was directing Christopher Reeves in “Superman”, arguably the first major and most significant superhero film ever made.

We could go on … but we’ll stop there (how can you top “Superman”?), but you get the idea. Horror seems to be the stepping stone for some filmmakers to go onto planet-busting-chest-thumping-world-saving epics. Why does this happen so regularly though?

It’s sad that certain elements of the mainstream film community often look down on horror, in favour of worthy dramas or statement cinema. It sometimes gets lumped with sneering and derogatory labels for sub-genres like “torture-porn”. But filmmakers and fans know that there really isn’t a better way to showcase your visual and technical skills than by making a damn good terror flick. Get your name on the map with a low-budget but skilfully made movie like “The Blair Witch Project”, “Paranormal Activity”, or some of the Blumhouse productions like “Get Out” … then a director will get his work noticed by the studio heads and a pass to get involved in some other dream projects.

Not only that but the skills honed in horror can be advantageous to the superhero film. Being creative with cheap prosthetics can translate into being comfortable and adventurous with a million dollars’ worth of CGI. The cinematography can swap across as well. Check out the POV shots of Dr Octopus’s metal arms in “Spiderman 2” from Raimi. They totally match up to the speedy tracking shots in “Evil Dead”. We wonder whether James Gunn was having flashbacks to “Slither”, when he choreographed that monstrous opening scene in “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2”. And whilst some directors seem happy to move away from horror (we can’t ever see Zack Snyder making another straightforward zombie film) and embrace the capes, others will be happy to straddle both genres or return to them periodically. James Wan will likely never wholly leave the franchises he created, Raimi is still heavily involved with “Ash vs. Evil Dead” along with other horror projects, and we’ll be really surprised if David F. Sandberg doesn’t follow up “Shazam!” with another scare-fest.

The fact of the matter is that many talented filmmakers choose horror as their “first love” for their feature length debuts or calling cards (look at Spielberg’s “Jaws” and “Duel”), and it’s a form of cinema that they can embrace and use to realise their skills. It’s the natural order of things that some of them will remain almost solely in this genre (John Carpenter, Wes Craven, etc.), whilst others will move on to more mainstream productions and other genres that are seen as popular and viable at the time. In the 80’s and 90’s this would have translated into big action films starring Schwarzenegger or Willis. Now it means that the studios are currently pushing superhero films because of the success seen by the Marvel shared universe and other hero hits. Many of the current generation of directors will have grown up with these characters, and it’s a rich mythology to explore in some respects. So it’s really not hard to see the attraction. As genre fans, we often want to see sequels or new interpretations of the classic boogeymen like Jason Voorhees and co. and who’s to say that they aren’t supervillains in some way… just a bit more bloody-thirsty and with less monologuing. Laurie Strode and Nancy Thompson will always be our Wonder Women though. So it seems wrong to begrudge some of these directors the chance to play in a bigger and less gory toy-box…

At the end of the day, it just proves that filmmakers working in the horror genre are more likely to display the skills and talent to be able to manage bigger-budgeted movies, and this is why studios are drawn to offer them the opportunities. And whilst it’s easy to imagine the tsunami of comic-book movies eventually shrink at some point, horror will always be there to provide a new generation of great movie-makers to work in the next movie fad. Excelsior!!

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