Like horror movies, superhero flicks tend to focus on the battle between good and evil. It’s surprising then that the two don’t come together more often. Fright flicks and blockbusters about super-powered crusaders regularly do good business at the box office, so why haven’t more filmmakers taken a stab at creating weird hybrid movies? My guess is because that whenever these movies have happened in the past, they’ve typically underperformed, but the future’s looking brighter for superhero movies willing to embrace the darkness.
2018 saw Venom hit storm multiplexes, while 2019 has given us the Hellboy reboot and Brightburn. We also have The New Mutants heading to the big screen next year, and Morbius is currently in development as we speak. While none of these movies are exactly the most highly anticipated releases among moviegoers, we’re living in a rare age that’s giving us horror-filled superhero adventures fairly frequently.
The history of movies of this breed has been interesting. What started life as a niche genre embraced only by exploitation filmmakers eventually found its way to Hollywood. With this guide, I’ve tried to chronicle the bizarre history of these movies. From misguided Mexican interpretations of popular American heroes to unexpected studio franchises paying off big, there’s more variation here than you might expect. I haven’t documented every single film that fits the criteria, but my selection contains all the major ones and a few obscure oddities for good measure. With that said, here’s hoping you find a few new movies to enjoy.
The Batwoman (1968)
In the latter half of the 1960s, Batman fever was in the air thanks to Adam West’s popular TV series. Meanwhile, in Mexico, Lucha Libre wrestlers were starring in their own horror, sci-fi, and espionage movies with great success. Combining the best of both worlds, director René Cardona and writer Alfredo Salazar made a Batwoman movie which pitted the titular bikini-clad crusader against a mad scientist.
In the movie, the antagonist kills wrestlers and uses their pineal gland fluids to create a fish monster. It’s up to Batwoman to infiltrate the Mexican wrestling scene, find out who’s behind the evil mystery, and save the day. This is a strange movie.
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)
In 1978, rockers Kiss wanted to take their celebrity image to the next level. To accomplish this, their manager thought it would be a good idea to reinvent the group as superheroes. The first step was to release a comic book about their crime-fighting exploits. Afterward, they starred in their own TV movie. In Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, the band gains superpowers and must stop a despicable inventor from destroying an amusement park. Before the heroes can defeat their nemesis, though, they must also battle their own robot doppelgangers.
The movie was panned upon released and annoyed Kiss so much that they refused to let any of their employees discuss it in their presence. Fortunately, people kept buying their music and the band still sells out stadiums to this day.
Swamp Thing (1982)
Wes Craven (R.I.P.) will go down in history as one of the best horror directors to ever step foot behind a camera. During his 40-year career, he delivered a healthy amount of hits and even changed the landscape of pop culture a couple of times. He’ll mostly be remembered for introducing us to Freddy and Ghostface, but even some of his overlooked features are gems.
Despite being a box office success at the time, Swamp Thing is one of forgotten treasures. Based on the DC Comics series about a scientist who becomes a plant creature, the movie established Craven as a trusted studio hand and paved the way for the films that made him an icon. It’s also a ton of fun and the practical creature FX are fantastic. In 1989, a sequel was released called The Return of Swamp Thing. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s outrageously entertaining and has fans here at FSR including myself and Rob Hunter. When Rob and I agree on something, you know it’s the real deal.
The Toxic Avenger (1984)
Legendary exploitation movie studio Troma Entertainment also decided to get in on the superhero action back in the day, and funnily enough, their take on crusader cinema became their most popular commercial entity.
The Toxic Avenger film series, which launched in 1984, follows a vigilante janitor who gets transformed into a monster with superhuman strength after falling victim to some toxic waste. With these incredible abilities, he cleans up the town of Tromaville by disposing of scumbags and threats in gruesomely violent ways. So far, the franchise has produced four feature-length films and a short-lived children’s cartoon. Furthermore, there’s also a mainstream reboot in the works courtesy of Macon Blair.