16 Super Grimdark Genre Movies That Aren’t ‘The Batman’

16 Super Grimdark Genre Movies That Aren’t ‘The Batman’
Screenshot: Annihilation/Paramount Pictures, Fair Use

Perhaps its a reflection of the state of the world (or our perception of it), but many of the most popular genre films of the past decade or more have been of the relentlessly grim-and-gritty variety. Particularly when it comes to superheroes (and especially Batman, whose films have only grown more dour across the decades), glumness is even seen as a marker of quality — fairly or otherwise. Happy endings are great and all, but we’re obsessed with genre movies that aren’t just dark, but wildly, operatically grim.

At their best, those movies show us a world that might not quite align with our day-to-day experience, but perhaps aren’t far off from the vision of life as we might see it in our bleakest imaginings, at the darkest hours of the night. On the other hand, some seem to reflect a teenager’s heightened sense of drama.

Perhaps we simply find it highly relatable that even a character like Batman, with a life far more exciting than our own humdrum existences, still has plenty of reasons to be sad. Just like us! All of the following movies also feature people with plenty of reasons to crawl back into bed, and yet they still manage to lead action-packed lives. Good for them.

The Crow (1994)

A comic book movie from an era when they were much rarer, The Crow is a heavy on dark, brooding, emo style — doing Tim Burton one better. While it’s best not to reduce the on-set accidental death of Brandon Lee during filming to purely cinematic legend, there’s no question that the star’s tragic end gave The Crow an outsized resonance. Here was a movie with a well-calculated appeal to goth teens about a dead musician returning from the dead for revenge, whose star died on the cusp of fame. Heavy.

Dark City (1998)

Woefully under-appreciated despite contemporary critical adoration from the likes of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, director Alex Proyas followed up his emo classic The Crow with this even darker (it’s right there in the title) sci-fi neo-noir that explores what goes on when a sunless, rain-soaked city (literally) goes to sleep. Like an old-style movie detective, Rufus Sewell tries to pull back the curtain on reality, and ends up having cause to regret learning the truth.

Donnie Darko (2001)

An instant cult classic and the movie that made a star of Jake Gyllenhaal (even if it didn’t make a ton of money initially), Donnie Darko follows a deeply troubled teenager who survives a freak accident only to find himself accosted and manipulated by a truly disturbing creature in a rabbit costume warning him of a breach in reality. Discussions off time ravel and tangent universes come into play, but ultimately it’s all sci-fi gloss on an exploration of teenage mental illness.

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Though many, author Anne Rice included, had qualms about the casting of Tom Cruise, he showed impressive range as the as sultry, sassy vampire Lestat alongside Brad Pitt’s Louis. Rice literally wrote the book(s) on the modern, conflicted, emo vampire, and this is the sole film adaptation of one of her works to successfully capture that vibe.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Straightforward noir is a bit out of bounds here, even if the era and style produced some of the most deliciously dark films in the history of the medium. Kiss Me Deadly though, aside from being a great movie in its own right, is decidedly weirder than most of its kind. Hardboiled detective Mike Hammer gets involved in a nearly inscrutable mystery involving a hitchhiker and a locked suitcase. The contents of that suitcase, while never fully explained, wind up being the stuff of science fiction in the movie’s explosive final act. (Quentin Tarantino took inspiration from the idea for the mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction.)

Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser, as a property, has always been a bit more successful in theory than in execution. Clive Barker’s dark, queer, and operatic works of otherworldly body horror has never translated all that well to film, even when, as in this case, he’s directing the movie himself. Still, there are pleasures to be found in this debut instalment, as well as pain, with a twisted, skin-flaying love triangle at its centre and a memorable villain (or is he just trying to show you a good time?) in Doug Bradley’s Pinhead. It’s the stuff of many a dark BDSM fantasy.

The Lighthouse (2019)

What’s not to love about a lighthouse mystery? Fiction, as well as history, are replete with tales of dark doings and strange disappearances involving lonely men on remote islands, but The Lighthouse mixes Lovecraftian horror and joyless masturbating into the mix, making a bit of text out of what’s usually left as subtext. The movie is dark, both literally and figuratively, with a performance from Robert Pattinson that made it clear he was more than a mopey, sparkly vampire.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

This was director Adrian Lyne’s followup to his hit erotic thriller Fatal Attraction; while it didn’t have nearly the pop-culture impact, it’s more impressive in its journey into the dark recesses of the mind. Tim Robbins plays a Vietnam vet experiencing horrific visions that might be hallucinations, or visions of another life. The twist ending, while not entirely unexpected, is a gut punch.

The Mist (2007)

Director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of one of Stephen King’s bleakest stories understands that it’s not what’s outside the walls that’s most to be feared, but whatever’s locked up inside with you. In The Mist, fearful friends and neighbours are at least as dangerous as the Lovecraftian nightmares in the fog. Those creatures are also scary, naturally, a couple of dodgy digital effects aside, and the dual antagonists lend the movie its tension. And endings don’t come much darker than the one here, which does the book one better (or worse).

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Like an old-school noir with action and horror trappings, Romero’s grim masterpiece makes clear, from very early on, that there’s no hope of a happy ending for any of the characters.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Predating Romero’s zombie classic by several years and pioneering (to an extent) the same highly creepy, low-budget style, Carnival of Souls leans into existential dread like few films before or since, trapping viewers in an unforgiving view of the afterlife.

The Road (2009)

Though his novels aren’t exclusively bleak, Cormac McCarthy is hardly a writer associated with anything resembling whimsy. That being the case, and though Hollywood is certainly capable of going in wildly unexpected directions with source material, it was unlikely that an adaptation of The Road would ever be light entertainment. And it sure isn’t! This is one of the bleakest major releases in American box office history, a post-apocalyptic fable that is, ultimately, about a modern America where happy endings aren’t just hard to come by, but virtually impossible to conceive of.

Annihilation (2018)

We’re so used to plot-driven science fiction — stories in which the emotional beats are secondary; here, there’s very little plot at all, which is unsettling by itself. A group of explorers is asked to enter “The Shimmer,” an expanding area in which mutations occur at wildly accelerated rates. It’s hard to say what happens from there with any specificity, since so much of what goes on is up to interpretation. Needless to say, it doesn’t go entirely well for the explorers…though destruction, in this case, might be a prelude to creation.

The Skin I Live In (2011)

Pedro Almodóvar’s foray into science fiction horror is, as you might expect, neither a straightforward sci-fi experience nor an outright thriller, but the grim vibes are very real. The unexpected comedic moments along with the sudden shifts in tone and the fractured timeline only make the story of a plastic surgeon and the woman he keeps captive more unsettling.

Flatliners (1990)

It’s not nearly as deep as it thinks it is, but Joel Schumacher’s Gen-X kinda-classic about grad students exploring the realm of near-death experiences has spooky style to spare, and a perfect cast of (then) young stars led by Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts. It’s probably not going to expand your mind on the topic of the afterlife, but accompanied by an edible or two, you just might feel like it has.

Darkman (1990)

The early ‘90s were positively the wild west for superhero movies (though this one’s an original property); studios were keen to duplicate the success of Batman, but hadn’t figured out the formula. It was glorious: while movies like Dick Tracy, The Crow, The Mask, and The Rocketeer weren’t all classics, they were at least more varied and less carefully managed than our current output. Case in point: Sam Raimi’s Darkman is about a scientist (Liam Neeson) who’s left for dead by a mobster, only to be revived using a formula that leaves him wildly mentally unstable and obsessed with vengeance. Raimi characteristically lightens things with a bit of dark humour, making Darkman a fair bit more entertaining (and weirder) than so much of the stock grim-and-gritty superhero stuff we see today.

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