When it first debuted in 1992, Batman Returns was one of the most anticipated film sequels of all-time. That’s a good indication of why the film was successful, and why the filmmakers were given a lot of freedom with it, which is coincidentally why Batman Returns is so terrifying. The movie was a direct follow-up to 1989’s Batman, and saw the return of both star Michael Keaton and director Tim Burton. For reasons why Batman Returns is messed up, look no further than Burton. The original film strayed quite far from Batman’s comic book persona, and the sequel was no different, taking the Dark Knight in a bizarre, Burton-esque direction. In fact, it could be argued that Burton received more leeway to “be himself” when it came to directing Batman Returns than in any other film, and the results are obvious.
Looking back on it all, it’s easy to write-off Batman Returns as the beginning of the campiness that would come to dominate the franchise when Joel Schumacher stepped into the director’s role. However, that’s not an entirely fair assessment. There’s plenty of camp to be had in Batman Returns, but it’s balanced out by the sheer darkness Burton manages to imbue in the franchise. Despite its funny page origins and Christmas setting, the movie actually includes a number of outright horrifying elements, and plot points that can only be described as truly twisted. The film simply does not get enough credit as the darkest installment in the long history of Dark Knight tales.
Batman Returns opens with an extended, dialogue-free scene straight out of a horror film, which you can watch above. The first thing you hear in the movie is foreboding music and a woman screaming, having given birth to a horrific child. The father, bizarrely played by Peewee Herman, rushes in, and also begins screaming.
The montage continues as the parents cage the child and eventually decide to throw it off a bridge into a river, in what appears to be an attempted infanticide. The baby survives and begins a slow, gloomy float down into the sewers of Gotham as the opening credits roll. Thus, the Penguin is born. To clarify, this is how the movie starts. Get ready for a hell of a ride.
The implication appears to be that, after being abandoned by his parents, young Oswald Cobblepot is taken in by a group of penguins living in the sewers, which is the sort of thing that happens in Tim Burton’s Gotham City. The fact that he just so happened to have several penguin-like features himself is just a happy coincidence, and over time the Penguin developed a familial bond with his waddlin' buddies.
By the time of Batman Returns, he’s expanded his happy footed raft (or waddle, when they're on land) to include hundreds of penguins, but he still refers to them as his “babies.” This makes his decision to weaponize them all the more dark, and the penguin funeral from the end all the more tragic.
Tim Burton’s Gotham City is a creepy place, and not just because of all the freaks running around in leather costumes. The city itself is terrifying, and its architecture seems to have been designed by a committee of serial killers and Ayn Rand enthusiasts.
There are massive marble statues of muscle-bound men preforming manual labor all over the place, as well as giant stone faces popping out of random walls. Most troubling of all is that nightmare-inducing cat clock, which is still somehow the least trustworthy character in the entire film.
Christopher Walken is a beloved actor, but most would agree that he’s also a super creepy dude. That vibe is played to perfection in his portrayal of Max Schreck, the film’s secondary antagonist.
Schreck is a murderous corporate maniac, and Walken’s halting cadence only serves to make him more menacing and disturbing. Schreck’s status as a defiler of the environment seems much darker today than it did back then, but his reference to Nazi methods when suggesting he stage a “Reichstag fire” is unpleasant in any era.