RETROSPECTIVE: Batman Returns is a Dark Christmas Nightmare

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Guest Post by Matt Elliot

Batman Returns

Christmas time is upon us once again, that means it’s time to bust out the holiday classics. No doubt most will be rewatching films like It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and Elf while genre film fans and those desiring a non-traditional Christmas experience will put on A Nightmare Before Christmas, Gremlins and Die Hard. I’m one of the genre film fans and most of my favorite Christmas films are the non-traditional ones that don’t just focus on the holly jolly side of the holiday. So, my favorite Christmas film of all time is one that I feel is sometimes overlooked because people forget, Tim Burton‘s 1992 masterpiece Batman Returns.

I was 4 years old when this came out and distinctly remember my dad leaving work early to take me to see it, as I was obsessed with Batman and watched the first film religiously. I remember as soon as it was done children in the theater were crying and my mom was angry. She could not believe how dark and violent the movie had been, and she was certain I had been scarred for life. According to my dad, I had a big grin on my face and wouldn’t stop talking about how cool it was. It is one of my happiest memories of childhood that would immortalize the film for me as I grew up as my favorite Christmas film, and later my favorite Christmas horror film.

Most genre film lovers have come to accept Batman Returns as a Christmas film. It’s set during the holiday and its both felt throughout the film and integral to the plot. But some might be asking themselves how is it a Christmas horror film? Well, let’s dig in. The film opens with Oswald Cobblepot, The Penguin (Danny DeVito), being born during the Christmas season. He is born horribly disfigured and with an uncontrollable violent streak. On Christmas Eve his parents attempt to murder him in his carriage by dumping him into the river leading into the Gotham sewers. Mind you, this is just five minutes into the movie. With that alone, we’ve already established a  horrific setting for the rest of the film.

We flash forward 33 years later and once again it is the Christmas season in Gotham City. Gotham has a dark gothic dystopian-lite feel to it, that is contrasted with the cheeriness of Christmas. The gothic city is constantly covered in a blanket of snow, seasoned with Christmas lights and decorations that engulf the city. The seasonal setting allows Burton to really show how terrifying of a city Gotham is. As the film continues, the city is besieged by a gang former circus performers turned criminals called the red triangle gang, led by Penguin. Whenever they attack they don’t seem interested in robbing people or lotting stores for cash. Instead, they only seem to be interested in causing chaos and destruction. While the city’s police and city officials are shown to be inept and useless at their jobs in keeping order, the only thing holding the city together is a mentally disturbed billionaire vigilante who dresses like a giant bat.

This is Michael Keaton‘s finest performance as Batman in my opinion. He is a stoic boogeyman who only feels alive when he is wreaking terror on the criminals of his city. That said, the stand outperformance of the movie is Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle aka Catwoman. As a lifelong Batman fan, Catwoman has always represented the morally gray area of Gotham City. She’s Batman if he were willing to cross those moral lines that his code won’t allow. This is true for Batman Returns, in particular, as Seline Kyle goes through absolute hell. She’s betrayed by every man in her life and continues to emerge stronger and more vengeful with the passage of time. She steals every scene she is in.

All three characters are outcasts that operate outside of normal social conventions. The Penguin is the under dweller, living under the city in their filth and rising up for revenge. Catwoman is the normal day to day person pushed too far by a corrupt world and seeks to burn it down. Batman is the lone protector trying to bring order to a chaotic world, whose very presence in the city causes more chaos. The three together make up a weird and unusual Christmas trinity in Gotham, representing the faults of the city.

Batman Returns

The world of Batman Returns feels like something out from the dark fantasy horror genre, as opposed to the gothic noir feel from Burton’s first film with the cape and the cowl. Everything feels fantastical, even when something terrifying is happening on screen. Anytime there are shots of the Gotham City zoo, I feel like I am in another world. The zoo has these giant dilapidated structures that feel like they come to life when the camera zooms past them, it gives the impression of an almost dystopian Christmas.

The same can be said of the score which I would argue is Danny Elfman’s best collaboration with Burton. It sounds like the score to a dark opera, with the penguin birth being the overture and his death being the finale. My personal favorite track is “Selina Transforms,” which plays during her descent into madness and ascension into Catwoman. The score is dark but also fantastical, moody and shockingly jolly. It perfectly captures the essence of the season of winter and the light and dark of the Christmas season.

I loved this movie when I was four and I love it even more now. Batman Returns is the perfect Christmas movie for someone who is sick of Christmas movies being played over and over again this time of year. The film is filled with Christmas imagery and music and yet, it features a dark spin on the holiday season that will entertain any genre film fan.

I sometimes jokingly say that the film should be titled “Batman Saves Christmas.” That being said it is a disturbing movie with some terrifying imagery. Batman lights a criminal on fire, Catwoman almost eats a live bird, and Penguin almost bites a guy’s nose off. Let’s not forget Penguin’s master plan was to murder the firstborn sons of Gotham on Christmas Eve. With all of that said, Batman Returns is most definitely a Christmas horror film. Give it a watch this holiday season, I’m sure it will pair nicely as a double feature with Gremlins.

Matt Elliott, Author at HNN | Horrornews.net (@vigilante0514)