When you think of horror-tinged superhero movies, what comes to mind? It’s probably films like Blade, Hellboy, and Morbius, but I’d like to suggest another, much less obvious, movie to add to that list: Shazam! Fury of the Gods. Sure, Shazam himself isn’t a monster, and his world isn’t full of creepy creatures like vampires and demons, but if you pay close attention to the film, it actually features some fun and surprisingly effective horror scenes.
And to be frank, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Shazam! Fury of the Gods was directed by David F. Sandberg, and before he made the jump to superhero movies, he was one of the best horror directors around. His debut feature was the fantastic 2016 chiller Lights Out, soon after, he breathed new life into the Annabelle franchise with Annabelle: Creation. On top of those two excellent films, he also put a fantastic horror scene into his first superhero movie, Shazam!, so I actually went into Shazam! Fury of the Gods expecting a few chills and thrills.
What we got exceeded even my expectations. From scene one, this film lets us know without a doubt that it’s going to skirt the thin line between fantasy and horror. Even though the movie unquestionably lands more on the fantasy side, it still gives us way more horror than we might expect from a typical superhero movie. It’s a real treat for genre fans. So without further ado, let’s dive into Shazam! Fury of the Gods and see what spooky delights it has in store for us.
A Quasi-Zombie Attack
When I said that Shazam! Fury of the Gods showcases David F. Sandberg’s horror chops from the very first scene, I wasn’t kidding. The film starts at a museum, where a docent shows his guests a legendary staff that once belonged to the gods of Mt. Olympus. As the guide delves into a bit about its mythical history, two mysterious figures approach the exhibit and steal the item. A security guard tries to stop them and all hell breaks loose.
These mysterious thieves are the daughters of the Greek god Atlas. One of them, Kalypso (Lucy Liu), has the power to control people’s actions with just her words. She whispers into the security guard’s ear, and the man immediately falls under her spell. Then, the guard runs around whispering into other people’s ears, and from there, the deity’s enchantment spreads throughout the room.
Now, this may not sound particularly scary or horrific on paper. After all, it’s not like these people are killing each other. However, just as you’d expect, David F. Sandberg directs this scene in such a way that it very much feels like it was ripped straight out of a horror movie. Kalypso’s victims look and act like zombies, it feels like a bloodless riff on 28 Days Later.
When someone comes under her spell, the person’s eyes become black, their face contorting into an evil grimace. Then, when these quasi-zombies spread the enchantment, they don’t hold back. They run into their targets at full speed, violently tackling them to the ground. You genuinely expect one of these quasi-zombies to take a bite out of their victim’s neck.
They obviously don’t, but these magically possessed conduits still cause absolute pandemonium among the museum guests. These poor people are utterly terrified, causing them to run around the room screaming and desperately trying to find a way to escape. It’s the kind of frenzied chaos you’d expect more from a film like REC than a DC blockbuster, so it sends a clear message to anyone watching. Shazam! Fury of the Gods may just be a PG-13 superhero movie, but David F. Sandberg finds fun ways to inject it with his signature horror stylings every chance he gets.
Walking off the Roof
After that intense opening, the horror takes a back seat for the next 30-40 minutes or so, but it soon comes back with a vengeance. There’s a scene in Shazam! Fury of the Gods where Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), one of the members of the Shazam family, is on the roof of his school building with a girl he likes, and he tries his hardest to impress her. He turns into his superhero persona, but soon afterward, he discovers a devastating truth. The girl he’s with is actually the third daughter of Atlas, and when her two older sisters show up, they steal Freddy’s powers.
Then, one of the kid’s teachers, Mr. Geckle (Diedrich Bader), arrives on the scene and asks what’s happening, but the poor guy is no match for the three gods standing in front of him. Kalypso whispers something in his ear, and he immediately falls under her spell. He turns and walks towards the edge of the roof. Despite Freddy’s protests, he walks right off the roof and falls to his death.
Admittedly, this scene isn’t nearly as intense as the opening quasi-zombie outbreak, but it’s just as chilling. David F. Sandberg does everything in his power to make us feel just how horrifying this event really is, and as you can probably guess, he’s pretty damn good at it. For starters, the score in this scene is creepy and ominous, leaving the viewer to feel as if they’re watching something truly terrible unfold right before our very eyes.
Freddy’s concern for Mr. Geckle is contagious, we’re not particularly attached to the character but Freddy definitely is. Jack Dylan Grazer does a fantastic job of conveying just how horrified his character is at what Kalypso has done to his teacher. Since Freddy is one of the most likable characters in Shazam! Fury of the Gods, a little bit of that horror inevitably rubs off on us as well.
On top of all that, this scene also adeptly illustrates one of the great truths of horror filmmaking: the anticipation is almost always worse than the actual event. From the moment Mr. Geckle turns away from Freddy, we know exactly what;’s going to happen, and he doesn’t seem to be in any rush. Mr. Geckle walks to his death fairly slowly, forcing us to just sit there and stew in its horror. That makes his death hit way harder than it has any right to, turning what could’ve easily been a mere throwaway casualty into one of the creepiest horror moments in the entire film.
A Horde of Monsters
Last but not least, we have to talk about the monsters in Shazam! Fury of the Gods. As formidable as the daughters of Atlas are, they’re not the only threats the Shazam family has to deal with. Most notably, these deities have a dragon named Ladon, and it’s truly terrifying.
To be fair, dragons are generally pretty scary, but Ladon is especially effective. It has ragged, beat-up wings with numerous holes and tears throughout. Unlike most fantasy monsters, it appears to be made of wood rather than flesh. Those unusual design elements give the creature an undead vibe, so it’s a lot more harrowing than your typical on-screen firebreather.
Then, in the third act of Shazam! Fury of the Gods, the daughters of Atlas unleash even more monsters on the human world. They plant a mythical tree in the middle of Philadelphia, which gives birth to a whole host of horrific beasts from ancient mythology. There are manticores, cyclopes, harpies, minotaurs, and unicorns, and it’s an absolute blast to watch.
The creature designs are wonderful, and every single one of these monsters causes some awesome mayhem and chaos. In particular, I have to make special mention of the cyclopes. They’re modeled on the one-eyed antagonists of the Ray Harryhausen classic The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, so fans of Harryhausen’s work are sure to get a big kick out of that little homage.
A Horror-Tinged Superhero Flick
To be fair, none of this means that Shazam! Fury of the Gods is a horror film. Like most superhero movies, this one remains firmly on the fantasy side of the horror/fantasy divide. It doesn’t quite reach the same horrific heights as films like Hellboy or Blade.
But make no mistake, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is definitely a horror-tinged fantasy adventure. The quasi-zombie attack, Mr. Geckle’s death, and the fun monsters make this movie especially appealing to horror fans. If you’re looking to explore the spooky side of the superhero genre, you can’t go wrong with Shazam! Fury of the Gods.