Advertised as a darkly scary variation on the Superman myth, this intense horror film often strains credibility but is grounded by strong performances and some impressively high-octane violence and grisliness.
Sold on James Gunn’s name (the controversial Guardians Of The Galaxy main man), it’s actually only produced by him, with two of his brothers (Brian and Mark) serving as screenwriters/producers, David Yarovesky in the director’s chair and the FX and make-up teams working overtime on particularly squirm-inducing nastiness.
There have been ‘Bad Superman’ stories told before, from the Soviet Union reimagining of graphic novel Red Son to Christopher Reeve brief evil turn in the directionless Superman III. Here we have a total rewriting, as couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are trying once again for a baby one night when something hits the ground close to their Brightburn, Kansas, farmhouse. We then initially skip over the precise detail of what happens next, as they find an apparently human baby in a small spaceship and raise him as their supposedly adopted child Brandon, as opposed to the Kents who brought up noble Kryptonian Clark Kent/Superman as if he were their own child. Either way, in the age of the internet this seems extremely unlikely.
All seems okay as the kid appears normal if unusually brainy but, as with many ‘Creepy Kid’ movies, everything goes wrong when puberty properly sets in (and isn’t that always the way?). After his uneasy 12th birthday party, Brandon (at this point played by Jackson A. Dunn) experiences a little bed-shaking (as in The Exorcist), his eyes glow red, he scrabbles for something locked in the barn and his behaviour gets creepier, with Dunn pretty convincing as he switches from bemused child to psychopathic Other.
As we wait for full-blown mayhem to ensue, the Gunns and Yarovesky contrive some distinctly unsettling plotting, like when Tori snoops in Brandon’s bedroom and, instead of finding porn mags under his mattress, pulls out a bunch of genuine photos of surgical procedures and exposed guts. This leads to an uncomfortable birds-and-bees talk from Kyle and Brandon’s disturbing interest in schoolmate Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who might at first look like she’s being set up as a Lois Lane (or even Lana Lang) sort of character, but who eventually finds herself stalked in especially unnerving scenes.
The carnage comes as Brandon seeks vengeance against those closest to him, and perhaps Dunn could have been allowed to express some manner of internal emotional conflict or a suggestion of the humanity he learned as a child as his badness is increasingly manifest. But no: he just loses it completely and unleashes Hell.
With one or two moments that might trouble even the most dedicated of gorehounds, this nevertheless succeeds, to a point, due to the committed cast, with Dunn joining a prestigious line of frightening movie children from Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed to Milly Shapiro in Hereditary, and Banks memorable as the mock-Mom who believes in her son’s essential goodness right to the end. Well, almost.
Brightburn (MA) is in cinemas now