What must Thanksgiving dinners in the Gunn family be like? Though directed by David Yarovesky, the uber-gory superhero horror film “Brightburn” is written by cousins — Brian and Mark Gunn — and produced by Brian’s brother, James. But this isn’t the more mainstream version of James Gunn behind the gloriously goofy “Guardians of the Galaxy” films; instead, it broadcasts the fingerprints of the director of the much darker “Super” and “Slither.”
“Brightburn” bears the bleak outlook and stomach-churning gore of those movies, though it has none of their off-kilter humor. There’s some truly nasty stuff here — both violence-wise and in its outlook on evil — but it still somehow manages to be fun amid all the carnage.
Though “Brightburn” never says the name “Superman,” it’s clear what comic book IP the Gunns are riffing on. Their script imagines what would happen if DC Comics’ altruistic hero had all his powers — and none of his goodness or love for humanity. Of course, the setting is Kansas, but instead of Smallville, it’s the fictional town of Brightburn. There’s a scene where a child with super strength lifts a car, but it doesn’t go quite like the heroics of the one in “Superman.”
“Brightburn” even begins similarly to Richard Donner’s 1978 film about the Man of Steel. From their shelves of books on infertility, it’s clear that Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denham) have been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant. An object from the sky falls into their field and interrupts their latest attempt, but Tori views the baby inside as the blessing they’ve been waiting for. The new parents alliteratively name the boy Brandon Breyer (you know, like Lex Luthor and Otto Octavius), but their home movies of the toddler and their address (143, a.k.a. code for “I love you”) tell us that this is a house of affection and acceptance.
Fast forward a decade and Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is approaching puberty. And instead of the normal, figurative monster that most of us turn into in adolescence, 12-year-old Brandon transforms into an actual one. His mother’s sweet boy is a psychopath, suddenly obsessed with anatomy and drawing violent pictures in his notebook. He also possesses superhuman abilities, including a strength that allows him to break a classmate’s hand. These changes may just have something to do with the UFO wreckage that’s stashed in the barn and glows red at night, luring Brandon with its unintelligible but sinister alien murmurs. Maybe.
In the question of “nature vs. nurture,” “Brightburn” comes down hard on the side of the former. Despite the unconditional love of his mother, Brandon is destined to break bad, with no conscience holding him back from committing violence. The script never really questions whether he’s going to turn evil, but instead just lays out how it happens. Several visuals — and the accompanying crunches and gurgles — will make appearances in my nightmares.
There are some truly indelible images here. All but the hardest of horror fans will find themselves looking away at least once as the Gunn brothers and director Yarovesky (“The Hive”) find new ways to make the audience squirm. If you watch the brutal first kill without blinking (who are you?!), the second will have you dropping your jaw in awe over just how far this movie is willing to go.
“Brightburn” fully commits to its grim outlook, though it’s a bit too serious at times, with a few moments getting a laugh that the filmmakers likely weren’t intending. Yarovesky and cinematographer Michael Dallatorre lean into a palette of reds and blacks, complementing the film’s dark tone. Some special effects look a little shaky, but it’s never enough to ruin the movie’s ability to make you jump or shudder.
With “Brightburn,” Yarovesky and the Gunns have mutated the superhero and horror genres into a single creature, engineered to terrify and sicken. This isn’t a comic book movie made with four-quadrant appeal; it’s for that niche audience who finds that feeling of nausea doesn’t put them off their popcorn.
Rated: R, for horror violence/bloody images, and language
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: Starts May 24 in general release