In December last year, nerds around the world got an early Christmas present as Amazon studios, Games Workshop, and Henry Cavill announced they were working on a deal to make original Warhammer 40k movies and TV shows. Almost a year later we don’t know if that deal has even been signed, but if and when it is, the first movie is going to be crucial to the success of the franchise.
Warhammer 40k is a sprawling IP. The Imperium of Man is insane, and the other Warhammer 40k factions are even weirder, so the first 40k film needs to be an on-ramp to bring a new audience on board. That’s no mean feat.
A lot of the cool-factor of 40k comes from the way it makes initially daft ideas feel significant – but how do you sell that fantasy? An immortal emperor called ‘The Emperor’ is a massive cliché; Space Marines are basically action figures. Unless you grew up with them, you need to understand the aesthetic context, history, and position in a wider universe that grounds them in order to buy into the fantasy.
A horror film is a great place to introduce the reality of the Imperium. Horror films spend time establishing the status quo, the relationships between characters and their motivations, before the horror destabilises everything. There’s an opportunity to demonstrate life in the Imperium from a comparatively relatable character’s perspective. Faith in the Emperor, the Imperial creed, warp travel, the existence of servitors, the role of the Adeptus Mechanicus… it’s all weird, but it’s also somebody’s reality.
The limited scope of a horror movie also helps here. While that scope can still be big – think Dawn of the Dead – it’s often place based, whether that’s a jungle, a dungeon, a trench, a space ship, or a house. We spend a long time wallowing in ambience and finding the edges of the expected before things go to hell.
With normal humans as the baseline, things like Tyranids, the 40k Chaos powers, Drukhari, or even the reality of warfare against Orks, can demonstrate their full alien nightmarishness. One Genestealer onboard a vessel is essentially Aliens; an Enforcer Squad diving into the bottom of a Hive City overwhelmed by a Genestealer Cult is Aliens; a Nurgle infestation is Night of the Living Dead; a hapless investigator encountering a Slaaneshi cult could be Hellraiser or Hostel.
Other kinds of 40k films and TV series could succeed, and frankly I want to see them all, from war films about the Fall of Cadia, to a Kal Jericho and Scabs buddy comedy, to an infinitely-long anime adaptation of the Horus Heresy books. But a massive, block-buster war-film full of pitched battles between Space Marines and Xenos would feel that much more apocalyptic to an audience who understands, viscerally, how terrifying these monsters are – a horror film is the place to start.
Wargamer has been extra-horrific this Halloween, and if you fancy some horror recommendations, check out our guides to the best horror board games, best horror wargames, best horror miniatures, best horror RPG games, best horror DnD one shots, and best horror comics. We can even recommend a Halloween board game based on your favorite horror movie.