Flush off the cult success of Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, young independent director Sam Raimi set his sights on making a superhero movie…of sorts. The result was Darkman, a twisted horror/action hybrid that featured a young Liam Neeson and ended up plumbing much darker psychological depths than even Tim Burton’s Batman — the only big superhero blockbuster around at the time — while giving Raimi’s bizarre sense of madcap humor a bigger playground to romp around in.
With Darkman recently made available in a deluxe Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory, it’s always great to look back at the picture, its place in Raimi’s filmography and its context in the pantheon of modern superhero movies – where, it can be argued, it provided at least part of the template for many of the angst-ridden crime fighters we’ve been given in the last 20 years or so, from Raimi’s own Spider-Man to Christopher Nolan’s Batman to various Marvel heroes.
Raimi made Darkman because, as a relatively unknown filmmaker, no one would give him the rights to make The Shadow or Batman even though he pursued both. In Bruce Campbell‘s memoir If Chins Could Kill, Raimi told his longtime collaborator, “I really wanted to make The Shadow. But Universal Studios wouldn’t give me the rights to that. I met with them, but they didn’t like my views at all, so I went, ‘I’m just gonna write my own superhero.'”
In a 23-minute vintage interview included on the Blu-ray, Raimi explains that the source of the film was a short story he wrote and later expanded into a film treatment about a man who is robbed of his face and must therefore wear the faces of others. If he couldn’t adapt an existing superhero to film, he would simply make one up on his own.
The criminals came later, as did the relationship with loving girlfriend Julie (played by Frances McDormand), and it’s clear that no matter what the original inspiration was, Darkman is very much a superhero origin story. But it’s a demented one: Neeson’s nerdy but heartfelt scientist, Peyton Westlake, is burned alive by the villain’s henchmen, presumed dead, yet returns with the help of some convenient experimental surgery (he’s presumed to be a near-death hobo by Jenny Agutter in a brief cameo as the doctor who operates on him) that renders him impervious to pain and super-strong. His once-handsome face is turned into a mass of oozing scar tissue, and the same could be said for his psyche. Even the synthetic flesh that he was working on before his “death,’ from which he creates his false faces, lasts just 99 minutes.
Westlake goes pretty bonkers in Darkman, and his sole motivations are revenge against the super-villain Durant (Larry Drake as one of the most original bad guys of the last 25 years) and the restoration of his romance with Julie. Justice for those who have none or cleaning up the streets or avenging the suffering of the human race never enters into the picture – Peyton’s agenda is almost as self-serving as that of corrupt real estate mogul Strack (an oily Colin Friels), who is the film’s real evil power.
Darkman has perhaps the darkest and weirdest look into a superhero’s mind ever committed to film. Peyton has several psychotic breaks and/or hallucinations, and he has no compunction at all about killing people outright (sticking Ted Raimi’s head through the top of a manhole so that it gets squished by oncoming traffic is a personal favorite). Even though Peyton has been irrevocably changed by the end of the film, following Raimi’s version of the superhero arc, it’s not clear as we fade to black whether he is going to continue battling bad guys or not.
Universal Pictures, seeing the money pouring into Warner Bros.’ bank account from the success of Batman, was eager to get behind Raimi’s vision, greenlighting the film for around $12 million (the budget later ballooned to a reported $16 million). But Raimi told Campbell that getting the film up and running within the studio system was a long, torturous process: “It took just forever for them to green-light the script — I went years,” he recalled. “Finally, I said, ‘If I don’t get a call saying that the movie’s finally going to go, because I’ve spent three years of my life on this thing and it’s not like I’m trying to make an art picture, I’m selling out to you — if you don’t call me by ten o’clock, I’m out.’ Ten o’clock came and went and I had a bottle of champagne and I went, ‘Fine, at least I’m free of it.’ They called around eleven: ‘All right, we’ll make your movie.’ They really make sure they’ve messed with ya.”
Finally given the backing of a major studio and all the toys and resources that entailed, Raimi nevertheless kept Darkman very much within his personal style, albeit a bit subdued from the Evil Dead films. His camera tilts and swings crazily all over the place as images pile atop each other and garishly lit sets and figures fill up the screen. Raimi utilized a comic book aesthetic on his early films and, with Darkman, got to make an actual comic book movie, even though the book itself didn’t exist. The movie has the visual feel of a comic book, colors and images leaping and splashing constantly across the screen, a seamless extension of the director’s already anarchic style.
Anchoring the movie and giving it humanity is Neeson himself. He plays Peyton’s sensitive, wounded side and his unstable, ghoulishly manic personality with equal commitment, throwing himself into a highly intense performance that requires his face to be either swaddled in filthy bandages or buried in ten separate pieces of prosthetic makeup. Neeson leaves it all on Raimi’s playing field, showcasing the range that would serve the actor well in movies as disparate as Schindler’s List and Taken.
Less impressive is McDormand, with whom Raimi reportedly clashed on set. Campbell recalled in his book supervising an awkward looping session for the actress, who realized that two of her most dramatic scenes — including a “big speech” in Darkman’s lab — were not in the cut she was watching. As a result, the actress (who went on to win a well deserved Best Actress Oscar for her work in Fargo) appeared on screen at least to grapple with an inconsistently written role. On the other hand, Drake’s coiled, sadistic and well-spoken Durant is a knockout and well worthy of being included in any pantheon of memorable screen super-villains.
Darkman’s mix of action heroics, horror imagery and zany comedy was – and still may be – ahead of its time. In some ways, it’s one of the most pure comic book movies ever made. Its darker, more violent impulses have certainly found their way into the superhero movies of the last 18 years, while its more humorous, wacky touches are almost solely Raimi’s alone. That mix left Universal Studios uneasy, and a series of very poor test screenings didn’t help matters. With the movie receiving some of the worst test scores the studio had ever seen, it forced Raimi to take out some of his wilder footage (which sadly doesn’t show up on the Blu-ray).
Nevertheless, a strong marketing campaign helped push Darkman into financial success, with the film debuting at Number One at the box office in its first week of release (“I couldn’t believe that we had the Number One movie,” Raimi told Campbell) and earning $49 million around the world. It also strengthened Raimi’s status as one of the pre-eminent cult filmmakers of his time – although true mainstream success eluded him for another 12 years when, at long last, he got the chance to direct Spider-Man, which grossed more than $800 million around the world and pushed superhero movies into the realm of blockbusters.
Darkman is still a subversive, sly and thoroughly entertaining blast today. Some of the effects, visuals and filmmaking techniques can’t help but look dated 25 years later. And while Raimi’s crazier sensibilities are enjoyable, they don’t always make for good traveling companions with the more horrific aspects of the story. But the movie hums with the gleeful, chaotic energy of the early Raimi that is missing from turgid dreck like Oz, the Great and Powerful, which plays like the work of an anonymous studio hire.
“I’m everyone. I’m no one. Everywhere. Nowhere. Call me ‘Darkman.’” That’s as good a superhero credo as any.
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