After the first two Evil Dead films became instant cult hits, director Sam Raimi decided to attempt a more mainstream effort, and planned a film adaptation of The Shadow, the legendary crimefighter of pulp novels and radio. Unable to obtain the rights to the character, Raimi instead worked with his brother Ivan to create his own action hero, one that would appeal to his love of classic horror as much as his fondness for comic books. The result was Darkman (1990), a stylish superhero outing that proved popular enough to spawn two direct-to-video sequels, a TV pilot and comic books. Previously released as a no-frills disc by Universal in 2010, Darkman is now available in a new special edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory, Shout! Factory’s label for cult/horror titles.
Darkman tells the story of Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a researcher developing a synthetic skin that can be molded to resemble anyone’s features. He has achieved remarkable results, but is unable to get the skin to last more than 99 minutes when exposed to light; after that, it dissolves. Just as Westlake is on the brink of a breakthrough, his lab is invaded by sadistic mobster Robert Durant (Larry Blake) and his gang of thugs. Sent by corrupt real estate mogul Louis Strack (Colin Friels) to retrieve an incriminating memo discovered by Westlake’s girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), an attorney with the DA’s office, Durant and his gang assault the scientist, kill his assistant and destroy the lab with a fiery explosion. Blown clear of the blast, an unidentified, comatose and horribly burned Westlake recovers at a hospital where the staff severs his nerves to relieve his extreme pain. Upon regaining consciousness, he breaks through his restraints and escapes, the loss of sensory input having made him prone to bursts of adrenaline-fueled rage that give him near-superhuman strength. Determined to perfect his discovery so he can conceal his hideous disfigurement and resume his old life, Westlake reconstructs his lab in an abandoned factory. Spying on Julie (who believes him dead), he sees Strack and Durant, triggering his rage and filling him with a lust for revenge. Using his synthetic skin to impersonate members of Durant’s gang, Westlake becomes an avenging hero destined to be known as . . . Darkman.
Darkman belongs to that subset of superheroes who behave as obsessed vigilantes dishing out pitiless justice—Batman, The Punisher, etc. Although Universal may have backed the project based on the enormous box office success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), the character clearly owes more to Raimi’s original confessed inspiration, The Shadow. Like his pulp predecessor, Darkman is often garbed in a dark hat and flowing, cape-like coat while waging war on the criminal underworld, and sometimes uses disguise to infiltrate the gangs. The radio Shadow could become invisible via his hypnotic ability to “cloud men’s minds”; Dr. Westlake can effectively make himself disappear by assuming another identity and blending into the crowd. The influence of classic movie monsters, especially those of Universal Studios, is also a key component of Darkman. (in 1990 interviews, Raimi often referred to Darkman as a monster movie.) Those characters often had a tragic side to them, and it is this quality, along with the evocative visual iconography of the genre, that Raimi chooses to tap. Like The Phantom of the Opera, Darkman is a violent disfigured genius with a hidden lair who is motivated by his ultimately doomed love for a woman. Like The Invisible Man, Peyton Westlake is a scientist swathed in bandages struggling to hold onto his sanity while desperately searching for a cure to his condition. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these nods to classic characters might have made Darkman come across as a lazy knockoff, but Raimi and his cast believe in Peyton Westlake and the world he inhabits. In their hands, the homages to the past are just a foundation upon which to build something new. Liam Neeson, still three years away from his breakthrough role in Schindler’s List (1993), does a good job pulling together the disparate sides to the character and evoking audience sympathy without resorting to mawkish pathos. Some scenes call on him to turn on a dime and switch from caring boyfriend to snarling madman, and Neeson is able to make it all seem like different facets of the same man, even when most of his face is concealed by bandages or Tony Gardner’s (very effective) grotesque makeup design. Like Boris Karloff and some of the other stars of classic horror, Neeson seems to enjoy the challenge of working in the makeup, and he invests his scenes as the disfigured Westlake with an old-fashioned melodramatic flair that suits the genre.
Raimi uses all the skill and tricks he learned in his early low-budget efforts in directing Darkman, and the film greatly benefits from the lively, kinetic visual style he brings to it. Distinctive Raimi touches are easy to spot: elaborate montage sequences; the “shaky cam”; dramatic low-angle tracking shots that dolly in to close-ups of characters; stylized, “comic-book” lighting; etc. Raimi’s experiences on Darkman would clearly influence his later work on the Spider-Man films; compare, for example, Westlake’s hospital escape with that of Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, or the construction site battle with the one in Spider-Man 3. Given his horror movie background, it’s not surprising that Raimi excels at the film’s horror/Gothic touches; some of the most memorable moments are Darkman alone in his factory lair struggling to come to grips with his new, monstrous identity. First-time cinematographer Bill Pope does an excellent job realizing Raimi’s style and gives the film a polished, attractive look. The production design by Randy Ser further compliments Raimi’s vision of Darkman as a Gothic-tinged comic book, making Westlake’s abandoned factory resemble a mix of Dracula’s crumbling castle and a classic mad scientist’s laboratory.
Unfortunately, an interesting hero and a sense of style are not enough to carry a film, and Darkman falters badly in the areas of character and story development. Frances McDormand’s Julie is meant to be a strong, independent modern woman, but she’s so hopelessly underwritten as a character that she’s a forgettable cypher. She is supposed to be an attorney with the D.A.’s office, but we never see her doing her job other than foolishly confronting the villain with her knowledge of his guilt, which causes her boyfriend to be disfigured and his assistant killed, and puts her own life in jeopardy. She compounds this error by not linking Strack to the accident until late in the film, and even allows the sleazy developer to flirt and dance with her. For most of the film Julie is just a symbol of the life to which Darkman wishes to return, a prize to be sought like the stuffed bear Westlake tries to win at a carnival he visits. By the end she’s just the standard damsel in distress, and it’s disappointing to see the talented McDormand wasted in such an unrewarding role. (In the disc’s extras, McDormand admits to some frustrations with the part and not always being in sync with Raimi’s vision.)
Not faring much better is Colin Friels as Louis Strack, ostensibly the film’s chief villain. Strack is corrupt, greedy and ruthless, but there is no sense that he has any larger evil scheme other than to make money off of the new high rises his company is building. In Robocop (1987), the villains are also plotting a major real estate development, but we understand that it’s part of a grander plan to seize power in all aspects of society. There is nothing comparable in Darkman; for all we know, Strack has no ambitions beyond real estate. He’s a more ruthless but less colorful Donald Trump, and comes across as a supervillain wannabe. (The Blu-ray’s commentary track mentions that scenes were cut further developing Strack’s character and hinting at broader corruption among the city’s power elite; one suspects that these could only have bolstered this weak aspect of the film.) Beyond being dull, Strack is also quite possibly the dumbest villain in superhero movie history: After going to great lengths to retrieve the incriminating “Bellasarious Memorandum”, he carelessly leaves it on his desk for weeks in plain view instead of destroying it. Why? So Julie can discover it in the film’s third act, when the filmmakers need her to figure out that he was involved with the lab explosion. This is lazy, careless plotting of the worst kind. (One can imagine an alternate version of the film in which a diligent member of Strack’s janitorial staff turns the memo over to the D.A.’s office, thus saving Darkman a good deal of trouble.) With Strack written so poorly, all the heavy lifting in the villainy department is left to Larry Drake’s Robert Durant. In 1990 Drake was widely known for portraying the gentle, mentally challenged law clerk Benny on TV’s L.A. Law, and his turn here as the cold, cruel Durant was startling at the time and remains memorable. Whether he’s chopping off fingers with a cigar cutter, barking out commands to his gang or firing a machine gun from a helicopter, Drake steals every scene he’s in. He, not Friels, is the villain everyone remembers, and it’s not surprising that Drake was invited back for the sequel and TV pilot.
As an action film, Darkman delivers a terrific setpiece in which Durant snags Westlake on a cable suspended from a helicopter and flies him high above the city to be smashed into the sides of buildings and lowered into oncoming freeway traffic. Featuring a live stuntman in most shots—no dummy, no CGI double—it’s a thrilling sequence peppered with amusing touches, such as Darkman politely apologizing after crashing through a high rise window and a near-collision with Raimi’s beloved Oldsmobile Delta 88. Unfortunately, the film’s finale is, by comparison, a letdown. The concept for the scene is fine: a climactic showdown high up on the girders of a skyscraper under construction. Ultimately, though, the scene lacks the excitement of the helicopter chase because we’re never convinced that our leads are hundreds of feet up. In spite of state-of-the-art (for the period) effects, the scene feels like it’s confined to a nice, safe soundstage. There’s less suspense in the scene than in a Harold Lloyd thrill comedy from the 20’s. (It doesn’t help that the confrontation is between Darkman and the dull Strack, rather than Durant.) It ends Darkman on an unsatisfying note and contributes to the sense that the film never lives up to the full potential of its interesting premise. Raimi may have felt the same way, as he would complain that studio meddling forced him to remove a number of scenes, including more Darkman “rage montages” that take the viewer inside Westlake’s tortured psyche. Even had Raimi been allowed to release his director’s cut, though, the film would still suffer from poor supporting characters and some careless plotting, flaws that must be laid at Raimi’s doorstep as co-screenwriter and creator of the original story. As released, the film is at best a mixed bag (albeit a stylish one) for which Raimi deserves to take a share of both credit and blame.
Shout Factory’s new special edition Blu-ray of Darkman should please the film’s many fans. The transfer captures the subtle gold and rose highlights featured in early daytime scenes, the lurid comic-book bursts of red that accompany Darkman’s rage and the fine details found in the many scenes set at night or in heavy shadow. Grain management appears to have been applied, probably to even out the mix of original photography and opticals. It’s not as overdone as in some earlier Universal Blu-ray releases like Tremors, but purists with large displays will definitely find it quite noticeable. This reviewer would have preferred a more natural, film-like texture, but in general did not find the grain reduction to be too objectionable in this instance. The audio, available as either 5.1 or 2.0 DTS, is strong, with Danny Elfman’s brooding score coming across particularly well. Subtitles are available in English only. Like most Scream Factory releases, the disc is Region A locked.
Sam Raimi is conspicuously absent from the Blu-ray’s newly-produced bonus material; one wonders if it was merely a scheduling issue or if he still harbors bitterness over the changes Universal imposed. Even without Raimi, there’s still plenty here for fans to enjoy. Cinematographer Bill Pope contributes an entertaining commentary with plenty of anecdotes about the production and working with Raimi. There are a half-dozen new featurettes adding up to roughly one hour; interviewed are stars Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand and Larry Drake; supporting players Dan Bell and Danny Hicks; production designer Randy Ser and art director Philip Dagort; and makeup artist Tony Gardner. Rounding out the package are vintage EPK featurettes and interviews (Raimi and Colin Friels do appear in this material), the trailer, a dozen TV spots and still galleries devoted to production stills, behind-the-scenes photography, storyboards and posters. The plethora of extras helps compensate for the imperfections of the transfer, and make this release an attractive package that is highly recommended to Darkman enthusiasts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Darkman rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary, new and vintage featurettes; still galleries.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES