‘Darkman’: The Face of Revenge

Darkman, the darkest hero (an amalgam or classic horror monsters) versus the criminal underworld... in broad daylight.

Sam Raimi had already become well-known and acclaimed for the films The Evil Dead, Crimewave and Evil Dead II and he soon set his mind on adapting a dark comic book into a movie. Raimi attempted to win the rights to both The Shadow and Batman, but finding himself less successful than Crystal Pepsi and New Coke combined, the man who would one day bring Spider-Man to the big screen set his sights on creating his own dark superhero character.

Taking influence from the Universal Studios Classic Monsters, particularly The Phantom of the Opera, The Mummy, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Frankenstein and thrusting this amalgamated character into the strange and surreal world of comic books on film, the result was Darkman as released by none other than Universal Studios themselves.

The main problem with Darkman is that far too much of the film takes place in the light. This may seem like an obvious and cheap nitpick to make, but this comment is not about the relative danger of the title becoming ironic. While Raimi and friends came up with some inventive special effects, especially for 1990, these effects generally only really work in the dark.

Daylight scenes reveal how obviously matted in many special effects scenes really are. While the special makeup effects are remarkably impressive, especially when Raimi plays with light and shadow against the disfigured form of the title character, this is often overshadowed by the surrounding trick photography.

That said, Raimi was working on creating a true comic book movie at a time when even the Batman series (which had started the previous year) was still relatively campy. Thus the matting and optical effects all coincide to create a film that is more Creepshow than Dark Knight. In his way, Raimi helped to pioneer the darker, more seriously dark comic films like The Crow without completely stepping outside of the cartoonish content of the genre at the time.

The story (created by Raimi and fleshed out by a team of screenwriters including his brother Ivan) revolves around Doctor Peyton Westlake (a pre-superstardom Liam Neeson), a scientist working on a groundbreaking synthetic skin technology. When his girlfriend’s (Frances McDormand) connections accidentally lead a group of enforcers to Westlake’s lab, the scientist is horribly disfigured and left to die as the lab explodes around him.

Soon, what’s left of Westlake emerges as “Darkman”, a fedora and trench coat wearing vigilante who hides his face with mummy-like bandages. No longer able to feel physical pain due to his severed nerve endings, Darkman uses his synthetic skin technology to disguise himself as key criminals and thus extort money from the very people he is taking revenge upon. Most prominent among the “victims” here is the criminal leader Robert G. Durant (played by Larry Drake).

“Victim” is not a bad term for the criminals here. Raimi and Neeson built the Darkman character on such archetypes as Frankenstein’s Monster and the Phantom of the Opera, both of whom are misunderstood, disfigured characters with hidden (and occasional) good intentions.

Raimi further inverts conventions by setting up the monstrous Darkman as the actual antagonist of the film, taking down the unexpecting criminal status quo who are remarkably unprepared for the Darkman’s attacks and techniques. Any of them could be Darkman at any time, so who can they trust? This strange inversion works for the surprises of the film and makes for an exciting and rewarding viewing experience.

However, many of these scenes come off, whether intentionally or unintentionally, as rather melodramatic. Surely anyone can sympathize with a burn victim who has unfairly lost everything (including his ability to feel), but his freak-out moments (such as his scream of “What am I, hmm? Some kind of a circus freak? Is that it?”, followed by maniacal laughter) comes off as remarkably over-the-top (in spite of the scene’s obvious Elephant Man influence). Further, many of the dreamlike romance scenes between McDormand and Neeson feel a bit too much like cheesy old romance scenes which shift clunkily into Darkman’s nightmare perception of the world.

Of course, this is most likely all intentional on Raimi’s part, with his stated intent to make a truly comic book-like movie (at least as he understood it at the time). Thus the layered refocuses, the early CGI, the unconventional optical effects and the exaggerated physical acting and hyperbolic dialogue delivery all fit into this crazy (and often too light) world of Darkman.

Truly the overall film is quite good, but the audience will likely be moved to unintended laughter on occasion and the film is sometimes too surreally silly to truly feel as “dark” as Darkman. This, coupled with the advances that came after Darkman (some of which Darkman helped to spawn) and the underlying land-development real estate deal as the plot’s underlying McGuffin (which we previously saw in both the Robocop and Superman series) keep Darkman from being quite the classic it could have been.

On the other hand, this is still vintage Raimi, from the cameos by Raimi’s Oldsmobile and Bruce Campbell to the Evil Dead-style camera tricks to the Three Stooges-style cartoonishness violence. Thus, Darkman is still a very good time in front of the television and has more than earned its cult following. Members of that cult will find a lot to love in the 2014 Shout! Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray release’s special features.

The picture and sound are excellent and the bonuses are a near treasure trove. New interviews with Drake, McDormand and Neeson are balanced against a collection of 1990 interviews with the cast and crew. A series of documentaries and featurettes enhance the viewing and understanding of the film, as do the original storyboards, trailers and TV spots and the early electronic press kit.

What the Blu-Ray’s extras lack is any involvement whatsoever from Raimi (aside from the old interviews included here). Since Darkman, Raimi went on to direct the Spider-Man trilogy, as well as Oz the Great and Powerful, thus he may have been decidedly unavailable to work with Shout! Factory. This is a certainly noticeable exclusion and the packages could have been greatly enhanced at least by his hindsight comments, if not an entire commentary (the audio commentary is with director of photography Bill Pope). This is in addition to the lack of deleted scenes (which are alluded to often in the documentaries and interviews, but never shown).

Still, Raimi is written all over the feature itself and the extras we do have are very fine and comprehensive. Sure Darkman feels rather dated today and it isn’t quite the classic that Batman and The Crow have become, however, Darkman grew from a very different ambition than these other dark comic bookish movies and when all of the dark, horrific and heroic influences do converge into one big success, Darkman truly works for a surreal, scary, surreal and often overblown, yet entertaining motion picture.

RATING 6 / 10