Film

'Darkman': The Face of Revenge

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


Darkman

Director: Sam Raimi
Release sate: 2014-02-18
Cast: Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Colin Friels, Larry Drake, Ted Raimi, Danny Hicks, Nicholas Worth, Bruce Campbell
Length: 96 minutes
Studio: Universal Studios
Year: 1990
Distributor: Shout! Factory
MPAA Rating: R

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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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