Darkman: Celebrating Sam Raimi's Descent Into Utter Madness

Feb 20, 2014 at 4:00 am
Darkman: Celebrating Sam Raimi's Descent Into Utter Madness

No matter what else he does, director Sam Raimi has two unassailable fan favorites under his belt: 1987's Evil Dead 2, and the 1992 trilogy-capper Army of Darkness. (His first film, 1981's The Evil Dead, is more "respected" than "loved" by the fans.) Released between those two films, Raimi's 1990 superhero movie, Darkman, was largely overlooked by his base because it wasn't another Dead movie -- it didn't even star Bruce Campbell! -- while Universal tried to market it as the Batman clone the studio desperately wanted it to be.

Raimi, of course, went on to revitalize the superhero genre in the 2000s with the considerably blander Spider-Man films, setting the template until Christopher Nolan came along and gritted up the joint with his own take on Batman. Now being released on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory, Darkman stands as a Raimi project that deserves reconsideration from both those stubborn Dead fans and general audiences, as well an appreciation for being not the Batman rip-off it looked like at the time, but rather a descent into utter madness.

Raimi was already shooting Darkman when Tim Burton's Batman became a cultural phenomenon in 1989. When Raimi's picture was released the following summer, Universal attempted to posit this new character as a Batman-style superhero, down to the poster's tagline: "They destroyed everything he had, everything he was." So far, so good. "Now, crime has a new enemy, and justice has a new face." Sure, except for the part where that's not really true at all.

Darkman is not a hero or crime-stopper in the classic sense. He doesn't patrol the streets, nor does he show the slightest interest in foiling muggers, and he is utterly unconcerned with any criminals who didn't already fuck with his shit. (In fairness, after Superman gets his suit and learns to fly in Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, the first thing he does is go to his mom's house to drink beer and watch football.)

The emotional center of Darkman is not a quest for justice, but rather the antihero wrestling with his intolerable anger and psychic pain. Batman may be brooding, but Darkman is certifiably bugfuck. He straight-up kills people, starting with a henchman played by Raimi's brother Ted, and he does so in a particularly vicious way: sticking the younger Raimi's head out of a manhole into oncoming traffic until it gets squished by a truck. Said squishing occurs off-camera, but it also reveals the film for what it is: a revenge flick, pure but not so simple. The rest of the picture is (to coin a phrase) a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, Darkman picking off those who had tried to pick him off. Darkman's origin story is that of a supervillain, not a superhero, and he acts accordingly. It makes Danny Elfman's Batman-rewrite score feel practically sarcastic.

Based on an original story by Raimi and his other brother, Ivan, Darkman has the same structure as that year's Steven Seagal vehicle Hard to Kill, Clint Eastwood's 1968 Hang 'Em High, and many other revenge films besides, yet the premise manages to be ludicrous even by superhero standards: Optimistic scientist Peyton (Liam Neeson in his first leading role) is on the verge of perfecting a synthetic skin when bad guys led by Durant (Larry Drake) break into his lab in search of a McGuffin. The baddies torture Peyton and blow up both him and his lab ... or so they think.

Now missing most of his skin -- but unable to feel pain, courtesy of a doctor who conveniently used an experimental technique to cut off his pain receptors -- the bandaged-swaddled Peyton sets out to exact revenge on those who wronged him. This he mostly does by impersonating the bad guys using that synthetic skin, the catch being that the skin evaporates in 99 minutes when exposed to light. (As the pre-Darkman Peyton ponders: "What is it about the dark? What secrets does it hold?" It's a testament to Neeson's commitment as a hungry young actor that he absolutely sells that line, one of the silliest he would encounter until The Phantom Menace a decade later.)

Also, one of the side effects of a lack of pain receptors is a heightening of his emotions and physical strength are heightened, so he's now very angry and very strong. Oh, and the McGuffin he was ostensibly killed for were documents about a city-of-the-future construction project headed by evil yuppie Strack (Colin Friels), who is also making moves on Peyton's girlfriend, businesswoman Julie (Frances McDormand, who insists to this day that she was miscast).

There's a lot going on in Darkman, and truthfully, it doesn't come close to adding up on a story level. Nor does it have to, because it's so much fun, and very much a product of its time. The left-for-dead and city-of-the-future elements recall 1987's RoboCop, though Darkman's architecture-porn subplot doesn't serve any narrative purpose other than providing an unfinished high-rise as a setting for the finale. There are also parallels with The Crow, and while the film version wouldn't come out until 1994, the first issue of the comic book hit in February 1989, two months before Darkman started shooting. Clearly, themes of resurrection and revenge were in the air at the end of the Reagan administration.

Though it was his first studio picture, Darkman is at least as pure a Raimi product as Army of Darkness, especially since both were slightly defanged by Universal. While Raimi kept his distance from this Blu-ray, famed cinematographer Bill Pope -- who got his first feature gig on Darkman -- talks on his commentary track about the care and effort Raimi put into every aspect of the film, every camera angle, every everything. Raimi's visual trademark is how he moves the camera, his love of skewed angles and close-ups and tracking shots; Pope describes cataloging 26 of them, assigning each a letter: A snap zoom with a Dutch angle was one letter, a snap zoom with a double Dutch was another letter, and so forth. The only one Pope remembers for sure is "B," the quick push in on a dolly. Sadly, he gave the only copy of the catalog to Raimi, and Pope is sure Raimi promptly disposed of it -- a loss to cinema up there with Irving Thalberg destroying the majority of von Stroheim's Greed.

Not that Darkman doesn't have its own heartbreaking, Greed–like story of lost footage. According to Pope, there was no second unit on this or other Raimi film. Now, the second unit typically does all the shots that don't involve the principal actors: establishing shots, close-ups of inanimate objects, 'splosions, that kind of thing, and they're usually working while the director is elsewhere with the first unit, working with the actors on the dialog scenes and primary action. Instead, the second half of Darkman's 119-day, 19-shots-per-day schedule was Raimi directing what would otherwise be second-unit material, including all the shock effects and zoom-pans involving the actors. Pope says Raimi did it all himself because, really, how the hell are you going to explain to someone else what a Sam Raimi shot is supposed to look like? Not even an A-to-Z catalog can get something so abstract across. And it was especially important for Darkman, since so many of those insert shots were supposed to take place in the hero's head.

When he gets all super-ragey in the final cut of the film, the camera often zooms through Peyton's eye and into his head as the world cracks and breaks apart around him via an overtaxed optical printer, red jagged lines appearing in his real world as though hell itself is breaking through. The first time we go into his head, we see a brief shot of Neeson wearing a jester's hat, but inevitably the camera zooms right back out. It's neat the way it is, but perhaps the single most painful revelation on the Shout! Factory release is that there was supposed to be much, much more of that. According to Pope, they "built whole worlds inside Liam's head," what he tantalizingly refers to as "intuitional dreamscapes." But that's not what Universal wanted for their big post-Batman superhero movie -- lest we forget, they were also competing against Disney's Dick Tracy that summer, so they weren't going to take any chances -- and they ultimately cut 10 minutes of that footage from the film.

It hurts just to think about. Ten minutes of hardcore Raimi expressionism, about a reel's worth, all shot and edited, and then scrapped by the studio. Whether the footage even still exists is left unclear; it doesn't appear among the extras, and all those decades after Thalberg's death, studios still had a tendency to "lose" deleted scenes that bore too much of a director's personal touch. Morgan Creek did the same thing with William Peter Blatty's underrated The Exorcist III, released a week before Darkman.

But what remains is still a lot of fun. It was hoped that Darkman would become its own franchise, with Raimi-directed theatrical sequels featuring fanboy-bait Campbell in the lead. The underwhelming box office performance resulted instead in straight-to-video sequels directed by Bradford May and starring Arnold Vosloo in the lead, and they still occasionally pop up on cable. But be sure to start with Sam Raimi's original fever dream, and imagine what might have been.