Alright. It’s time to get this article-series back up to speed. I had a few different picks for what lost gem of the year 1990 I was going to talk about this time, and the roulette wheel stopped in the place of:
Dir. Sam Raimi
Scr. Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Chuck Pfaffer, Daniel & Joshua Goldin (story. Sam Raimi)
Sam Raimi was kinda in an interesting place when the 80’s were approaching the end; on the other hand he had the horror fanbase eating from his hand after his first two “Evil Dead”-films, “The Evil Dead“(1981) and “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn“(1987). But on the other hand his first attempt at making something non-horror, “Crimewave“(1985) – which was his first foray into working with a studio (Embassy Pictures) as well – had a VERY troublesome production from the beginning to the end. This already began at pre-production stage where the studio vetoed Raimi’s choice to cast Bruce Campbell as the lead (Campbell did remain on as a producer as well as played a small supporting role, and has a story or two to tell about the mess that followed in his autobiography “If Chins Could Kill”), then leading to continuous problems during filming with the cast and crew, budget cuts and finally the studio kicking Raimi out of the editing room during post-production. Raimi’s long time friend and 2nd assistant director John Cameron stated later on: “I see Crimewave as a real turning point in a certain way, because if you survived that experience, nothing in the business could ever be as hard again.” So it’s no wonder that he would feel a bit unnerved to work for a big studio again. “Evil Dead 2” had studio-backing and money (Dino De Laurentiis), yes – but besides aiming for an R-rating, Raimi & co. still had pretty much the freedom to do whatever the hell they wanted with that film.
(Just as a quick note: a few years back I finally managed to catch “Crimewave” on TV and despite being a bit of a mess, and the studio-picked lead actor being totally miscast – there are some very good sequences in it, as well as some bravura visuals. But you can definitely see that it represents a neutered version of what the planned product was. As a curiosity and for Raimi-completists, it’s still worth a look.)
But anyways – at the time Raimi was trying to pursue rights to a few different properties; the biggest one being the pulp-hero born in the 1930’s, The Shadow. The Shadow began it’s life as a serialized radio-dramas, then moved on to books, comics, television and even films – but had really been a bit forgotten in the last few decades. The comic-book version of the character was what had Raimi’s interest; even at this early stage of his career he was wanting to do a comic-book film (he did finally end up getting his wish a decade or so later). But Raimi could not get the rights at that particular time (in irony of ironies, only a few years later Universal DID get the rights and produced the underrated “The Shadow” in 1994) so he decided to create a very Shadow-like comic-book hero by himself. With the old Universal horror-films, like “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“as an influence and a vague idea about a man who could change his face, he typed up what finally became a 40-page story treatment titled “The Darkman“. He submitted this to Universal Pictures in 1987 and – probably due to the wild praise “Evil Dead 2” was getting at the time, the studio made a deal. And suddenly Raimi had some actual money to play with.
What followed was a long screenwriting process, where screenwriter Chuck Pfaffer (“Navy SEALS”, “Hard Target“) helped Raimi make a first draft, then Raimi and his brother Ivan doing drafts 2-4, then the studio-appointed writers Daniel and Joshua Goldin making a fifth one and finally Sam & Ivan again writing drafts 6-12. This might sound like a bit of a mess, but one has to understand that at this stage, Sam Raimi had not really made a whole script, I think. The scripts for the “Evil Dead“-films were famously described as “stuff written out on twelve napkins” and “Crimewave” was co-written with Joel and Ethan Coen. This was probably a bit of a learning-process. I recall one of the first drafts of “Darkman” (probably from the Sam & Ivan drafts 2-4) being released online once upon a time and it was about 170 PAGES long – so I’d guess one of the main objectives was just thinning it down.
So, with some actual money to spend this time – $16 million, not quite earth-shattering by today’s standards I know, but I imagine feeling like a fortune for Sam after his first three films – and some familiar faces (Robert Tapert as producer, Bruce Campbell cameoing as well as being a sort of jack-of-all-trades during the production and sound-mixing, Frances McDormand, Ted Raimi, Danny Hicks, John Cameron, The 1973 Delta 88 Oldsmobile) as well as new faces (Liam Neeson, Larry Drake, Director of Photography Bill Pope, Composer Danny Elfman) in front of and behind the camera, “Darkman” was ready to shoot.
Scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is working on a revolutionary artificial skin that would forever revolutionize the medical world and help countless people. But the problem is, that at it’s current stage the skin will not remain intact for more than 99 minutes – after which it liquefies and becomes useless. Meanwhile Peyton’s girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), an attorney, has found evidence – a document titled “The Bellasarious Memorandum”, effectively the McGuffin of the movie – that a rich developer magnate Louis Strack jr. (Colin Friels) has bribed several members of the city’s Zoning Commission in effort to further extend his building empire. Julie confronts Strack about it, and he does not even TRY to cover it. He sees his project as a new start for the city, which would create a massive number of jobs (I know there would be an easy way to make a joke about the main villain of the movie being a developer who want to “make the City great again”, but I’m not gonna). He also warns Julie that a former business-partner of his, a crime boss called Robert Durant (Larry Drake), would also want to get his hands on the document by any means necessary, as it would help him extort Strack. This is all bullshit, of course – as Durant and strack are VERY much still in cahoots and Strack just uses Durant and his gang to do all his dirty work.
Back at the lab, a power-out provides Peyton and his assistant Yakitito (Nelson Mashita) a breakthrough of sorts: the artificial skin remains intact past 99 minutes, in darkness. It’s light-sensitive. But before they can study this further, Durant and his gang break into the lab (also Peyton’s & Julie’s apartment) in search of the memorandum. After they trash the place, kill Yakitito and torture Peyton, the document is found and they decide to burn the place up to cover their tracks and make it look like a lab explosion. Julie arrives outside just in time to see the entire building blow up in flames, and Peyton is declared dead and buried. Only – he ISN’T. He was in fact thrown into a river by the explosion, his body and face scarred beyond recognition. He has been picked up from the river and has been at a high-tech Burn Ward at the hospital, unconscious and bandaged and has been submitted to an experimental treatment where the nerves from his sensory pathway that submit the emotion of pain and tactile sensation have been cut. As a result he can’t feel the pain – but this radical treatment has the downside of increasing physical strength and also his impulse control. During one of these fits of uncontrolled rage, he escapes from the hospital. He tries to approach Julie in the street, but she does not recognize him and is repulsed at his appearance.
After getting his equipment from the remains of his lab, Peyton sets up in an abandoned factory and begins his effort to perfect the artificial skin. After numerous failures he gets angered at the people who did this to him and starts to plot his revenge instead; he begins to spy on Durant and his people and by using the photos he takes, he will impersonate the various members of the gang and rip the group apart from the inside. But after he reveals to Julie that he is alive, Strack and the remaining bad guys soon find out about this and the final battle will be fought on top of the unfinished structures of Strack’s Dream City…
Well – first things first: as it turned out, “Darkman” turned out to be another somewhat sour experience for Raimi: during the shoot he had several arguments with actors (for example with Frances McDormand – I’ll speculate on the reasons for that a bit later) as well as the studio people, and the post-production process was another nightmare as several editors came on board (the first editor is said to have had a nervous breakdown) to try and make a version of the film that everybody (mostly the studio) would be happy with. Robert Tapert has been quoted saying: “The experience on ‘Darkman’ was very difficult for Sam and me; it isn’t the picture we thought it should be, based on the footage we shot and all that. The studio got nervous about some wild things in it and made us take them out. We fought until the last minute to get some of that back in, and a lot of that was what the audience really liked“.
That being said… I (still) love the hell out of “Darkman” – no matter if the end result is compromised or not. My impression of it is that it represents a clear divisive point in Sam Raimi’s career; for me it marks the first time he has put more effort into the story and especially the overall emotional arc of his main character over the wild and crazy visual pyrotechnics. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a LOT of the visual style in there – but as this story of the unlucky scientist become monster/crime-fighter was developed by him from the start, AND he got an actor of the caliber of Liam Neeson to portray that character…well, it becomes a character melodrama of epic proportions. What we really have here is a guy with possibly the most extreme post-traumatic stress-reaction EVER. This was pretty much Neeson’s first real leading role in a Hollywood-film, and goddamn does he make you feel for this poor soul – even if you can see only his one eye from under all that Tony Gardner-designed makeup. I guess one can see the first inclinations of the recent action-hero phase of Neeson here, but this is really about a Good Man becoming a hideous monster and doing his damnest to regain some of that past humanness back. One of the scenes in the film that really gets me is the scene where Neeson is playing Peyton wearing his old face while on a date with Julie; even without any makeup you can see that this is not the same man we saw in the beginning of the movie. That man really did die on that day and he is now and forever shall be Darkman, no matter if he can put his old face or not. And honestly: I don’t think ANY other actor could pull off the moment where a lead character, all covered in makeup and bandages, puts a giant funnel on his head and starts to sing “pay five bucks to see the dancing freak” in a fit of rage.
Then there’s the villains. Well, the Strack character is more of the usual megalomaniac moustache-twirling baddie (sans the moustache) – with one weird twist at the end, as he reveals himself to be quite able to balance on steel beams because his daddy the previous developer magnate forced him to start from the bottom-level. Colin Friels certainly can ham it up like the best of them with the few grandiose monologues Strack has. The really interesting part is Durant and his goons: as I think everyone, I first came to know the late Larry Drake from “L.A. Law” and his portrayal of Benny Stulwicz – the developmentally disabled office-hand. I was totally floored by his take on Robert G. Durant here. Durant is essentially a sadistic psychopath who has risen from a street-thug level into a somewhat wealthy person who enjoys the good things in life, but who really can’t hide his roots – lives in a big mansion and all but continues to collect the fingers from the people he has killed and displays them in nice cases. Creepy. There’s also a very subtly hinted homosexual tension between him and one of his closest associates, Ricky – who is played by Ted Raimi. I might be correct to assume that there might have been more to this, but it was one of the things that Universal forced the filmmakers to cut out. Another familiar face in the gang is Danny Hicks – who played Jake in “Evil Dead 2” – who has the distinct feature of having a fake leg, which also acts as a machine gun. And the late Nicholas Worth – a heavy-set bald character-actor who appeared in everything from “Heartbreak Ridge” to “Deep Space Nine” – as Pauly.
If there’s one part in the film that gets the blunt end of the writing in the film, it’s Frances McDormand’s Julie. Now – as she is established in the beginning as a smart, tough-as-nails attorney – her character arc just takes a plunge right after the lab explosion and the subsequent funeral: turns out that Julie has an affair with Strack. Now, WHY would she do this after she very clearly knows that the guy is a scumbag I’m sure I don’t know, but it definitely hurts the film. And more importantly: it hurts the character. As she then regresses into just a complete “damsel in distress” by the end of the film, I’d imagine it’s hard for the audience to even give a shit when that happens. I guess this could be the reason why Raimi and McDormand reportedly had disagreements during the filming. After all – McDormand DOES know a thing or two about strong female characters…
And of course there are some other plot points that some sticklers for details might cling to: like how in the hell does Westlake’s lab equipment still work after being blown up (just a little charred, and the voice synthesizer a bit raspy, but all good after plugged in) or how does a man with no lips suddenly become extremely adept at mimicking other people’s voices by just playing one sentence repeatedly from a walkman – or… You know what? I’m gonna stop right there. After all – this was meant to be a Comic-Book Movie. Even if it’s not based on any ACTUAL comic. So you have to accept the fact that it operates under comic-book logic. And while it has some great pathos and drama with the lead character, you also get the trademark Sam Raimi-wackiness with the camera-angles, zooms, crazy transitions and POV shots (where else would you get a POV shot of a bolt fired from a bolt gun?). Plus cameos from both the Delta 88 Oldsmobile (Joel and Ethan Coen driving) and Bruce Campbell. And also the meticulous multiple-exposure montages showing longer passages of time. You get a helicopter dragging a man on a wire through the skyscrapers and freeways of Los Angeles – for REAL; long before Raimi had a CGI Spider-Man web-slinging through a CGI New York. And you get a bombastic score from Danny Elfman building this all up (back from the time Elfman was still not phoning it in for the most of time).
Of course, the film didn’t end up making a lot in the box office. I was by no means a flop, but not a real blockbuster either; $48,8 million on a $16 million budget. But it has had a pretty good afterlife. I’d say that the fans have definitely found it and embraced it, despite it’s few weaker plot points. It’s a great homage to comic-books, the Universal Monster-movies (in fact: isn’t it “hip” these days to do black & white versions of films? I might do another rewatch of this with turning the colors off my TV. I think it might work VERY well) – and there’s even some homages to the WB cartoons in there!
Two direct-to-video sequels for the rising DTV market were produced a few years later: “Return of Durant” in 1995 and “Die Darkman Die” in 1996. But in those the Westlake role was recast with Arnold Vosloo (“Hard Target”, “The Mummy“) and he just doesn’t pull off what Liam Neeson managed to do, in my books. Should’ve gone with Bruce Campbell, as the end tag of the original movie intended.
“I’m everyone – and no one. Everywhere – nowhere. Call me… Darkman.”
Previous entries in the “Glorious year 1990” series: