After the phenomenonal success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), everybody and his brother wanted a piece of that lucrative pie and tried to produce their own franchise of super hero films. For Universal Pictures it was Darkman (1990) – the greatest comic book film not actually based on a comic book. While its director Sam Raimi did an admirable job with the first two Spider-Man films, I have always felt like he was holding back stylistically. I miss the unbridled fun and pulpy charm of the Raimi who made Darkman, a dark, R-rated super hero film that fused together the sensibilities of Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera and The Shadow. It demonstrated that Raimi could make the jump from low-budget independent films to Hollywood without compromising the Gonzo style that endeared him to his fans. Darkman also showed that he was maturing as a filmmaker by creating a dramatic and tragic love story while still featuring his show-stopping action sequences.
Raimi sets an appropriately comic book super hero-ish tone right from the get-go as two criminal gangs engage in a violent turf war. The action starts when a gang member reveals that his wooden leg conceals a machine gun. All hell breaks loose as cars come flying out of big wooden crates (?!) and miscellaneous henchmen (one sporting an eye patch so you know he’s a bad guy) are dispatched en masse with nary a drop of blood. Pretty soon, one side is sufficiently decimated and the dominant one, led by Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake), deals with the survivors, in particular, their leader Eddie Black (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) in a way that establishes the film’s darkly goofy gallows humor. This sequence also sets up rather nicely that Durant is not a guy to be messed with as he has a rather nasty habit of collecting severed fingers from his victims.
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a brilliant scientist trying to create liquid skin that could help disfigured people or burn victims lead normal lives. However, after 99 minutes in the daylight the skin disintegrates. His girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand) works in real estate and comes across something fishy in a deal she’s working on for Strack Industries. Mr. Strack (Colin Friels) has a lot of money riding on the deal and she discovers that he has ties with Durant. When Julie confronts Strack about it he sends Durant and his goons to recover the incriminating memorandum she has in her possession.
Unfortunately, it’s located at Westlake’s lab (which is also where he lives) and Durant and co. arrive right when he is on the verge of a breakthrough with his synthetic skin. Raimi shows off his innate understanding of the way action is depicted in comic books when Durant and his cronies attack Westlake and trash his lab. Raimi employs all sorts of skewed camera angles, unusual point-of-view shots and snap zooms that evoke the vivid, panel bursting action of Jack Kirby’s explosive, panel-bursting artwork. Durant beats Westlake viciously and leaves him to die in an explosion that destroys his lab. Westlake is blown clear but burned beyond recognition.
Somehow, doctors get a hold of him and perform a procedure so that impulses of pain are no longer transmitted to his brain. This also amplifies his emotions, including uncontrolled rage accompanied by surges of adrenaline which produce augmented strength. With everyone (including Julie) thinking he’s dead, Westlake takes refuge in an abandoned, run-down warehouse where he recreates his lab and plots revenge against Durant. Westlake uses his synthetic skin to pose as members of Durant’s gang and to recreate his old visage in an attempt to reconnect with Julie in the hopes of restoring things back to the way they were. But let’s face it, Westlake is only fooling himself and herein lies the tragic element of the story.
Raimi depicts Westlake’s first surge of uncontrolled anger rather imaginatively with a heady montage of starbursts, flames, fireballs, a skull, and other bizarre images that evoke some of the go-for-broke imagery of the first two Evil Dead films, especially the second one when Ash (Bruce Campbell) becomes possessed. Perhaps the two most obvious influences on Darkman are Beauty and the Beast and Phantom of the Opera which are evoked when the bandaged and disfigured Westlake, having just escaped from the hospital, finds temporary salvation in an alley one stormy night. He even dresses a bit like a cross between the Phantom and The Shadow, adopting the latter’s persona as an elusive avenger who strikes fear in the heart of men.
Raimi infuses the film with his trademark darkly comic slapstick like when Darkman dispatches Rick (Raimi’s brother Ted), one of Durant’s goons. The henchman pleads for his life, “I told you everything!” to which Darkman replies, “I know, Rick. I know you did. But let’s pretend that you didn’t!” The vigilante proceeds to stick Rick’s head up through a manhole into oncoming traffic and he meets the wheel of a transport truck with a sickening splat. Raimi also has a lot of fun with Westlake posing as Durant and his goons which gives the actors playing them an excuse to act out of character.
At one point, Raimi considered Gary Oldman to play Westlake but went with Liam Neeson instead and now it is hard to see anybody else in the role. Neeson gives his character the necessary gravitas and makes us feel sympathetic for his plight, even when he becomes horribly disfigured and the actor’s marquee good looks are buried under all kinds of make-up. This is due in large part to Neeson’s natural charisma but Raimi never lets us forget Westlake’s tragic dimensions, like when he takes Julie to a carnival and his emotions boil over after a sideshow barker pisses him off. Westlake breaks two of the man’s fingers, terrifying her. He can never be with Julie like before the explosion so long as his synthetic skin lasts only 99 minutes. Westlake will always be an outsider, an emotional mess living on the fringes of society.
Julia Roberts was initially considered for the role of Julie but Raimi cast Frances McDormand whom he had worked with on Crimewave (1985). Raimi had to fight to cast her in the role as the studio wanted Demi Moore to play the part. According to Raimi, he cast her to “bring that soul to the picture” so that audiences would care about what happens to her character. Although, he found it difficult directing her, despite knowing the actress personally for many years. He said, “our conception of the best movie to make differed, arguing in trying to make the best picture possible. We did come across disagreements, but they were very healthy.” At times, she admitted to having trouble separating her long-standing friendship with Raimi and his role as director. She said, “there are times when I was mad ... and I didn’t try to be diplomatic about it.” McDormand is an unconventional choice for the film’s love interest. She doesn’t have the typical Maxim magazine model looks (thank god!) that seem to be all the rage now, but rather seems like someone you’d actually know and not some unattainable beauty. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t really give her much to do except pine tragically for Westlake and become a hapless damsel in distress at the film’s climax.
Years before Darkman ever became a reality, Raimi had been interested in adapting an established super hero or comic book property to the big screen. He tried and failed to secure the rights to Batman and The Shadow (both went on to become films). Raimi decided to create his own super hero. Darkman started as a short story entitled, “The Darkman,” written by Raimi and then, with the help of his brother Ivan, he expanded it into a 40-page treatment. Ivan was a doctor and grounded the medical aspects in reality. Originally, it was a story about a man who lost his face and had to take on other faces only for it to evolve into a story about a man who uses this power to fight crime.
Raimi pitched this idea to Universal Pictures who liked it and gave him a budget of $11 million. At the time, this was the biggest budget and crew he had worked with. The screenplay went through several drafts and several people. Ex-Navy SEAL Chuck Pfarrer wrote the first draft of the script, followed by another draft by Sam and Ivan. During this stage, Raimi and co-producer Robert Tapert toyed with the notion that Darkman could become a franchise (indeed two sequels have been made). For this to happen, the script needed improvement and writers Daniel and Joshua Goldin were brought on board to write the fifth draft. The Goldins made sense of the various drafts and “lots of little story documents,” into a coherent script. It was also their job to build suspense in the story and work on the emotional aspects, like Westlake trying to reunite with the love of his life. They worked on the project for a month before moving on to another film and Ivan and Sam took over, writing drafts six through twelve.
Raimi told production designer Randy Ser that the look of the film would be a homage to the 1930s Universal horror films. For example, they designed Darkman’s laboratory with Dr. Frankenstein’s in mind. Ser saw Westlake as someone “living in a world filled with light and golden hues” and his lab was painted a golden sun yellow and lit to reflect the sunlight coming in. In contrast, Darkman’s lab “becomes a place of darkness and more chaos.” His lab was a real location, a former refrigerated food warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. It was converted into soundstages for the production. Ser also faced the challenge of creating key props for the film, chief among them Westlake’s skin-making machine. The result was a hybrid of a computer, a photocopier, a hologram and skin mold, which allowed the artificial skin mask to push and bulge visibly. The skin mold portion was modeled on a real-life device known as pin molds, popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Ser consulted with David Copperfield’s people and told them he wanted to build an illusion that would operate all the way through the sequence with no edits.
Raimi pulls out all the stops for the film’s climactic action sequence where Darkman hangs onto a cable dangling from a helicopter flying through the city, slamming into buildings in a way that eerily anticipates a very similar sequence in The Matrix (1999), only without all kinds of CGI. There is something real and exciting about seeing a stuntman actually hanging onto a cable from an honest to goodness helicopter that is missing from the Wachowskis’ film. The second part of this sequence takes place on the top floors of an unfinished skyscraper and allows Raimi to have a blast with several characters nearly plummeting to their death... and a few who do. This sequence took two-and-a-half weekends to complete because they were flying through the city below five hundred feet and had to have special permits to do it. A stunt double was used and was hooked up on two cables in three different spots in case one failed. The filmmaker had to shut down several blocks of downtown L.A. on consecutive weekends. The results speak for themselves and are exciting and dynamic.
Raimi had a problem with the editor that the studio assigned. Eight weeks into assembling the rough cut and he wasn’t following Raimi’s storyboards, had a nervous breakdown and left. Tapert and Raimi had a difficult time dealing with the studio. Tapert remarked, “it isn’t the picture we thought it should be, based on the footage we shot ... The studio got nervous about some kind of wild things in it, and made us take them out ... We fought until the very last minute to get some of it back in.”
Darkman garnered mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Wilmington felt that Darkman was the only movie at the time "that successfully captures the graphic look, rhythm and style of the superhero books.” The New Yorker’s Terrence Rafferty wrote, "Raimi works from inside the cheerfully violent adolescent-male sensibility of superhero comics, as if there were no higher style for a filmmaker to aspire to, and the absence of condescension is refreshing.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "The movie is full of jaunty, Grand Guignol touches (the main gangster enjoys snapping and collecting fingers), but Raimi's images also have a spectral, kinetic beauty.” In his review for the Washington Post, Joe Brown wrote, "Though Raimi seems to be trying to restrain himself, his giddily sick sense of humor still pops out all over the place – Darkman is a frenetic funhouse ride that has you laughing and screaming at the same time.” However, Time magazine’s Richard Corliss felt that Raimi wasn’t "effective with actors" and People magazine’s Ralph Novak called Darkman, a "loud, sadistic, stupidly written, wretchedly acted film."While Raimi’s Spider-Man films are plagued by a protagonist that is a little too angsty for my tastes (especially the awful third film), he gets it just right with Darkman. I’m a fan of his early films with their wild and loose style as typified by his hyperactive camerawork. Darkman proved that he could bring this kinetic approach to a prestigious Hollywood blockbuster and anticipates his work on the Spider-Man films in many ways. However, this is a project that originated with Raimi and so it has a more personal feel that is missing from his later films where he was basically a director-for-hire (which makes his recent Drag Me to Hell feel like a return to form). Darkman also features Raimi’s trademark slapstick humor which deflates some of the pretentiousness of the more angst-ridden aspects of its tragic protagonist. The film doesn’t take itself so serious all the time and this results in a fun, entertaining ride.
This post was inspired by Mr. Peel's excellent take on Darkman over at his blog. Also, the bulk of the article's production info was sourced from John Kenneth Muir's fantastic book, The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi.