As films made in the comic book mode go, Sam Raimi’s Darkman, released in 1990 on the back of an inspired marketing campaign that queried the origin of the character by posing the question ‘Who Is Darkman?’, was one of the most interesting of the era. This was despite the fact it was scripted from an original story idea by The Evil Dead helmer as opposed to an actual comic book from the period it pays homage to. Drawing on the Universal horror movies of the 1930s, in particular the celebrated oeuvre of James Whale, as well as The Shadow, The Phantom of the Opera and a veritable glut of monster and comic book staples, the film would mark a shift for Raimi into studio filmmaking and would act as an evolution, albeit one sprinkled with a gleeful confetti of slapstick Raimi violence, from the DIY horror-comedy styling of his earlier output to more traditional production values backed up by a reasonably sized budget.
Not that the resulting film is conventional. Darkman, conceived in direct response to Raimi’s inability to acquire the rights to The Shadow or Batman, is about as typical a comic book movie as Evil Dead is a horror flick. Darkman, more concerned with exacting revenge than seeking justice, is an atypical superhero whose status as an outcast and freak does not kowtow to any of the genre’s stereotypes. In one of the movie’s more insane moments, Darkman, displaying scant regard for public safety, pushes one of his enemies through a manhole cover so that his head will be squashed by oncoming traffic. In yet another bonkers scene he can be observed dancing madly around his Frankenstein inspired lair in a rage of self-loathing with a funnel on his head like a Tin Man/Scarecrow hybrid turned savage.
Bruce Campbell was initially billed to star as the titular anti-hero and cameos at the film’s conclusion as Darkman’s final face. However, he was dropped, initially in response to pressure from the studio, which wanted a more capable actor in the lead role to foster audience sympathy. Rising star Liam Neeson, whose previous CV included a supporting role opposite Patrick Swayze in Next of Kin, landed the role instead and set about turning the facially scarred ‘monster’ of the piece, with the poor impulse control and penchant for Mission: Impossible style visage appropriation, into a benevolent screen presence the audience could connect with.
Dr. Peyton Westlake is a science nerd attempting to develop synthetic skin to revolutionize treatment for burns victims. Unfortunately he can’t quite get the formula right, meaning that the skin he creates degrades after a limited time. After Peyton is attacked and left for dead in his laboratory by Larry Drake’s finger severing super villain, Robert G. Durant, his laboratory is rigged to explode. In one of the film’s more visceral and technically unhinged set pieces, Peyton survives the explosion by somehow being blasted out of the roof and into an expediently located river. Following a brief sojourn in a hospital, in which Jenny Agutter cameos as a conveniently expositional medic, Peyton escapes. Realizing the extent of his injuries, he promptly regresses, develops some serious mental health issues to compliment his Raymond Chandler dress-code and sets about rebuilding his lab, wooing his lost love and violently slaughtering the gang of oddball minions that plunged him into a vat of bubbling face peeler.
The film, despite being set in the present day, has all of the markings of a 30s noir. It is also a revenge movie with a bit of romance tossed in, some clowning, science fiction, and a bit of action movie to top it all off. This probably accounts for some of its coherency issues. Darkman may be visually riveting and terrifically good fun, but it stumbles occasionally over its myriad eccentricities.
That being said, it is the perfect showcase for Raimi’s brand of crazy. Through a willful disregard for the rulebook, which almost makes the fusion of disparate themes and clashing genre aesthetics a success, the film hits more than it misses, and is a delightfully irreverent rendering of superhero standards which we have not seen the like of since, despite the recent glut of colour-graded multi-narrative franchise behemoths helmed by wunderkind film directors out to make a name for themselves. Danny Elfman’s score, which plays out like the Batman theme gone feral, complements the zany violence and pitch-black humour wonderfully. Bill Pope’s angular photography, meanwhile, calls to mind The Bride of Frankenstein on a number of occasions, which in itself acts as a reference point for much of the film’s hyper-real B movie absurdity. Tony Gardner’s Darkman prosthetic deserves a mention for the complicated brilliance of its execution, as does Randy Ser’s set design, which again harks back to the mad professor aesthetics of classic pre Hays Code horror.
Neeson somehow manages to render the multiple personas of the lead character sympathetic, which is to his eternal credit given how little he has to work with. Frances McDormand, who reputedly clashed with Raimi during production over the flimsiness of her character, avoids the clichéd damsel-in-distress potholes a lesser actress would have fallen into. In doing so she makes love interest Julie Hastings a credible character in the film, and augments the romance angle of the story significantly. A quality supporting cast of baddies rounds the rest of the players out headed up by fetishistic finger collector and Edward G. Robinson clone Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake), whose caricatured gangster persona calls to mind the Dick Tracy villains of the 1930s, albeit with a more masochistic bent than any of Chester Gould’s legendary rogues gallery.
Raimi claimed that the finished product was not the movie he envisaged and that studio interference cost it some of its integrity. However, in spite of this, the movie as it stands has his fingerprints all over it. It would be twelve years before he would finally get to release his own groundbreaking and game changing superhero movie based on an established comic book property in the shape of 2002’s Spiderman, a film which draws heavily on the lessons he learned making Darkman and which would go on to spawn two sequels and form the aesthetic foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it is known today.
Darkman, meanwhile, would go on to have a sustained afterlife of its own in the wake of the film’s release, spawning two direct-to-video sequels with Arnold Vosloo in the lead and a series of comic books published by Marvel in 1990 and 1993, and subsequently Dynamite Entertainment fourteen years later.