Long before Sam Raimi became the creatively bankrupt Hollywood big shot some genre fans have grown to dislike, he was spilling his creativity onto the screen with some of the most inventive projects in cinema. Coming hot off the heels of “Evil Dead II” (1987), a film that garnered a positive response from both audiences and critics, Raimi was given the proverbial keys to the kingdom and called up to the majors (in this case, Universal Studios) to make a picture with something he frequently lacked: money. He had interest in helming adaptations of either “The Shadow” (which Universal already had in development with another team) or “Batman” (we know who had that at the time). Undeterred by these dead ends, Raimi did what creative directors do: he created a character that embodied the qualities he admired in The Shadow and Batman, but also one that would have been right at home with Universal’s classic monsters of the 1930s. His creation was The Darkman, a character whose origin story went through over a dozen drafts before “Darkman” (1990) was given a go from the studio brass. The resulting picture was Raimi operating within his wheelhouse, using his signature camera work and frenetic action to tell a gothic love story that, once again, was a hit with audiences and critics.
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a scientist working on a synthetic skin to help burn victims, operating out of his lab near the river in L.A. His girlfriend, Julie (Francis McDormand), is an attorney who uncovers corruption within the city’s largest real estate developer, run by Louis Strack (Colin Friels), when she inadvertently finds a document detailing bribery. She confronts Strack, who does the rational thing by sending his henchman, Robert Durant (Larry Drake), and some thugs to retrieve the document and kill everyone in the vicinity. At the time, that happens to be Peyton and his lab partner. Durant has his goons disfigure Westlake before setting a time bomb and blasting his charred body into the river. Presumed dead, Peyton somehow survived the blast, with horrifying burns covering almost half his body. Doctors performed a procedure that neutralized any pain he could feel, but as a side effect it allows his adrenaline to go unchecked and his mental state to become unstable. Peyton escapes from the hospital and rebuilds his lab in an abandoned factory. The synthetic skin he’s been working on only lasts for 100 minutes in sunlight, but that’s all the time he needs (usually) to disguise himself as Durant and his toughs. He rechristens himself Darkman, dedicating all of his efforts to seeking vengeance against all those who were responsible for creating him.
Raimi came up with an awesome story that could only have worked in his hands. He and director of photography Bill Pope, frankly, shot the shit out of this thing. There hadn’t been a movie since “Creepshow” (1982) that so emulated and perfectly captured the essence of a comic book. Raimi’s work had always showcased impressive camera movements and acumen for visual style, but the massive increase in budget afforded to him on “Darkman” meant nearly any of his lofty ideas could be achieved. All of the crazy shots that made “Evil Dead II” so memorable are accounted for here. I love when Darkman goes into a fit of rage and we feel like we’re inside his mind as fiery cracks appear in his head, everything goes red, and the camera moves in a hypnotic/nauseating way. There’s so much life in the camera that cause scenes to pop and stick in your mind more than any standard direction could have done. The scene of Peyton’s attack is particularly impressive, with Neeson’s face smashed into glass cabinets as we watch from within. The camera swoops and zooms and pulls all around as he’s tossed, burned, nearly drowned, and finally blow sky high and into the river.
That scene also showed just a small indication of make-up artist Tony Garder’s excellent work to come, when Peyton grabs two poles that look like they belong in “Phantasm” (1979) and his hands melt away down to the muscle and bone. They did it the old-fashioned way: stop-motion. And it looks great. Gardner’s prosthetic work here should have earned him an Oscar nomination because it can be hard to tell where Darkman ends and Liam Neeson begins. For such a large piece worn over a head, the result is something so lifelike you’ll forget there’s a man underneath. The movement is about as fluid as a guy with no lips and a well-done face can get.
Speaking of which, Neeson really gives his all here as a once noble man who so desperately wants revenge because these guys ruined his chance at having just a normal life. That’s all he wanted. He has to live knowing he’s a hideous freak while his girlfriend is out there, alone, and he knows they can never be together. At its core, “Darkman” is just as much a love story as anything else. And to make that work, you need a guy who can do sympathetic and “I will find you and I will kill you”. And that guy is Liam Neeson. As Peyton, he’s jokey and casual, just happy to be alive and doing a little bit of good in the world. As Darkman, all of his inner rage comes bubbling to the surface like liquid hot magma and he has little control over the beast he’s become. Neeson portrayed the character with a genuine sincerity, giving him the ultimate tortured soul. He even went so far as to make sure the FX department had the teeth in tight so they wouldn’t move while he spoke, since it would compromise the authenticity. His performance is a standout in a film full of memorable roles.
Lots of credit needs to be given to Larry Drake, Nicholas Worth and Dan Bell, who are all “impersonated” by Darkman using his synthetic skin masks. I use quotations because these guys all do such a phenomenal job of playing their doppelgangers, who we’re supposed to believe are actually Peyton when he’s trying to trick the mob. Drake is especially good, showing two very different sides to Durant at the same time. I really love how Raimi used this as a plot device because it’s so damned fun watching Peyton use his skills to screw with everyone.
All these years later, “Darkman” holds up exceptionally well as one of the greatest comic book movies to ever hit the screen, and it’s not even based on one. Raimi was in his prime here, using all of his abilities to make the film not only memorable from a story standpoint, but just as unforgettable thanks to a wide range of visual flair. The excellent casting is anchored by strong performances from Neeson, McDormand, and Drake. Gardner’s makeup is outstanding is every scene. Elfman’s score is typical, but great if you forget all the stuff he did that sounds like it since. It’s superb. Since Universal doesn’t see it that way, though, Scream Factory has come along to deliver a package full of features that should please fans.