“I’m everyone, and no one. Everywhere, nowhere. Call me… Darkman.”
Following the success of 1987’s Evil Dead 2 and his failure to obtain the film rights to The Shadow, Sam Raimi would finally make his studio debut (courtesy of Universal) with a different kind of superhero film. Released in the summer of 1990, Darkman would become a sleeper hit and allow Raimi to make a third Evil Dead film (1992’s Army of Darkness). It would also be a forerunner for the comic book style of filmmaking that Raimi would bring to his Spider-Man trilogy in the following decade. How much do I like this movie? When I first started my DVD collection, Darkman was one of the first titles I bought (I have since replaced it with the excellent blu-ray release from Shout Factory). I recently had the chance to see a 25th anniversary midnight screening of Darkman at the IFC Center. Despite having seen it many times in the past, it was still a joy to experience on the big screen at long last.
1990’s Darkman follows a scientist who, while working on a formula to perfect synthetic skin, is left for dead by gangsters after his attorney girlfriend runs afoul of a corrupt skyscraper developer. Surviving the explosion that has left him mostly scarred (both physically and mentally), he plots his revenge while trying to perfect the synthetic skin, reunite with his girlfriend, and deal with the man he’s changing into. Raimi assembled a fine cast that includes Liam Neeson (as Dr. Peyton Westlake/Darkman), Frances McDormand (as Julie Hastings), Colin Friels (as Louis Strack Jr.), Larry Drake (as Robert G. Durant), Ted Raimi (as Rick), Nicholas Worth (as Pauly), Rafael H. Robledo (as Rudy Guzman), Dan Bell (as Smiley), Dan Hicks (as Skip), Jenny Agutter (as the burn doctor), and featuring cameos by John Landis, Toru Tanaka, Sam Raimi himself, and Bruce Campbell (as the final shemp). Neeson is amazing as the good-natured Westlake who is transformed into a “monster” as a result of the lab explosion. Neeson is able to convey the melancholy, anger, loneliness, and despair that Westlake feels as he becomes Darkman (even under the graphically detailed prosthetic makeup). McDormand is also wonderful as Julie, who must cope with the loss of the man she loves as well as the shock that overcomes her when he reappears to her. Drake is wonderfully evil as the gangster Durant, who is ruthless in his methods to achieve his goals.
Raimi brings his usual, inventive camerawork to the table while establishing a comic book style of filmmaking that he would put to great use over a decade later when he successfully brought Spider-Man to the big screen. The screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer, Daniel Goldin, Joshua Goldin, Ivan Raimi, and Sam Raimi explores the origin of an unlikely new hero while tackling the physical and psychological effects of what’s been done to him. The love story arc shows influences from classic tales such as The Phantom of the Opera and Beauty and the Beast. Bill Pope’s cinematography supports the tone of the film, bathing Darkman in shadows quite often. Tony Gardner’s Oscar-worthy makeup design is graphically detailed (especially for Darkman), and Randy Ser’s production design creates a non-specific major metropolitan city (the abandoned factory that becomes Darkman’s lair is my favorite set). The editing by Bud S. Smith and David Stiven moves the film at an energetic pace, and the special effects still hold up after all these years. Danny Elfman (in his first of several collaborations with Sam Raimi) delivers a terrific score with a memorable theme for Darkman, exciting, action music, and dramatic music reaching operatic levels. Sam Raimi’s Darkman is a cult classic that introduced a new hero in the fight against crime while showcasing Raimi’s talents for a wider audience and paving the way for his future successes.