Directed by Sam Raimi
Distributed by The Scream Factory
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.
I say “should” because this is the same transfer used by Universal for their release in 2010. Anyone familiar with how Universal treats their titles on blu-ray knows this isn’t necessarily a good thing. How about the positive stuff first? The print sourced here was in good shape, and there are no visual defects. Black levels are stable & rich, important since the title implies much of the film won’t be well lit. Colors are nicely saturated despite a lack of pop. The downside here is the picture is very inconsistent. Let’s forget about the optical effects shots (like the credits) because they look rough on nearly every picture that’s used them, with no exception here. There is definitely some DNR going on during most of the film. Neeson’s face lacks fine details and appears slightly waxy in a couple scenes. Fine detail and background elements seem to lack focus. It’s not always apparent, with some shots later in the film looking sharp and much more filmic. Some people are going to hate how this looks, some won’t care, and many probably won’t notice. It could have used a restoration, but whether that was cost prohibitive to Scream or Universal simply didn’t want to let them isn’t known. If it’s the former, however, I could’ve done without some bonus features if it meant money for a new transfer. Again, it’s not bad by any means but there is undoubtedly room for improvement. Audio comes in the form of an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track. This is a heavily front-loaded track, with virtually nothing stemming from the rears. Even Elfman’s grandiose score is relegated to the front end of things. Since previous editions have suffered the same, I can only assume the problem lies in the original multi-channel mix. Still, for a glorified stereo track there is good separation and balance between dialogue, effects, and music.
The supplements section is practically bursting at the seams here. Scream Factory has included not only a ton of newly-created features, but also many vintage features that have never shown up on any previous versions. And before anyone complains that Raimi didn’t participate, he did - back in 1990, when he was interviewed at length about the film. The vintage footage appearing here is probably much more interesting than anything he’d have to say today. Would it have been nice to get a commentary out of him? Of course it would, but it wasn’t in the cards and such an exclusion shouldn’t mar what is otherwise a spectacular release.
Starting things off on the new side is an audio commentary with director of photography Bill Pope, moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felscher. Pope has a lot to say, talking about how this was his first movie, how much fun the set was to work on, shooting locations, and much more. Very informative track. Dissecting Darkman is a new interview with actor Liam Neeson, who recalls what attracted him to the script, and how much he enjoyed working with Raimi, among other things. The Name is Durant is a new interview with actor Larry Drake. He talks about his acceptance of being typecast to a degree, his audition process, and how he viewed his character. The Face of Revenge is another new interview, this time with makeup FX artist Tony Gardner, who recalls that it was Campbell he expected to lead the film, causing him to rework the makeup he had sculpted for The Chin. Henchman Tales features new interviews with both Dan Bell and Danny Hicks, two of Durant’s lackeys. Both men have some great stories from on set. Dark Design is a new interview with production designer Randy Ser. He talks about how Raimi wanted the film to look like a Universal horror movies from the ‘30s, with Darkman’s lab something akin to Dr. Frankenstein’s. An Interview with Francis McDormand is exactly what the title suggests, with the Oscar winner recalling how she got the gig, what it was like working with her friend Raimi, and the qualities in Julie she appreciated.
On the vintage side of things, there’s a Darkman Featurette, which is essentially an EPK from around the time of the film’s release. Cast & Crew Interviews features some face time with Neeson, McDormand, Raimi, and Drake, with everyone talking up the project and their respective roles. A Vintage Interview Gallery contains extended interviews with Colin Friels, Frances McDormand, Liam Neeson, and Sam Raimi.
Finally, the disc includes the theatrical trailer, a handful of TV spots, and still galleries for behind the scenes/makeup effects, posters & artwork, production stills, and storyboards. And, as with most Scream Factory Collector’s Edition releases the disc includes the original theatrical key art on the reverse side of the cover, with a slipcover containing some new artwork from Ghoulish Gary Pullin.
While there are no doubt going to be some fans who are disappointed with the lack of a new transfer, the picture quality isn’t nearly as bad as some Universal catalog titles have been treated. Scream Factory more than makes up for this by loading the disc up with a plethora of extras that combine both new interviews and classic footage that hasn’t been seen in years.
4 1/2 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5