Sunday, April 24, 2016

Raimi Watch: Darkman (1990)

I don't believe anyone in the movie actually calls the main character "Darkman", btw

What to say about Darkman (1990)?

It's hard to categorize as "good", and I think my affection for it is rooted in nostalgia and the electric current I got seeing this very, very strange movie when I was 15.  It came out just shortly after I'd moved to Spring, TX, where I'd live from grades 10-12.  I was vaguely aware of a movie called Evil Dead 2 that you were supposed to see, but I hadn't seen it yet, and I'd never heard of Sam Raimi.  I just took Darkman for what I thought it was and what I'm sure the studio brass also thought they had: a royalty-free superhero movie they could make cheaply and quickly to ride on the coattails of Batman (1989) and America's awakening interest in superhero movies about "dark" heroes.

Weirdly, the only actor in the movie I recognized (not being an LA Law watcher) was Frances McDormand, whom I recognized from Raising Arizona.  McDormand plays the love interest of Liam Neeson's scientist-turned-burn-victim-turned-Darkman, and, literally, one of two female character I can think of to appear in the movie as anything but an extra.

The other female in the movie is Jenny Agutter in a walk-on part as the doctor who saved Darkman's life, but who doesn't expect her John Doe to live, and who provides the exposition regarding what's going on with our hero.

It's almost easier to see Darkman as a horror movie in the classic Universal mode.  He's a misshapen, angry being causing havoc for someone, but there's no handsome hero to be the one who understands the misunderstood justice of Darkman's cause that has led him down a path of inhumane acts and giving the audience sympathy.  Nope.  This is a straight up monster revenge story in superhero drag.

Raimi is nowhere near the height of his powers in this movie, but you can see him working some things out - how to work with actors in a big picture, how to make his aesthetic work in a movie intended for a more mainstream audience, including gore and terror.  It's also hard to believe the studio didn't monkey a bit with the movie, but it's also amazing what got left in.

Example:  I'm a huge fan of the "just take the @#$%ing elephant!" sequence.  You just don't see the superhero injuring carnies and verbally abusing their girlfriends in many superhero films these days.

Despite all this, at least part of Darkman's bag of tricks feels like it could be plausible any day, a sort of 3D printing of passable human flesh for burn victims to have grafted on or wear.  So, maybe Raimi was on to something after all.

In a post-Marvel world, the movie fits oddly with the concept of "superhero", and movie occasionally has that dried-out look of a cheap actioner shot in LA that was so common at the time.  Honestly, I'd love to see what would happen now if Sam Raimi were given $100 million to re-do this movie with zero studio interference.  I think you'd have something a whole echelon even more interesting, but it wouldn't be a superhero flick.  In the meantime, after what feels like a pretty novel sort of movie in execution if nothing else, by the end it's a pretty cookie-cutter stand-off with a girlfriend in peril and people shouting "Get him!" and other such amazing bits of phenomenal dialog.

I don't know what a kid today would think of the movie.  It filled a certain low-budget niche in 1990, but now it would need an epic mythology and spin-off potential (not that Darkman didn't pioneer the "straight-to-VHS" sequel).  There's just not enough room for "shipping" or any of that to likely catch the modern viewer's eye.

But, hey, it does give us the great visual of Ted Raimi sticking out of a manhole cover in heavy traffic.


Stuart said...

I honestly never took "Darkman" as a superhero. Looking back now, I see that it was marketed that way, and probably conceived on the basis of capitalizing on Batman's success. But having seen Raimi's previous films, I fully expected a remake/homage to The Invisible Man. Judged on that basis, I think it's pretty good.

Simon MacDonald said...

I just love the career arc of Liam Neeson. From Darkman to Schindler's List to Taken 3.

The League said...

@stuart - yeah, it was definitely marketed as a superhero film at the time, but even at 15 and limited knowledge on these things, I could feel those horror roots a lot more than any superhero-ing. It's been over a decade since I've watched this one, and, wow, did it hit home this time - this is not a superhero movie.

@simon - Do not leave Krull out of that list. Because: Krull.

Simon MacDonald said...

Oh wow, I totally forgot that he was in that movie. Krull is one of those movies from my childhood that I don't want to revisit as it is probably much better in my memory than it is up on screen along with The Beastmaster and The Dragonslayer.

The League said...

I tried to give Krull a spin not too long ago and made it about fifteen minutes before throwing in the towel.

Stuart said...

I can say with confidence Dragonslayer (actually good) > Beastmaster (bad, but entertaining with a *great* score) > Krull (bad and also boring).

The League said...

We did watch Dragonslayer around the same time as we tried to watch Krull, and, agreed. It really held up. But I haven't seen Beastmaster since high school. Every time I think about it, I just watch Conan instead.

Stuart said...

“Just watch Conan instead” is a solid policy.

I'm sure the nostalgia doesn't hurt. But unlike many films I've revisited as an adult, my affection for Beastmaster's never faded. My 13-year-old nephew recently asked what’s my “favorite bad movie,” and I ultimately landed on Beastmaster. It’s bad. But it has a kind of charm, and still pretty fun to watch (for me).

Simon MacDonald said...

Hmmm....maybe I'll go back and watch Beastmaster then, clickity clack, dammit! Not on Canadian Netflix. Oh and in another twist of fate Canada got The Phantom this week which was a bit too late for me to join in on your live tweet. Honestly even the screenshots in the Netflix library made me not want to watch it again.

J.S. said...

I was curious to see if your review would contain a reason for me to watch Darkman again. It did not. But thanks for taking a hit for the team.

The League said...

I actually OWN "Darkman", but I have no real recollection of watching this disk before, so I either bought it circa 1999 when I got my DVD player or, more likely, it was part of me exploiting Columbia House's 20 DVDs for $10 program circa 2006.

And, really, the only reason we watched the movie this time was that I figured out around the time we were watching "The Phantom" that Jamie had never seen Darkman - and, far be it from me to let her live a life free of having had seen Darkman.

Curiously, I do occasionally just shout "Juuuuuliiieeeeee!", which means that for more than 20 years, Jamie has not questioned, not even once, why I was doing this.

Paul Toohey said...

Beastmaster rules!