In 1990, Sam Raimi gifted the world with his fourth feature film and 25 years later, it remains one of his best efforts. From its West Side Story by way of Adam West’s “Batman” opening action sequence to its classic monster flourishes to its RoboCop-esque plot, Raimi’s Darkman is a wonderful stew of influences and images. It is a glorious pulp concoction that slides down like a massive mouthful of cinematic comfort food.
Turning the clock back to the mid-80s, we find a young Sam Raimi with a strong desire to make his own superhero films. After failing to become involve with Warner Bros.’ then still developmentally-challenged Batman film and unable to scoop up the rights to his other favorite hero, The Shadow, Sam decided to create his own. What resulted years later was a mixture of various elements, from the pulp hero stylings of the aforementioned Shadow to Sam’s beloved classic Universal Monsters. Married with his love of cartoons and slapstick comedy, a new hero was born.
For whatever reason, Universal went for Sam’s pitch, and after a few years of development, Darkman finally arrived in theaters on August 24th, 1990. While Sam would go on to help spearhead the rebirth of superhero cinema in the 2000s with his Spider-Man trilogy for Sony, his super-powered journey began here with an altogether different protagonist. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a scientist attempting to develop synthetic skin, an invention that could be used for numerous applications, but he’s hit a roadblock. He cannot get his skin experiments to last more than 99 minutes before falling apart into a steaming, bubbling pile of goop. He is dating an attorney, Julie Hasting (Frances McDormand), and their relationship has also hit a roadblock. Peyton wants to go the distance and marry her, while Julie isn’t sure if she is ready for that level of commitment.
This important decision is ultimately made for them, when fate intervenes. Julie has been researching some land deals going on in the city and the man involved, billionaire Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels), is revealed to be corrupt. Making the mistake of giving Strack the benefit of the doubt and alerting him to the payoffs being made in his name, Julie not only seals the fate of her relationship with Peyton, but Peyton’s fate in general. Strack sends sadistic mobster Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake) to clear things up. When Durant tracks Julie’s paper trail to Peyton’s lab, he murders Westlake’s lab assistant and leaves a gravely injured Peyton to die in an explosion meant to wipe out the evidence of this criminal attack.
Peyton, having been dipped in his skin formula and sent on fire through the air into the river nearby, survives. Julie thinks Peyton dead and appropriately grieves, shown masterfully in a shot of her witnessing the explosion that morphs into her mourning her beloved at his funeral days later, complete with a fun cameo from veteran actor Julian Harris (Live And Let Die) as the gravedigger. If Peyton isn’t in the ground, then where is he? Comatose in a local hospital as a burned beyond recognition John Doe, of course!
What follows next is a wonderful, but short, exposition-filled scene in which Dr. Hermione West (a cameoing Jenny Agutter) explains to us that due to his severe burns, they have performed a special operation on Peyton Westlake. They have severed a particular nerve in his spine so that he will not feel the pain of his injuries. As a side effect, his adrenaline glands will surge unchecked. Yes folks, our lead will no longer feel pain, his strength will be augmented due to said constant adrenaline flow, and he is now prone to uncontrollable emotional outbursts. A hero is born. We are also treated to cameos from Agutter’s An American Werewolf in London director John Landis and Sam Raimi himself during this short, but delightful hospital sequence. Later on in the film, Bruce Campbell and the Coen Bros. (driving Raimi’s iconic Oldsmobile) also cameo.
Peyton awakens shortly thereafter, of course, and escapes the hospital looking rather Mummy-esque. He finds himself a fedora and cloak in a dumpster, completing his Universal Monster look with a dark Phantom of the Opera flourish. To top it all off, Westlake finds sanctuary in an abandoned factory within the city, the catacombs of the past giving way to the eroded and forgotten city structures of the present. He creates a new makeshift lab within, from which he continues his experiments and begins plotting his revenge. Julie remains at the front of his mind, but without the ability to crack that 99 minute barrier, not even masquerading as his handsome Neeson-masked self is a viable option.
Clinging to rooftops like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, bolting off into the night cackling like the Invisible Man, and continuing his mad obsessions in secret, Peyton is no more. He has become both Victor Frankenstein and the Monster. He has become Darkman. Raimi continues to emphasize the connection between his hero and the monsters visually throughout the film. He doesn’t stop with Darkman’s look and demeanor, however, extending the 1930s/1940s inspiration into the lab scenes as Darkman toils away at perfecting his experiment, both to be with Julie and to avenge himself. Images are overlaid during experiments as Peyton obsesses with his work, intentional matte shots heighten the style, and within the lab itself, a spotlight in the distance becomes Peyton’s own modern full moon.
On the villainous side of things, we have the boisterously murderous Louis Strack Jr. and the calm sociopathic Robert G. Durant. Two sides of the same coin, with Strack occupying the big business Dick Jones of Darkman’s world and Durant his sadistic Clarence Boddicker. It wouldn’t be a Sam Raimi film without a colorful assortment of side characters, however, and that’s where Durant’s gang comes in. From the sweaty, slimy Rick (Ted Raimi) to cackling madman Smiley (Dan Bell) to the always-welcome Nicholas Worth as Pauly, Durant’s gang is a hoot from their aforementioned Looney Tunes-esque opening action sequence to their interactions with Darkman as he exacts his vengeance.
Ahh, Darkman’s revenge! Few things are more fun than seeing someone take the guise of another on film. It always adds a playful side to the character “becoming” someone else and it gives the actor of the character they are masquerading as a chance to give a slightly different performance. Hell, this is part of what makes Tom Cruise’s overall wonderful series of Mission: Impossible films a delight to watch. Thankfully all of the actors involved in such scenes here are game, whether they are playing themselves or playing Darkman as themselves. It’s an absolute hoot, particularly in the sequences when Darkman mimics Durant and Smiley.
25 years later, Darkman might be mostly forgotten by the public at large, but it remains an absolute gem of a cult superhero film. It is funny, thrilling, and wildly inventive from start to finish and at the time it proved that Sam Raimi had what it took to play with the big boys when given a larger bag of tools than his earlier low budget fare (Evil Dead 1&2, Crimewave). This might be controversial to say in light of his success with Spider-Man in the last decade, but Darkman also remains Raimi’s best superhero film to date.
Sorry folks! I love Spider-Man 2 just as much as anyone, but even I can’t deny the sheer passion and creativity on display here. It also proves that if Universal still wants to skew towards action with their upcoming revamps of their classic monsters, they might want to consider working with Raimi again. If anyone has the ability to deliver what they are asking for and have it be a good film, it’s Sam. I’d also happily go for a theatrical reunion Darkman sequel with Raimi and Neeson back at it again. Judging from his recent comments about the film, I think Neeson would be up for it.
It’s not like a franchise is an insane thought with this property. After all, Darkman actually managed to spawn a franchise, from two DTV sequels (starring Mummy actor Arnold Vosloo) to various comics (including “Darkman vs. Army of Darkness“!) and novels. There was even an unaired pilot for a potential TV series in the early 90s! That’s pretty wild for an original superhero film back then. If you haven’t seen it in a long time or have never seen it at all, there’s no better time to revisit the film than now. I think you will be surprised by how much you enjoy this one.
* – Special thanks to Gabriel Powers (DVD Active) for the screencaps of Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release from early last year.