The Film: Darkman (1990)

The Principals: Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, Colin Friels, Larry Drake, Ted Raimi, Sam Raimi (director)

The Premise: Peyton Westlake (Neeson) is developing a synthetic skin, but can only get it to last 99 minutes in daylight. He’s dating Julie Hastings (McDormand), who works for Louis Strack Jr. (Friels), and she stumbles across a memorandum that could ruin his career, especially if it got into the hands of Robert G. Durant (Drake), the town’s biggest gangster. Durant shows up at Westlake’s lab and burns it down to get the memo. Westlake survives, but is horribly mutilated. He rebuilds his lab for one purpose: Revenge.

Is It Good?: I recently started dating someone, and one of the joys of being a movie nerd in a new relationship is showing them movies (then again, she writes about movies too, so it’s not like I can force her to watch There Will Be Blood). But even with film lovers, there’s always holes in everyone’s film history and Darkman was one she hadn’t seen before. I’ve always been lightly positive on Raimi’s transitional work – the film that said he could play with studio toys – and we were at Amoeba (in Los Angeles) and they had a used Blu-ray that was factory sealed. I put away Step-Up 3 for next time, and went with Darkman.

Watching it again, I – like always – hoped to fall in love with it. There is nothing wrong with it, and all the elements are there, but I’ve never been the film’s biggest booster. From Danny Elfman’s great score, to the low budget but solid effects work, there’s nothing about the film I actively dislike, and it’s from one of my favorite directors, and is obviously the Rosetta Stone to his Spider-Man films. It’s also piles of fun.

This was Raimi’s split homage to the comic books and the classic monster movie he loved, and it plays like a fun homage piece. Though the film never stops for more than a second to do it, there’s a very explicit reference to The Phantom of the Opera, which is the most obvious influence. The film is also filled with set pieces, from the opening shoot out (with a cameo by Bruce Campbell), to the taking over of Westlake’s lab, to a helicopter chase, the movie was done on the cheap, but looks much bigger than its budget.

I kept trying to figure out why I’ve never loved the movie. Maybe it’s the slightly dour tone, or Raimi’s eccentricities? No, because I love when Raimi goes all whack-a-doodle. I love everything about the movie. I think the problem is that there’s a lot of fun to the movie but  there’s nothing going on under the surface but a love of the form of these films . At the time it was a breath of fresh air, and the helicopter chase – while limited to the technology of the time – is still pretty amazing. Though this is obviously a work of love and passion, it doesn’t have the energy – to me – of Evil Dead 2, even if it’s got better performers doing some nutty things. Raimi can do subtext, and I think he’s proved himself a master of many shapes – his A Simple Plan may have never received award love, but is still one of the finest films of the last fifteen years.

It’s weird to want to apologize for liking, not loving, a cult film that the majority of the world could care less about, but I do love Raimi, and this is a weird sticking point for me. And yet I can watch the film easily, and have repeatedly over the years. Such a weird feeling.

Is It Worth a Look: Very much so. Great cast, great fun. Also, well paced, the movie has no bloat, and the third act is virtual constant motion.

Random Anecdotes: John Landis was at the New Beverly to intro An American Werewolf in London, and Edgar Wright talked about how Jenny Agutter (because of AWiL) and Ornella Mutti (because of Flash Gordon) were his two adolescent crushes. Landis mentioned that he had directed Mutti, and had acted with Agutter, and asked the audience if we knew which film. I shouted “Darkman!” and Landis said “We’ve got a nerd in the audience tonight!” John Landis called me a nerd because of Darkman.