When I was around five to, I don’t know, perhaps ten or twelve years old, I dug through all of my father’s videos, through Leonard Maltin’s film guide and watched eagerly for anything with superheroes. I lived for Tim Burton’s Batman, watched John Wesley Shipp as The Flash religiously (or as much as I could with its shifting television schedule), enjoyed every Superman film (including, yes, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) and would look at any film title that bore the name of a superhero I knew. It led to a film about a caveman (Iceman, which I should probably give another chance knowing what it is) amongst other things, as I was consistently disappointed. There were the exceptions mentioned above, but at that time, superhero movies were scarce. I could not resist Ferrigno and Bixby as The Incredible Hulk–and was even foolish enough to see Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker–Spider-Man. Honestly, the pickings were pretty darn slim for super hero fans hoping for a movie or television show in those days, and that much worse for those of us who were Marvel fans. As much as I enjoyed the Hulk at the very least (I have vague recollections of wanting to be able to flex and rip a shirt, not for musculature but to be like the Hulk), the world of such films was sorely lacking in those days. Now there’s a glut, especially of Marvel heroes, some good (appropriately, Spider-Man) some bad (Daredevil) and some that are insistent on being anything but comic book movies because of their director’s apparent loathing of comics (X-Men and X2).
So, a movie like Darkman was right up my alley. Sort of.
What we have here is a Sam Raimi film–unabashedly Raimi. We have his brother Ted in a small role, Dan Hicks (infamous amongst my friends for the line, “BOBBY [scene cuts] JOE!” in Evil Dead 2), a famous (amongst fans of Bruce, at least) cameo by Bruce Campbell, a Danny Elfman score, and, most importantly–we have Sam’s camerawork. We have twisting rapid zooms, we have cameras that follow lines of action as if they are part of it instead of witnesses, we have off-kilter angles, swimming, fish-y, water-y distorted shots, cameras tied to actors–and not in that now clichéd waist-mounted style–and we even have a camera that moves with a projectile, instead of following it or simply showing its effects. This all fits brilliantly because, first of all, Sam uses these things knowing how ridiculous they are, and this film is made to be a comic book, and is as melodramatic and over-the-top as earlier comics were (which are the ones that Sam himself would have, of course, read in his own youth).
Liam Neeson is Peyton Westlake, a scientist working to perfect liquid skin–skin for victims of disfigurement that functions just like real skin, a synthetic, but better. His girlfriend, Frances McDormand (who I’m still slightly surprised to have found in a movie like this, not because I think she’s snooty, but because she tends not to do what’s considered “lower” work) is an attorney working through real estate deals when she stumbles on a conspiracy. Westlake is caught in the middle and, in comic book fashion, a lab accident results in his disfigurement and eventual “superpowers” of sorts.
The plot beyond that is details; there’s not much more to say without filling in too much detail to leave the film alone as an experience. The majority of what I’m interested in discussing is what I already referenced above: the style of Sam. It’s not surprising that he’s abandoned a number of these techniques after this first major feature (the budget was more than five times that of his previous films) as he moved into movies like For Love of the Game, and of course Spider-Man. Now it’s a secret, private joy to Raimi fans when these techniques make sneak appearances (such as the infamous surgery sequence in Spider-Man 2) but a bit of a disappointment that overall, while his skill is intact, his style is getting lost in more standard film-making technique. But here they are in full force and now with names that people can recognize outside of his (and Bruce’s) devoted fanbase. Frances McDormand? Liam Neeson? In Sam-Cam? Amazing!
It’s worth noting for fellow character actor followers that the great Larry Drake plays the major heavy in this film, Durant, and is as gleefully psychotic as always (he’s also known for an infamous turn as a sort of demented Santa Claus in the first aired episode of Tales from the Crypt, amongst other things) and thoroughly menacing. Seeing him play against himself at one point–it’s hardly a secret that Westlake is able to replicate the skin of others, since we established when we first see him that that is the major work of his life–is greatly entertaining, as two Larry Drakes are certainly better than one.
Unsurprisingly though, Liam appropriately steals, or I suppose holds, the show as Darkman, the new identity of Westlake–now slightly unhinged thanks to a procedure he undergoes after his lab accident, and utterly pained by his disfigurement and the distance this puts between him and Julie (McDormand). The scene that has always stuck in my mind is the completely insane trip they take to the fair; there’s a disturbing stuffed mannequin of a clown waving and constantly laughing at the entrance (used to great effect when Sam is showing us the intensity of Westlake’s now uncontrolled emotions) but, more importantly, there is the end result of his attempt to win Julie a stuffed pink elephant. I would draw associations to a film four years earlier, but I’ll leave it as vague as that–I think anyone who knows both movies can take a stab at that connection and know what I mean, without my giving away the truth of it to anyone who doesn’t.
The final note for this film is yet another slew of trivia–we all know I love Danny Elfman, so first I have to give mention to another of his great early scores. I think a lot of his best work came as he was still working with all the members of Oingo Boingo, and not just Steve Bartek (as he does now). He, too, is losing a lot of his maddening spark as he ages, perhaps as a result of aging, but it seems to be the fashion for whole mediums like film, I’ve found, so I tend to believe it is more the environment. Still, moving on to what I originally stated was the object here–we have cameos by Ivan Raimi (Sam’s other brother), John Landis (a trade for Sam’s cameo in Innocent Blood, perhaps?), Joel and Ethan Coen (who co-wrote Sam’s earlier film Crimewave, one of whom is married to McDormand) and Jenny Agutter. Oddly, Jenny was the only one I recognized, though of course she actually has numerous lines, appears undisguised and is the focus of her scenes.
I was paranoid about the over-the-top style of the film ruining it for me after all of these years, but I should have known better with Sam; he knows how to work these things in correctly to the right effect.