(SPOILERS) “…the dark... what secrets does it hold?” Sam Raimi bursts into the mainstream, kind of, with a low-budget superhero movie that puts the big guns to shame. Certainly Batman, and the then-a-few-months-old damp squib of a Dick Tracy. Darkman’s exactly as ebullient, irresponsible and excessive as you’d expect from the director who had most recently given us an extraordinary antic sequel to his debut horror flick. For all that Darkman is messy and undisciplined, what shines through is its sheer exuberant energy. Why, it even makes Liam Neeson seem awake!
Peyton: God, what have I become?
Neeson plays scientist Peyton Westlake, fortuitously investigating means to produce artificial skin, as it turns out that’s precisely what he needs lots of when Larry Drake’s mobster torches him and his lab during a search for Westlake’s lawyer girlfriend Frances McDormand’s goods on the bribes no-good billionaire developer Strack is offering the city zoning commission to get his construction project through. Peyton’s a sheepish, sensitive sort, but that changes rather when he’s tortured, Robocop-style, by Durant (Drake) and his goons (including a particularly ghoulish Ted Raimi); in one of the picture’s particularly sickly humorous spots, peppered throughout, Jenny Agutter’s burns doctor grins as she sticks an enormous pin in Westlake (rotating like a knife-thrower’s assistant on a medical contraption) and describes how his nerves have been severed to prevent him feeling pain. However, this has the side effect of amplifying alienation, loneliness and augmenting strength: “Personally, I give him a nine on the buzzard scale”. It’s no wonder Peyton makes tracks moments later.
By all reports, Raimi’s efforts to retain his signature sense of humour were an uphill struggle; “It was such a conflicted time for Sam; I don’t think he wants to revisit it” suggested producer Robert Tappert in a Hollywood Reporter retrospective last year. Raimi had originally attempted to get the rights for The Shadow, made by Russell Mulcahy a few years later, so he channelled his ideas into a new superhero, one snapped up by Universal… who then didn’t leave well enough alone, because they didn’t, or refused to, understand the talent they had.
Problems extended from the screenplay on up (Tappert: There are 5,000 names on that script. It was constantly being rewritten. In hindsight, I am not sure it ever got better; it just incorporated more people’s pisses. The Coen brothers were not credited by the guild, but they were instrumental early on with building the structure. The idea sprung from Sam’s head, and Joel and Ethan coaxed him along that road).
Peyton: Now, the pink elephant, if you please.
While Neeson was perhaps surprisingly all on board (but then, who’d have believed he’d have devoted much of his later career to the role of hangdog action star?), Raimi’s cartoonish style (later the kind of thing that infuriated Gene Hackman on The Quick and the Dead) didn’t vibe with McDormand. Or editor David Stiven, who fled. Bud S Smith was brought in and cut Raimi’s longer cut down from two hours to 85 minutes, trying to remove “all the weird shit”; at the last moment Bob Murawski, Raimi’s current editor, re-edited the movie, putting nine minutes back in “that the preview audiences would recoil from, but that was what it was meant to do”. By which point, it was too late for Universal to do anything (chairman “Tom Pollock was seriously fucking furious”).
Darkman was Bill Pope’s feature debut as cinematographer – later to set trends on The Matrix – and he noted “I have a distinct memory of being told by our dolly grip on day 50-something that we were doing our first shot in the film where the camera didn’t move through space — and it was a 360-degree pan”. Certainly, the attempts to do for Raimi’s vision don’t carry in any noticeable way, thanks to their last-minute salvaging effort. And I hesitate to say it, but a Darkman closer to ninety minutes than two hours is probably a good thing, compressing its yo-yo energy.
Strack: What have you got, besides a little trouble with your complexion?
You can probably spot the bits they laced back in, though, since they’re the bits that stick in the mind. The “cracked” montages, as Westlake subjectively loses it, or at a fairground when does objectively ("Take the fucking elephant!") Every melodramatic touch verges on hilarity, and doubtless would have toppled over the brink had Bruce Campbell – the original choice but not a name – played him. “They took my hands!” Peyton exclaims, straight out of a Universal horror. He ricochets from glee in his destruction (“I told you everything” protests Raimi, head stuck up through a manhole in the path of oncoming traffic: “I like to pretend you didn’t” replies Westlake, just before Ted goes splat). As for running extra fast on the roof of a truck… There’s no way any “serious” exec would have let that through.
Peyton: I just need a little time.
McDormand suspected she played her female lead a little too emancipated for the part’s purposes, but you have to look at the kind of character Julie is, succumbing to Friels’ dubious charm while knowing he’s a louse (suggesting a means to ease the symptoms of her grief: “It’s called dancing”) and responding “Honestly, I don’t know” when Peyton asks if she could love him if he was “horribly hurt”. Raimi makes extra certain to show everything about Peyton’s attempts to woo Julie – composer Danny Elfman called it “sad romanticism” – is off, setting their reunion at a graveyard and following it up with the fairground trauma. The scenes are queasy and utterly wrong, emphasising Peyton as a delusional weirdo. Which he is.
The picture is suffused with hi-energy set pieces, and not only with the stunts of the stylishly clad – and effectively gruey-ly made up – Westlake jumping and leaping out of the way of explosions or hanging off a helicopter (some of the effects work isn’t so hot, but that kind of works for Darkman’s exploitation-y, comic-y vibe). There’s bags of inventiveness in the set ups too, particularly with the kind of madcap doppelganger interactions previously found in Innerspace and that year’s Total Recall. Nicholas Worth gets befuddled at apparently having stolen a briefcase full of money (a lady screams at seeing both his body on the roof of a car and Westlake’s version looking on from a bench). Drake, relishing every beat as a villain, finds himself facing himself (“Whose little boy are you?”), before getting caught in a revolving door with Westlake.
Indeed, Drake is also given the pre-credits scene, complete with cigar cutter used to indelicate purpose, to himself (“Three. I’ve got seven more points”). Anyone thinking this might have been a new dawn for hugely inventive studio movies would have been sorely mistaken, however. When Sam went full-on blockbuster for Spider-Man twelve years later, he mostly tied down the camera, and largely great as his trilogy is, he definitely lost something through obeying the rules (not least with For Love of the Game and Oz the Great and Powerful).
Peyton: I’m learning to live with a lot of things.
Sean Daniel, former Universal production president, suggested Darkman “would not have opened at No. 1 without ‘Who is Darkman?’” Which may be true; it was certainly a top-notch ad campaign. Raimi’s movie didn’t quite knock Exorcist III off the top (the sequel fell all the way to No.6 in its second week), but it definitely announced itself in no uncertain terms. Darkman may only have made the Top 40 domestic releases for the year, but it came cheap, and did much better (relatively) than big hopefuls like Predator 2, Air America, Gremlins 2 and Robocop 2. Curiously, it has hardly aged at all either. It was cheap and cheerful at the time, and now, its stylistic efforts only count in its favour. Sam needs to dwell on the positives with this one.