Julien Neaves – Editor
The year is 1990. Everyone is dancing around in Hammer pants, drinking Capri Sun and singing Nothing Compares 2 U, poorly. Director Sam Raimi has four films under his belt, including the first two Evil Dead flicks, and he is still more than a decade away from his first Spider-Man film. But Sammy boy is jonesing to get in on the superhero action, especially a dark hero. So Batman? No rights for you, sucka! Tim Burton got that on lockdown. Thirties pulp hero The Shadow? Nope. Sorry. So what does he do? He makes up his own hero.
And thus Darkman was born. The film was released on August 24, 1990 and to celebrate the 30 year anniversary we are going to be revisiting this odd mash up of genres that spawned an unlikely and somewhat forgotten superhero. With no limit on SPOILERS (it’s been three decades people, geez!) let’s break it down in three slices. And fair warning, Darkman is pretty hideous so you may not want to look at him while having lunch. #justsaying
Slice 1: The Hero We Didn’t Know We Wanted
Raimi’s influences on the character are very apparent. He sneaks around in the shadows like Batman, dresses like The Shadow and is disfigured like a vintage horror movie monster. But unlike Batman, he has no “one rule” and will kill you in graphic fashion and cackle right after. Cherry dude. And another aspect that makes him standout among the crowd is his ability to disguise himself as anyone using 99-minute masks a la Mission Impossible. He receives a crazy medical procedure where he can longer feel any sensations and also makes him super strong. You know, that old chestnut.
In the film Darkman and his alter ego scientist Dr Peyton Westlake are played by Liam Neeson, who was a long way from being a post-Taken action star. Peyton goes from wide eyed dreamer to manic revenge machine. It is an intense performance and at times it can be a bit much.
And you can’t have a great anti-hero without a great villain. And Darkman’s nemesis is crime boss Robert G. Durant, a cigar smoking, finger collecting, merciless bastard. The character is played with relish by Larry Drake who was best known for playing affable and developmentally disabled Benny the office assistant on L.A. Law. Talk about playing against type. He also departed from his nice guy persona in the cult horror film Dr Giggles. But back to his role in Darkman.
Durant is assisted by a wacky crew of gangsters including a geek protege Ricky (Raimi’s brother and frequent collaborator Ted), Skip who has a wooden leg gun and randomly disappears before the end of the film, and the bulky Pauly who looks like budget modern Bruce Willis. After they brutally murder Peyton’s assistant and torture him almost to death you don’t feel an ounce of sympathy when they are killed one by one. Also on the bad guy side is corrupt developer Louis Strack Jr (Colin Friels) who really captures the sleazy corporate type and has a fondness for heights. Future Oscar winner Frances McDormand plays Peyton’s love interest Julie and she does a lot with her limited role and really invests a humanity into the damsel in distress.
Slice 2: Crazy Sights and Sounds
Let me just get this out of the way – the unmasked Darkman is grotesque. He is really not easy to look at. Kudos for Raimi and co. for going all out with the makeup but I think the horrible look alone may have turned off some audiences. There are also some nightmarish dream sequences and actual scenes that dip into the murky horror pool. Remember that scene where Peyton freaks out and twists that carnie’s fingers right back. What the hell? So yeah, Darkman is not one for the kiddies.
The music is gothic and immersive and if it reminds you of Batman that is because composer Danny Elfman did the themes as well. If you can’t get Batman, then get the guy who did his music. Makes sense. And it does sound a bit like the music B-roll from the 1989 Batman but it is still entertaining.
Slice 3: The Bad and the Good
The film is not without its flaws. The plot is your typical revenge-get-all-the-bad-guys kind of story which had already become a trope at this point with films like Death Wish and the like. There is the plot point of the fake skin lasting longer in the dark that does not go anywhere other than the inspiration for the name. Then we have the scene where Julie finds the incriminating memo on Strack’s desk? Dude, shouldn’t you have kept that in a vault? And then right after Julie heads to Darkman’s secret lair and leads all the bad guys to him. Come on, Julie is a bit smarter than that. Plot contrivance much?
And finally there is the scene where the smiley henchman tries to grab the tic toc birdie before it hits the lighter and blows him up, only to realise it is a hologram. He turns to see the real items have been created and everything goes BOOM. Now hold up a sec. Prior to this we have only seen Darkman create skin, nothing else. These items are glass, plastic or metal and with other components. This isn’t a Star Trek replicator. So while the scene looks cool it makes zero sense from a narrative perspective.
But the film was a box office success and received great critical response. Neeson, McDormand and Drake deliver stellar performances and the action scenes are intense and exhilarating. I enjoyed Darkman when it first came out and again when I rewatched it for this article. While it may feel a bit dated compared to modern CGI superhero blockbusters it is still entertaining, still fun and the character is still an engrossing one. And I think it still holds up well.
Slice 4: Dark Legacy
The film spawned two direct-to-video sequels with Neeson replaced by then unknown (and still relatively unknown) Arnold Vosloo, who went on to play Imhotep in the Mummy films. And credit to him for not trying to imitate Neeson. He plays a more sedate, more resigned version of the character with only occasional freak outs. His acting does get very hammy at times but it is not too bad. The first sequel was The Return of Durant (1995) which saw Drake reprising the eponymous role and getting top billing. He played a great baddie so this move was understandable. And the film is, well, more Darkman. Durant is back and killing subordinates and cracking wise, but he is much less cool and has a much less interesting crew of henchmen. His plan to get a supergun and sell it feels very campy as well.
In terms of supporting characters the film falls down hard. There is generic scientist guy who gets tortured in a manner similar to how Peyton was tortured in the first film. It is supposed to be a callback but it feels more like a rehash. And the character is so thin and undeveloped you really don’t care about him. Another thin character is his sister, played by pre-Xena: Warrior Princess Renee O’Connor who is a stripper with the most 90s poofy hair. Her hairdo was more interesting than her and I was not invested in the character whatsoever. The sequel has some interesting moments, including the introduction of Darkman travelling via subway lines in his makeshift transport, and there are some decent kills and moments. But it does not do a whole lot to take the character nor the franchise forward.
I enjoyed the third film Die Darkman Die (best subtitle ever!) more than the sequel as it felt like a natural progression from the original film. It stars Jeff Fahey as smooth criminal mastermind Peter Rooker, and like Drake he gets top billing as well. No love for the Vosloo. In this film Darkman gets betrayed by one of the doctors who originally operated on him in a plot to steal the secret of his strength, which was an interesting twist. We also have Darkman pretending to be Rooker and accidentally bonding with his wife Angela (Roxann Dawson, just a year off of Star Trek: Voyager) and young daughter Jenny. The arc of Darkman struggling with his attachment for the family is very well done and he has great chemistry with Angela. Like Julie, Angela does not have a lot to do but Dawson delivers a believable, sympathetic character.
Through his borrowed family Darkman gets a glimpse of what a normal life could have been and it is very touching. Fahey is also delightful as the sociopath Rooker. There is a scene where he murders his mistress in front of his wife and tells her “it was all for you” which was quite chilling. His death scene is also very grisly which I enjoyed.
The franchise also went into comics and there was an unaired TV pilot which saw Drake return Durant. And I could see Darkman working well now in a TV series, either on HBO or Netflix. Make it dark, gory and over the top. This is really the perfect time for the character to make his triumphant return. The Swamp Thing series was a wonderful blend of superhero and horror and we are getting a new Spawn movie with Jamie Foxx, so why not let Darkman step back into the spotlight?
So if you are a Darkman fan shout me out in the comments and feel free to like this article. For more horror-inspired superhero fare you can check out my review of the Swamp Thing TV series here. And for more nostalgic reviews you can follow Redmangoreviews on Facebook here.
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film, creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”.
I can also be found posting on Instagram as redmanwriter and talking about TV and movie stuff on Facebook at Movieville.