“What is it about the dark? What secrets does it hold?” —Liam Neeson, Darkman
“Who Is Darkman?” In the summer of 1990, that was a question not on anyone’s lips, despite Universal’s best efforts to sell Sam Raimi’s original antihero on the cheap in the dregs of late August. Though I’m not entirely convinced Darkman could be a hit in any era, at least without first being branded by Marvel or DC, the film was nonetheless a good decade ahead of its time. Despite Tim Burton’s efforts to add some darker shadings to the Batman franchise—or at least make it a few stops removed from the kid-friendly, candy-colored camp of the TV series—he didn’t go all the way, and Joel Schumacher’s third and fourth entries in the series represented a fatal backslide. It was Raimi himself, tasked with reviving Spider-Man in 2002, who helped usher in a more modern conception of a superhero as conflicted, consumed with guilt and self-doubt, and yes, given to shedding a tear or two. By the time Christopher Nolan came along with Batman Begins a few years later, he didn’t have to worry about audiences only accepting frivolous superheroes; suddenly, the opposite was true.
In retrospect, Darkman was a key transitional film: It retains the pulpy, fun cartoonishness of Burton’s Batman movies—and with an obligatory Danny Elfman score, to boot—while forging a stormier, more tortured and at times floridly operatic path to the future. Harnessing all the gonzo visual energy of his Evil Dead movies, Raimi creates a world that pays dutiful homage to comic books and ‘30s Universal monster movies, yet with an unmistakable strain of melancholy. The mix of old-fashioned melodrama and wacky comedy can be a little disorienting, especially when the line between the two grows faint, but the common denominator is a fevered intensity that never lets up. Whether or not you think Raimi succeeds—and I’d put the underrated Darkman among his best work (Evil Dead 2, Spider-Man 2, and A Simple Plan are others)—you could never accuse him of half-assing it.
He also has an ace in the hole in Liam Neeson, who proved himself a soulful action hero in Darkman and didn’t get another opportunity to do it again until his recent Steven Seagal-like bonesnapper Taken. At a lanky 6’4”—which makes him Manute Bol to the generally shrimpy Hollywood set—Neeson belies his imposing frame with disarming gentleness; his courtship of the slight Judy Davis in Husbands & Wives, for example, made him look helpless and exposed, chopped at the knees by Davis’ famously withering gaze. Neeson’s performance in Taken is by far the film’s strongest element, precisely because he isn’t Seagal; when called upon, he can project equal parts strength and sensitivity without having to fall back on the tough-guy stoicism of born action stars. His role in Darkman requires an imposing presence and a bruised soul, and there are very few actors, now or then, that can embody both at once.
After opening with a deliriously staged turf war on the docks—a setpiece that crosses an Old West showdown, a messy gangland shootout, and the graphic exaggeration of The Warriors—Darkman settles on Peyton Westlake (Neeson), a scientist working on a synthetic skin composite that would be a major breakthrough in reconstructive surgery. The only trouble: The skin cells fall apart after 99 minutes, for reasons he can’t figure out. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), while working as a corporate lawyer, comes across an incriminating secret memo that ties a developer to bribery deals with city officials. Local enforcer Robert Durant (Larry Drake) and his evil henchman pay a visit to Peyton’s lab on the very same evening he discovers that it’s light sources that are making the skin cells unstable. No matter: In shaking him down for the memo, Durant and his boys scorch his hands into burnt toast, dunk his head in a vat of acid, and leave him to die in a massive explosion. Check out the great dissolve from Linda’s reaction to the explosion to her appearance in funeral garb:
Incredibly, Peyton survives the blast and a team of doctors, working in secret, tries to revive him. (Even they’re cynical about his chances, though: “Personally, I give him a nine on the buzzard scale.”) The big revelation is that this gauzed-up shell of a man can’t feel physical pain anymore—one doctor delights in poking him with a pin—but the downside to his diminished senses is that his psychic stress increases exponentially. Now surging with adrenaline, his emotions are amplified, which increases his feelings of loneliness and alienation, and opens him up to bouts of uncontrollable rage. Once Peyton breaks free from the hospital, he’s still too unsightly to engage in any human interaction, which deepens his misery and turns him into a reclusive, half-mad Phantom Of The Opera figure. But there’s still some humanity left in him and some scientific know-how, too, so he works to rebuild his laboratory in an abandoned warehouse, perfect his synthetic skin formula, take revenge on the goons that maimed him, and maybe try to get back together with his girlfriend in the bargain.
Raimi has a lot of fun with Neeson as emo vigilante—in one scene, Peyton’s frustration grows so extreme that he puts a metal funnel on his head and starts running around like the Tin Man—but he takes his hero’s miseries seriously, too. It’s only natural that caped crusaders of any stripe are doomed to loneliness—Superman doesn’t retreat to the Fortress Of Chums, after all—and Darkman pushes that idea to new extremes. After the accident, Peyton operates entirely in the shadows, muttering bitter little soliloquies to himself and nurturing his anger with the tenderness he extends to a stray kitten (which hisses at him, of course). The tension, humor, and surprising poignancy of Darkman come from Peyton’s agonizing attempts to rejoin the human race. When he throws on a synthetic mask for 99 minutes, he can look the part (and snag a few baffled thugs while he’s at it), but beneath the skin, he’s still a cauldron of barely contained rage. In the funniest scene in the movie, he takes out his aggression on a carny who refuses to give up the pink elephant he rightfully earned:
The “pink elephant” scene is just a taste of the dazzlingly baroque style that Raimi brings to the table. Employing the brilliant Pablo Ferro for the title design and montage effects—Ferro, an innovator nearly on par with Saul Bass, was responsible for the hand-drawn credits for Dr. Strangelove and the multi-box effects on the original Thomas Crown Affair—Raimi projects the inside of Peyton’s troubled mind as a maelstrom of misfiring synapses and mad science. The scene of Peyton working in his improvised lab are a callback to Dr. Frankenstein in James Whale’s Universal classic from 1931, only the thunder and lightning are internalized, and Ferro’s delirious montage sequences express that with comic-book flair. (Bonus points for the hilariously analog technology of Peyton’s lab, too: The equipment includes an outboard motor, water coolers suspended from the ceiling, a fire pit, and a repurposed copy machine.)
Peyton’s existential struggle is so compelling that it’s almost a shame that Darkman has to hit the obligatory action beats; smaller sequences of Peyton disguising himself to fuck with his enemies are more satisfying than the big rooftop-and-helicopter chase in the finale. Yet Darkman is uncompromising in revealing the futility of Peyton’s rehabilitation; with his fluid identity and simmering emotions, he’ll always have to struggle to hold onto himself and keep from slipping into madness. The one semi-optimistic note is that he’s learning to adapt to a life that’s eternally cursed and that he has the strength to keep his sanity while emerging from the shadows to do some good once in a while. The closing bit of narration makes for a great super-antihero’s credo: “I’m everyone. I’m no one. Everywhere. Nowhere. Call me ‘Darkman.’”
Next week: Lost Highway
July 16: [Vacation.]
July 23: Pootie Tang
July 30: Beetlejuice