Written by Sam Raimi, Chuck Pfarrer, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, and Joshua Goldin
Directed by Sam Raimi
What do you do when you want to make a superhero movie, but you don’t have the rights to any superheroes? Well, you invent your own. That’s what filmmaker Sam Raimi did as he embarked on making his first Hollywood studio feature. Originally, Raimi wanted to make a movie about Batman or The Shadow; however those characters were already in development with other directors at the time. Raimi managed to combine the shadow mystery men of comic books’ Golden Age with the brooding angst of classic Universal monsters to bring audiences Darkman.
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is working on synthetic skin to help burn victims, but his creation dissolves after 99 minutes. Meanwhile, his girlfriend, attorney Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), has uncovered a memo that proves developer Louis Strack has been bribing city officials and members of the zoning commission. Once Julie reveals she has the document, a group of mobsters led by Robert Durant (Larry Drake) show up at the couple’s apartment/laboratory where they proceed to brutalize Westlake and blow up the building. Julie believes Westlake is dead but is unaware that his body was recovered, and he is being treated as a John Doe.
The doctors perform an experimental treatment that severs Westlake’s pain receptors, but they warn the lack of physical stimulus can lead to an overload in emotional spikes. The scarred scientist escapes the hospital and recovers some of his old equipment determined to recreate his skin and fix the 99-minute problem. Needing money and a chance for revenge, Westlake uses his synthetic skin to poses as the men who dealt him this terrible blow, turning them on each other and acquiring their protection money to fund his own interests.
Darkman is a hell of a lot of fun to watch. I never saw the uncut version, having been relegated to the edited for television presentation recorded onto a blank VHS when I was a kid. I loved that movie then, and I love it even more now for how unabashedly over the top the whole affair becomes. Raimi did not pull back any of his sensibilities moving from low budget indie pictures to this studio affair. It feels like a Raimi movie in the sudden shock of melodrama and the wild camera angles.
There is a particular moment that had me howling on this revisit. Westlake, wearing his temporary fake skin, is on a date with Julie at a Boardwalk fair. He manages to channel his rage to knock down some metal bottles to win a stuffed animal for his girl. The carnie monotonously argues that Westlake’s foot was over the line, so no prize. We get the beautiful rage montage showing our protagonist snapping, made worse by the carnie poking him in the chest with two fingers. Westlake proceeds to snap the fingers, eliciting a howl from the carnie, the camera swings to Westlake’s face (underlit by some dramatic lighting choices) growling in rage, then the camera swings to Julie screeching in horror. Westlake grabs the plush and puts a period on the scene by saying to Julie, “Take the fucking elephant!” It’s just so over the top and bonkers, so much fun to watch.
Raimi is very obviously inspired by classic stories such as The Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Elephant Man, and Frankenstein. There’s a mad scientist’s laboratory carved out in the hulk of an abandoned warehouse, a motif that would return in the director’s Spider-Man 2. Those Gothic narratives inform Darkman’s tone by not necessarily the aesthetics. Everything is lit incredibly bright compared to Burton’s Batman from the previous year, and the result is Darkman feels more like a comic book than that other film. Whereas Burton has gone on record passionately pointing out he doesn’t read comic books, Raimi is an unabashed fan of the medium since his childhood. Those sentiments show in the filmmaking.
Watching Darkman will lead to two things. You will have so much fun with an action superhero movie that knows what it is and enjoys being silly and melodramatic. Second, you will get that much more hyped about Raimi’s directing of the upcoming Doctor Strange film. If Marvel has the good sense, they will step away and just let Mr. Raimi do his thing. Raimi has shown us repeatedly he knows how to make fun, comic book movies, and he’s a big fan of Doctor Strange. If you look at how much fun he had getting wild with something like Darkman, I can only imagine how good it will be when he’s handed the multiverse and asked to go nuts with it. If you have never seen Darkman, get on that stat!