“Take the f***ing elephant!” Darkman is thirty years old!

 

On 16th November 1990 (UK) director Sam Raimi introduced us to a new superhero… Darkman!

Based on a short story by Raimi who, having failed in getting the rights to both The Shadow and Batman, wanted to create something that paid homage to the style of those classic 1930’s Universal horror movies, Darkman is the story of scientist Peyton Westlake (played with rising manic glee by Liam Neeson) who is disfigured and left for dead in an explosion by the goons of bad guy real estate developer Louis Stack and his main muscle, Robert Durant (played by the brilliant Larry Drake, from LA Law, channelling Edward G Robinson).

Darkman

You see Peyton’s girlfriend, Julie Hastings (played by future Oscar winner Frances McDormand), has uncovered proof that Louis Stack has been bribing councillors to get his building plans pushed through. His men were looking for this document when they raided the lab.
Peyton, having survived and undergone emergency experimental surgery, loses the ability to feel pain.  His other senses become heightened and he slowly starts to lose his mind, becoming increasingly psychotic as he escapes from hospital and embarks on getting his vengeance.

Scientist Peyton was working on a synthetic liquid skin to help burns victims. However, the skin only keeps its shape for a short period of time before dissolving into a messy pulp. He recreates this technology in a makeshift lab he has set-up in an abandoned building to create a mask of his own face so that he can go out in public. It is also possible to replicate ANY face and so he soon starts to assimilate himself into Durant’s mob so he can exact his revenge. The way he sews dissent amongst the ranks is clever, and the countdown he has before the masks lose their integrity adds to the frantic nature of these scenes.

 

This is Sam Raimi’s first Hollywood movie.

Already a cult legend with The Evil Dead (1 & 2), as you follow his career it’s easy to see why he ended up directing the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movie a decade later. His frantic and kinetic style of camera work is all over Darkman and the film literally jumps off the screen at the viewer. From explosions and gunfire to Liam Neeson maniacally gurning at the camera as Peyton’s mania worsens, it’s a film that simply does not stop moving. The moment in which Peyton, having survived the explosion, wakes and escapes from hospital is very close to the Doc Ock hospital scene from Spider-Man 2 and, again, you get the impression Sam Raimi is throwing everything at the screen.

There is a scene where Peyton, wearing his freshly created face mask and having revealed himself to still be alive, is with his girlfriend at a funfair. They are having a great time, and he tries to win her an elephant at a stall. He succeeds in throwing a ball and knocking down some pins and asks the stallholder for a pink elephant. He is told that he was not “standing behind the line” and so he did not win a prize. Peyton snaps and, oh boy, does he snap! The camera work is let loose; the camera spins, changing between shots of fairground rides and screaming punters to the heavily breathing Peyton grimacing in anger. The carny prods Peyton in the chest, telling him to leave, and gets his fingers broken as a result. Peyton freaks out, runs off, and Julie chases him. He has vanished, but she sees the mask of his face on the floor and realises what has happened.

Interestingly this was the first film to cast Liam Neeson in a revenge-seeking action role, predating his late-career turn in films such as Taken. The role was originally intended for Raimi’s friend and genre legend Bruce Campbell, and it’s easy to see why; the manic energy of Darkman is certainly in Campbell’s wheelhouse, but the suits at Universal Pictures didn’t think he was able to carry the lead. They wanted Bill Paxton or Gary Oldman for the role but, when they declined, Liam Neeson (recently seen in the disjointed ghostly comedy High Spirits) got the part. To give him his dues, Neeson did his research, speaking to a charity that helped burned victims deal with the emotional as well as physical effects of injuries.

Bruce Campbell

 

Speaking of casting.

Julia Roberts was lined up to play Peyton’s key-to-the-plot girlfriend but instead went off to film Pretty Woman (which was probably the best decision of her career).

It’s a great comic book movie (not based on a comic book) and Raimi’s love of slapstick really makes the comedy moments stand out, adding to the craziness of Peyton’s character as he becomes more unhinged. The spinning camera moves, sudden zooms combined with crashing sound and a cast who are clearly having a ball chewing the scenery all add to the feel of the piece, inviting the viewer into this surreal world that is about as realistic as a Looney Tunes cartoon.

 

Raimi is in his element here.

Not being tied to a known brand, he is able to dig into the sheer lunacy of the superhero movie and both exposes and subverts the cliches we have now gotten used to after a decade of Marvel and DC movies. Darkman himself is not your usual sympathetic hero character; Peyton is single-minded, selfish, egotistical and his behaviour veers close to being just as bad as those of his enemies. It’s a fine line, and somehow Raimi and Neeson keep him just the right side of being a complete dick. Not an easy task.

As I’ve mentioned, this film has very strong visual links to Raimi’s later work on the Spider-Man movies. We all know how that fell apart by the time the third of those was released but, at their core, when Raimi lets loose, you could easily see the Darkman character fitting into that world. Raimi, responsible for the story and co-wrote the screenplay, understands that comic book dialogue needs to sound worthy and dramatic and yet straddles that line between operatic and parody. Neeson, understanding both the pathos and insanity of the role, selling lines such as “I’m learning to live with a lot of things” and “What is it about the dark? What secret does it hold?” with a straight face.

It’s a fun dopey action movie that has everything from people firing rocket launchers to Darkman dangling from a helicopter and crashing into an office building window (“Excuse me,” he apologises) before being dragged back out into the air. If you remember seeing the film you’ll know how underrated within the genre it is and, if you’ve never seen it, put it on and buckle up!

 

“I’m everyone and no one.  Everywhere… nowhere.  Call me… Darkman!”

 

 

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