In a bout of Catching Up! Here is Darrell Buxton’s introduction to Darkman, that screened at QUAD in Derby, UK on 17th March, 2017.
Hello and welcome to QUAD for tonight’s presentation in our regular Fright Club slot. We’re going back to 1990 this evening for a fresh look at Sam Raimi’s very underrated major studio debut, DARKMAN.
An online article by Vadim Rizov, penned for the Vulture.com website three years ago, mulled over the way in which Liam Neeson’s career had mutated into that of a sort of 21st century Charles Bronson. Rizov cited the TAKEN franchise, and titles such as NON-STOP and UNKNOWN, as evidence that Neeson, a versatile actor with varying screen credits, had reinvented himself in recent times as a vengeful, scowling, pissed off gun-toting vigilante action hero. If there’s any truth in that, and it’s difficult to argue against the theory, then maybe DARKMAN was an early pointer along the way.
To set matters in perspective, bear in mind that the would-be blockbuster offerings of 1990 all arrived in the wake of Tim Burton’s magnificent revival of BATMAN, a deserved smash hit the previous summer. Not only was BATMAN a box office winner, but for me there was a real sense that it achieved something pretty rare – it genuinely seemed to cause a major shift in the tastes of the mass global audience. In the wake of being introduced to Burton’s gloomy, pessimistic but still wildly vivid and entertaining vision, it was as though mainstream moviegoers had somehow been infected with a taste for the shadier side of storytelling, now accepting of the macabre, of the bleak, of gallows humour, and of the idea that mumbling, depressed, schizophrenic and downright frightening figures could topline a grand motion picture experience. This probably led on to the success of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, really quite unthinkable a couple of years earlier – and ultimately to today, and the way in which your granny will happily sit down in front of a box set of ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘The Walking Dead’ without a murmur. The immediate influence of BATMAN was seen in the crop of 1990 releases, none of which copied Burton’s film directly but many of which skirted around and dabbled with its moodier, disquieting approach. Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY, Adrian Lyne’s JACOB’S LADDER, Joel Schumacher’s FLATLINERS all brought a darker vision to the biggest multiplex screens, and even items like GOODFELLAS, GHOST and HOME ALONE possessed a sensibility and an edge that may not have previously been familiar to respective fans of gangster, romance, or family fun flicks.
So the BATMAN effect spread through Hollywood, in places both obvious and unexpected – but probably nowhere more so than in DARKMAN. Young director Sam Raimi had made a sensational breakthrough in the eighties with instant horror classics THE EVIL DEAD and EVIL DEAD II, and it was no surprise when the larger studios came calling. Indeed, Raimi had himself considered reviving the long-dormant Batman character but was beaten to the concept, so when offered the opportunity to film for Universal, decided to redevelop a short story treatment he had written that featured a tormented central figure in the style of Universal’s own classic monsters of the 1920s and 30s, often downtrodden or destroyed wrecks of men driven by desire or vengeance to assert themselves using a mixture of guile and violence.
The colour palette of DARKMAN reflects these influences – just note how many shots have a muted look about them, with murky brown tones, use of contrasting shadow and light, and often seeming almost entirely bathed in sepia or even resembling the monochrome images from the past that had so inspired Raimi. The plot, too, is a good old-fashioned revenge saga, with elements of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE INVISIBLE MAN well to the fore; Neeson, though horribly disfigured, makes for a dashing anti-hero in his jaunty wide-brimmed hat and sweeping, swirling cape. Frances McDormand’s female lead is somewhat underwritten, but she still works wonders with the role and is seen at her sassy best in the early stages, again channelling those wisecracking blonde heroines of the 1930s shockers. And in the year of GOODFELLAS, Larry Drake’s stogie-chomping villain Robert G. Durant rivals anything in Scorsese’s gangland filmography, stealing every scene.
The 1932 Michael Curtiz classic DOCTOR X provides one key plot point, as Raimi apes that movie’s invention of a synthetic fake flesh – though Sam also looks to the future, as scientist and researcher Neeson seems to be utilising a primitive prototype of today’s 3D scanners and printers to help make his dream a reality. The moulding of artificial skin leads to several wonderful scenes in which Neeson mocks himself up into facsimiles of his enemies, which allows the likes of Drake and Nicholas Worth to show their acting chops as they have to play their own bad-guy characters as well as deftly impersonating Liam impersonating them! Raimi’s direction is superb, filling the film with his trademark cartoon mayhem and wonderful visual gags – while, direct from BATMAN, composer Danny Elfman offers a score which sets the mood to perfection, maybe less rousing than his work for Tim Burton but proving ideal for this project. And if DARKMAN, now almost thirty years old, might be looking a little dated, it does so in an absolutely charming way – ok, you might be able to see the join here and there in the effects shots or the back projections, but this only adds to the comic book aesthetic.
The filmmakers did miss one trick – the running time of the movie is 95 minutes, which is four minutes shorter than the lifespan of the fake epidermis created by Neeson in the lab. It might have been nice to just extend proceedings to the 99 minute mark as a neat tie-in. They more than make up for this truncation, however, with a surprise guest appearance right at the end, pure heaven for Raimi fans!
Ok, enjoy the movie – and one final word of warning. Do be careful with that cigar-cutter…