Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for Cineplex’s The Great Digital Film Festival. For more information visit cineplex.com/Events/DigitalFilmFest and follow cineplex on Twitter @cineplexmovies.
A cult favorite and often described as being ahead of its time, Sam Raimi’s Darkman was a surprise hit at the box office in the late summer of 1990. As a follow up to Evil Dead II (1987), Raimi wanted to helm a film based on the radio classic “The Shadow,” but when the rights proved elusive, he created his own dark anti-hero, an amalgam of old-time radio, comic books, movie serials of the 1940s, and more. Combining his inventive visual style with camp humor, melodrama, high action and genuine emotion, Raimi crafted a unique and timeless film, one David Edelstein aptly called “a melancholy symphony for orchestra and whoopee cushion.”
Combining his inventive visual style with camp humor, melodrama, high action and genuine emotion, Raimi crafted a unique and timeless film …
Scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is on the verge of developing a synthetic skin for medical use, but can’t solve the problem of the skin disintegrating after 99 minutes of exposure to light. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand), a lawyer, stumbles across an incriminating memo that proves payoffs have been made to the mob regarding a riverfront development project. When she leaves the memo behind at Westlake’s laboratory, mobster Robert Durant (Larry Drake) comes calling, killing Westlake’s lab assistant and torching the place, leaving the scientist for dead.
The authorities believe Westlake’s lab blew up because of a simple accident and assume he was incinerated in the blast. But Westlake isn’t dead. Found critically injured and without identification, he’s used as a guinea pig for a new treatment for extensive burns: the severing of nerves in his spinal cord. Unfortunately, this end to his physical pain means the amplification of his emotional pain. Distraught and overwhelmed, he escapes the hospital, hell bent on revenge. Concocting a new batch of synthetic skin, Westlake takes on the identities of others as he begins a violent campaign against all those who have done him wrong.
His rage is understandable, of course; it’s almost as though all of society had been trying to destroy him. He apparently couldn’t attract the interest of the scientific community regarding his major breakthroughs in synthetic skin, his girlfriend was about to turn down his marriage proposal, the mob wanted him dead out of pure spite, and even the doctor who treated his burns didn’t give a damn about the man underneath the melted skin.
Darkman is a kids’ movie all grown up, the humor and absurdity of life rendered in broad melodrama with adult-sized portions …
Westlake is a brilliant man, honest and earnest and with the undeniable ability to have chosen a path that was far more sane and good than turning into a bloodthirsty vigilante. That he chose darkness isn’t surprising; we all falter sometimes when faced with our own inability to control the world. In Darkman, much of that fight against our cosmic helplessness is rendered in slapstick and farce. Darkman is a kids’ movie all grown up, the humor and absurdity of life rendered in broad melodrama with adult-sized portions of violence punctuating it all, and a decidedly bleak moral: we as human beings don’t really want fairness. We want revenge.
Darkman bears the unmistakable look of a Sam Raimi film: the canted angles, the inevitable and gruesome death of a hapless character played by Ted Raimi, and the dolly zooms that give you all the fun of a carnival ride without the need to down a Dramamine first. In Darkman, we see Raimi’s indulgence in an almost endless series of references to classic characters of the past. There’s the distinctive feel of early Universal Studios horror running throughout, coupled with a story right out of a 1930s Warner Bros. drama. To top it all off, Darkman has more horror movie and comic book references than you can shake a coffee-stained memo at. Influences from Frankenstein to The Incredible Hulk to The Abominable Dr. Phibes to Lon Chaney to the films of Brian de Palma are here, and more; if you don’t like one cinematic callback, just wait, because there will be another, and another, and another.
That’s not to say the film lacks originality, because Darkman is not about originality per se, but about nostalgia, and the repurposing of old tropes to explore new issues. Darkman is a good old-fashioned revenge flick with a crackerjack ending, a touching and perverse and often hilarious yarn that never lets up. But more than that, it is a film made by someone whose love for the genre is so great it practically pours off the big screen. It’s Raimi’s indisputable joy of filmmaking that makes Darkman a joy to watch.
Darkman is a good old-fashioned revenge flick with a crackerjack ending, a touching and perverse and often hilarious yarn that never lets up. But more than that, it is a film made by someone whose love for the genre is so great it practically pours off the big screen.