Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That Would Be Just Fine

I can remember the months of anticipation back in 1990 waiting for the release of DARKMAN, Sam Raimi’s followup to his masterpiece EVIL DEAD II. The director appeared at the Fangoria convention in New York at the very beginning of the year and I can remember him just hanging out in the back of the auditorium freely chatting with people—I still have the Darkman t-shirt he gave me, though it’s pretty ratty and small by now. But it wasn’t until months later in August at the very end of summer when the film was finally released, backed by a pretty fantastic campaign by Universal that trumpeted “Who is DARKMAN?” I was there for the very first show, after which I snuck into another screen at the multiplex to see MY BLUE HEAVEN. Let’s just say that the afternoon peaked early. I’ve always had a fondness for DARKMAN for all sorts of reasons and it was a blast to see it again this past weekend when the New Beverly ran it at midnight on Saturday because it was New Bev regular Cathie’s birthday. DARKMAN, you see, is Cathie’s favorite movie. Why? Because Cathie is awesome.

Scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is experimenting with a type of synthetic skin that could revolutionize the field but is unable to get the cells to stay together past 99 minutes. Just as he simultaneously is proposing marriage to lawyer girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand) as well as achieving a breakthrough in discovering that the skin will stay together in the dark (“What is it about the dark? What secret does it hold?”) everything comes to a sudden end when his lab is broken into by a team of thugs led by mobster Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake) looking for “the Belisarius memorandum” an incriminating document that Julie accidentally left behind which links property developer Louis Strack (Colin Friels) to certain payouts. Durant and his men destroy the lab, presumably killing Westlake in the process. But Westlake managed to survive, only horribly maimed with burns covering much of his body but when brought to a hospital he has his nerves severed so he will not feel pain, an experimental technique that also amplifies the emotions wreaking havoc on his mental state. Recovering what he can from the wreckage of his laboratory, Westlake seeks refuge in an abandoned warehouse and continues his experiments, fully intent on seeking revenge against the ones who destroyed his life using the very process he has been creating.

Seen all these years later, DARKMAN can be looked at as Raimi’s style continuing to develop, moving from what should probably be called the ‘pure cinema’ of EVIL DEAD II towards the more traditional narratives in the films that he directed in the late nineties which of course led to the SPIDER-MAN movies. There’s a slight awkwardness present which comes from the feeling that the film is tossing a massive amount of elements into the mix from Neeson’s huge emoting to the dark comedy involving his character assuming various villain’s identities to lots of bombastic action to whatever is going on between Larry Drake and Ted Raimi’s characters to the more operatic moments involving Friels’ Louis Strack….this could be an even longer run-on sentence and the extreme shifts in tone don’t always feel exactly elegant. I haven’t even delved into the Belisarius memorandum, which is probably one of the more ludicrous excuses for a McGuffin in film history. What holds the movie together isn’t the script, which in fairness is decent (there is also a certain resemblance to ROBOCOP in the plotting) but with multiple writers credited the stitching shows. Instead, it’s Raimi’s clear love for putting it all together. With everything going on, DARKMAN is consistently exciting and all these years after it was made it’s still an absolute blast to watch. There’s something about it’s scrappiness and nuttiness that even now puts a goofy grin on my face and even if the SPIDER-MAN films are probably “better” in a number of ways in another ten years or so I think I’ll still want to see this one instead. Even the Danny Elfman score, which has always been criticized for its BATMAN resemblance, is an extremely successful glue that holds the picture together and is also a nice reminder of when these scores (and these films) were actually, unapologetically fun. You can feel Sam Raimi’s glee throughout from the surveillance camera coverage of the convenience store robbery to Neeson’s breakdown during the carnival sequence, not to mention the more extreme examples of Raimi’s visual style like the celebrated dissolve involving Frances McDormand at a big emotional point. The visual invention is varied and continually unexpected throughout. It’s not perfect and given the choice, I honestly prefer the three EVIL DEAD films to this one but with the massive eagerness it displays to give us the most enjoyable 96 minutes imaginable DARKMAN is still too much fun to have any serious complaints. I’m certainly not going to argue too much with Cathie on this one.

Raimi’s lack of hard experience with actors at that point is apparent at times—he reportedly had problems on the set working with friend Frances McDormand—but even if this is the case it still feels like there’s a greater sensitivity displayed towards the love story than you normally get from this type of film. Neeson, even when his features are covered by make up, is particularly terrific in the physical aspects of his performance. He clearly knows how to work with what Raimi’s camera is doing and seems eager to rise to the challenge. As a matter of fact, having several actors ‘play’ Darkman at various points when he is pretending to be them works very well in each case—issues of body mass are ignored, but so what. Larry Drake, midway through his run on L.A. LAW at this point, is fantastic as Robert G. Durant (“The name isn’t Buddy…”) and succeeds at creating a truly iconic villain. It’s a shame that he never got such a meaty role again--and yes, I’ve seen DR. GIGGLES. Jenny Agutter with her sensuous voice is a good choice to deliver all the necessary exposition in her unbilled role as the burn doctor, Ted Raimi’s cartoonish features are well-utilized and familiar character actor Nicholas Worth is a small standout as Pauly, one of Durant’s henchmen. Maybe the similarity to his other henchman in Wes Craven’s SWAMP THING is what caused me to really notice it but the actor gets a few very funny moments when the film focuses on him for a brief stretch.

The film went over great with the crowd at the New Beverly, with a particularly loud wave of applause coming during the final shot for the cameo of…well, you’ve seen the movie so you don’t need me to tell you. Several months ago I attended a screening of Raimi’s upcoming horror film DRAG ME TO HELL, which I would freely describe as playing like something he made in between DARKMAN and ARMY OF DARKNESS but we were only getting to see it now. Anyone who likes how that sounds probably has something to look forward to. Afterwards I briefly shook hands with him, saying how much I enjoyed it and it was nice to see him still friendly, willing to say hello to his fans after all these years. A midnight show of DARKMAN after all this time is a fun reminder of how eager he’s always been to please the fans who cheer his name. It was definitely a terrific night at the New Beverly and an ideal way to celebrate Cathie’s birthday. Yup.


cat said...

Aww, you're awesome too. THANKS for recounting the AWESOME-ness that is DARKMAN!!! It truly was a great night and now I'm again fueled with ADRENALINE!!! Haha!! And that is just fine! yup.

Unknown said...

"With everything going on, DARKMAN is consistently exciting and all these years after it was made it’s still an absolute blast to watch. There’s something about it’s scrappiness and nuttiness that even now puts a goofy grin on my face and even if the SPIDER-MAN films are probably “better” in a number of ways in another ten years or so I think I’ll still want to see this one instead."

Amen, my brother! That's exactly how I feel about DARKMAN as well. And dammit, you stole my thunder as I was thinking about writing something about this film. It is definitely one of my favorite Raimi films and insanely re-watchable. I really like the whole PHANTOM OF THE OPERA meets BATMAN tone that Raimi seemed to be going for. I also think that he was going for a little bit of THE SHADOW as well as he tried to get the rights do that around the time he did DARKMAN so you can see that influence in there as well.

I sure wish Raimi would get around to giving this film the deluxe DVD treatment as he's fond of doing for most of his other films. Of course, Universal isn't exactly the greatest studio for special edition DVDs (geez, how many cracks have they had at THE BIG LEBOWSKI?). I would have loved to have seen this film on the big screen again. I have fond memories of seeing it when it first came out and being absolutely dazzled by Raimi's insane camerawork, esp. during the helicopter chase towards the end.

Great write-up.

Joe Valdez said...

Fantastic write-up of one of the greatest B-movies of all time.

I am thoroughly irritated by the Spiderman films, even the second one, which some people consider a four-star masterpiece.

The best stuff about Spiderman is the business going on in the corners, like J.K. Simmons and Elizabeth Banks at the newspaper, or the Doc Ock hospital freakout sequence in the second film.

With Darkman, the best actors and the coolest sequences are actually in the foreground. Tobey Maguire and Kristen Dunst couldn't deliver a sandwich to Liam Neeson or Frances McDormand and as far as I'm concerned I will take Larry Drake as a bad guy over Wilem Dafoe any day of the week.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


It was an amazing time! I love that you got them to show it. Enjoy that extra adrenaline rush!

J.D. --

Never let me steal your thunder. Write the piece, express what you love about the film. Considering the film of THE SHADOW that did get made a few years later, well, there's no real comparison, is there? A deluxe DVD would be terrific--maybe since he made the new one at Universal the subject has come up. We can hope.


Thanks very, very much for that. I freely admith that I like the SPIDER-MAN films but, even though I've been a fan of that character since I was a little kid, they don't hold much interest for me beyond the first viewing. Maybe you're onto something--the things I always want to see again are the peripheral stuff but in DARKMAN it's all there out in front. The weight the actors bring to it combined with Raimi's style makes it continually rewatchable, even after all these years.

Ned Merrill said...

Hey man,

I was at the Fangoria convention, too! And, I had the DARKMAN t-shirt for many years as well! (Actually, my brother appropriated it from me and I think he may still wear it once in a while). IIRC, there were also t-shirts of THE GUARDIAN (the less said, the better) given away at that event. Great write-up. I'm going to have to revisit this film again because it's been a good 18 or 19 years since I've seen it...holy shit, that can't be right! :-)

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I can't explain why I didn't get one of those GUARDIAN shirts, but I think I'll get over it. I really don't think I want to see that movie again any time soon and I haven't seen it since it played. But thanks very much, glad you liked the piece--see DARKMAN again!

Anonymous said...

Great piece. Joe Valdez said a lot of what I was going to say. "Darkman" is head and shoulders above the "Spider-Man" films, none of which I like and a couple I loathe and I'm a big fan of the character & Sam Raimi.

- Bob

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much. There's something...scrappy about it that maybe will make it more endearing in the long run. At least, I could believe that's how fans of Raimi will think of it.

cat said...

DARKMAN is a big influence to Sam's future work, I mean looking at SPIDER-MAN there's a lot of shots that were already used in DARKMAN, the spider bite and the title sequence, see DARKMAN, DARKMAN brooding over what he's done a top a building, SPIDEY on a Gargoyle after he nixed the robber, and the ending, WHO AM I? I'm DARKMAN, SPIDER-MAN...but it only makes me LOVE DARKMAN even more. Sam stay trued to himself and did what he does best, delivers excitement, action, and fun as it's his style. You get a great story and good characters. SAM IS THE MAN and that's what I think. yup. ADRENALINE is pumping still when I think of DARKMAN

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


You said it better than I did and you're absolutely right about all of that. Awesome. Yup.

PIPER said...

I really kind of hate reading about all you west-coasters who talk about the New Beverly. It's just not fair. The AMC 24 that resides a mile away from my house is no comparison. So yeah, boo hoo for me.

Anyway, this is a great write-up.

I think I would have liked to see a poster that said Who Is The Belisarius Memorandum?

To this day, I don't know what that is and it's a testament to how fun this movie is that I don't care.

I remember the transition with McDormand and laughing out loud and thinking that Raimi would have liked that because I kind of felt like when I saw it, it was a wink from Raimi to his audience. Others probably cringed, but those of us who were raised on Crimewave and the Evil Dead films knew what this was.

And your quick write-up of Drag Me To Hell has me very interested.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much for that. The New Beverly can be a very special place. And I know exactly what you mean with your response to that transition. I say that if anybody ever makes a movie set in the sixties and they need a title for a fake spy movie that figures into the plot, they should call it THE BELISARIUS MEMORANDUM. I'd love to see the poster for that fake film. Anyway, thanks again!

Her, Suzanne76 said...

I think you have a wonderful grasp of this wonderful film and particularly of it's location as a developmentally crucial moment in Raimi's body of work. I too remember VERY clearly when this film was about to open. I was in high school and working at a movie theater. i stole buttons that said who is darkman ? and i walked friends in to see it opening night. I ,like my buddy Ned, have not seen this film in 20 yrs. Due for a rewatch. Your friend Cathie sounds awesome. My worth as a nyc cinephile will be achieved if/when a rep theater here programs a favorite on my birthday.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Her, Suzanne76--

Thank you so much for saying that, it means a great deal! I hope you and Ned revisit the film soon! And please give all my best to the world of NYC rep theaters, it's been a very long time since I got to do it myself.