Tim Burton’s Batman was a cultural phenomenon that changed the Hollywood cinematic landscape. In the summer of 1989, the caped crusader lit up the box office to the tune of $400 million dollars and single handedly brought superhero films back into the limelight. Universal Studios, which had passed on Batman some 10 years before, wanted a piece of the action. They rolled the dice on a young, independent filmmaker named Sam Raimi. The Evil Dead director, unable to secure the Batman rights for himself, had a new superhero in mind. His name? Darkman. But as the film’s famous marketing campaign asked: “Who is Darkman?”
Set the wayback machine to 1990 and travel back with us to find out!
Darkman (1990) Synopsis
When thugs employed by a crime boss lead a vicious assault on Dr. Peyton Westlake, leaving him literally and psychologically scarred, an emergency procedure allows him to survive. Upon his recovery, Wilder can find solace only by returning to his scientific work developing synthetic skin, and seeking revenge against the crime boss. He assumes a phantom avenger persona called Darkman, who, with malleable facial qualities, is able to infiltrate and sow terror in the criminal community.
Sam Raimi co-wrote and directed the film. It stars Liam Neeson (Taken), future Academy Award winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Larry Drake (Dark Night of the Scarecrow), Colin Friels (Dark City), Nicholas Worth (Don’t Answer The Phone!), Danny Hicks (The Intruder), and Ted Raimi (Candyman).
Here’s a look at the official poster art!
Release And Reception
Darkman played in 1786 theaters the weekend of August 24, 1990. It scared up a box office opening of just over $8,000,000. That was good enough to secure the #1 spot, holding off recent box office champs Ghost, The Exorcist III, and Flatliners. The film maintained its momentum in week 2, nearly matching its $8,000,000 initial haul. Darkman ultimately went on to gross nearly $49,000,000 against a $16,000,000 budget.
Siskel and Ebert gave Darkman “Two Thumbs Up.” Both critics raved about Raimi’s direction and how much the movie looked and felt like a comic book. They also praised the main character himself as deep and complex. Overall, the film carries a fresh critic score of 84% and a rotten audience score of 59%. The box office and reviews were good enough to secure two straight to video sequels: Darkman II: The Return of Durant, and Darkman III: Die, Darkman, Die!
The production was troubled, throughout. Rumor has it he script went through a dozen rewrites. The film bombed in several audience test screenings and had to be re-edited multiple times. Producer Rob Tapert recently revealed in an interview that he, Sam Raimi, and editor Bob Murawski re-cut the entire film in 48 hours and sent it to final print without the studio’s knowledge! Wow!
Getting The Band Back Together
If you’re a Sam Raimi fan, like me, you know he has a regular crew he likes to work with. First in line? Bruce Campbell. The groovy one was Sam’s original choice to play Peyton Westlake/Darkman. The studio wasn’t so sure. They decided to go with Liam Neeson instead. Bruce did stick around to help his buddy Sam, however, despite being snubbed. He would help the young director with various audio inserts and he also appears in the film’s final shot as the new face of Westlake before disappearing into the crowd.
Evil Dead 2 alums Danny Hicks (Jake) and Ted Raimi (Possessed Henrietta) play a pair of henchmen in Darkman. Hicks plays Skip, a thug with a wooden leg, while Ted plays Rick, a particularly sadistic goon who roughs up Westlake in his lab, and dunks him in boiling goo, facilitating his transformation into the movie’s anti-hero. Ted just so happens to be Sam’s younger brother. Their older brother, Ivan, helped write the screenplay and has an uncredited cameo as a doctor in the burn ward.
Famed composer Danny Elfman scored the film, hot off his successful turn with Batman (1989). His brilliant Darkman score deftly elicits the appropriate audience response: the sweeping, emotional highs and lows all superhero film scores must strive for. Elfman would go on to do Army of Darkness (1992), Spider-Man (2002), and Oz: The Great and Powerful (2013) for Raimi.
Siskel and Ebert were right. This movie looks and feels like a comic book. You can tell Raimi has a passion for the source material. The film is expertly stylized and feels like a Universal Monster Film. In color, of course. There are many parallels between Westlake/Darkman and The Invisible Man, Doctor Jekyll, and especially The Phantom of the Opera. This is a tragic hero, and it’s all set up perfectly.
A hero is only as good as his villain, and Larry Drake makes a great one. The two time Emmy winner (“L.A. Law”), hot off his portrayal of a killer Santa in Tales From The Crypt, was nominated for a Saturn Award for his portrayal of Durant. The first ten minutes of Darkman sets up Durant as a top notch bad guy and he only gets more sinister from there. You’ll never look at a cigar clipper the same way again.
The production design and makeup FX are also very well done. The Darkman face makeup, in particular, is incredible. Everything on screen looks and feels “comic book-y,” for lack of a better term. Westlake’s lab feels right out of The Incredible Hulk television series. Raimi uses interesting camera angles and crazy close ups to great effect.
If it all looks and feels familiar to you, it should. Raimi would take this exact cinematic approach years later when helming Spider-Man (2002). I like to think of Darkman as a dress rehearsal for that Spider-Man trilogy. I’d find it hard to believe this film’s effectiveness as a superhero pictuure didn’t factor in to Sony’s decision to hire Raimi to take on the web slinger.
What Doesn’t Work
In all honesty, there isn’t a whole lot I don’t like about Darkman. It is a little strange to see Ted Raimi attempting to play a cold blooded badass. I get that you have to have your brother’s back, but Ted probably would have better off playing a lab assistant or some other non “tough guy” role. To his credit, though, his waterboarding scene and subsequent automotive demise provided quality entertainment.
Some of the dialogue is cringeworthy. You’ll have that, though, when your script goes through a dozen rewrites. And let’s face it: the superhero film formula was not yet perfected in 1990. For an original character, concept, and film, it’s overall very well done.
Oh, and let’s not forget about “the scene.” You know the one. The pink elephant! The deformed Westlake manages to make a living mask for himself to hide his burns and uses the time to take his girlfriend, Julie (McDormand) to the carnival. In the film’s goofiest scene, Neeson decides he’s going to win her a pink elephant by knocking over some metal milk bottles. The ensuing confrontation between Westlake and the booth carnie results in broken fingers, extreme close-ups, screaming, and F-Bombs to boot! It’s fantastically bad.
BUT…while bad, it also gives you an interesting preview of Raimi’s comic book style, close ups, and “go inside the hero’s head” transitions which would be used to much greater effect in Spider-Man (2002). Check out the pink elephant scene below…if you dare!
Fun Facts and Trivia Tidbits
- Bill Paxton and Gary Oldman were considered for Neeson’s Westlake / Darkman role (in addition to the aforementioned Bruce Campbell).
- Sam Raimi did an unaired pilot for a Darkman television series in 1992.
- Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, Bridget Fonda, and Kelly Lynch were all considered for McDormand’s “Julie” role.
- Richard Dreyfuss and James Caan both passed on the “Strack” role, which ultimately went to Colin Friels.
- Neeson’s Darkman makeup took 5 hours to apply.
- Sam Raimi credits the “Who Is Darkman?” marketing campaign for the success of the film.
- Jenny Agutter (An American Werewolf In London) appeared uncredited as the burn ward doctor after Kathy Bates (Misery) backed out (via IMDB).
- This was Liam Neeson’s first role with top billing.
- Sam Raimi’s friends Joel and Ethan Coen did some uncredited script work on the screenplay. Joel Coen has been married to Frances McDormand since 1984.
- Dynamite Comics did a “Darkman vs. Army of Darkness” mini-series in 2006.
Darkman – Final Thoughts
I watched Sam Raimi’s Darkman again, recently, and I’m happy to say it still holds up. It’s a slick, stylish, comic book film that succeeded in an era when most other comic-based films failed. It’s also one of the few big budget Hollywood studio projects to feature a completely original super hero character. That’s almost unheard of! The success of Darkman helped pave the way for more comic films in the post Burton Batman era, like The Rocketeer (1991) and The Shadow (1994). It also helped launch Liam Neeson as a leading man, three years before Neeson would receive Best Actor Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for Schindler’s List.
Darkman is streaming, free, on Crackle at the time of this writing. If physical media is more your thing, you’ll definitely want to check out the Shout! Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-ray. It features tons of interviews , including chats with Liam Neeson, Sam Raimi, Frances McDormand, Danny Hicks, and Larry Drake. There’s also a feature length audio commentary with director of photography Bill Pope. You can snag a copy here! If you enjoy the sequels, Shout! Factory has your Blu-ray needs covered there, too.
What are your thoughts on Darkman? What’s your favorite Darkman memory from the last 30 years? Tell us in the comments!