Released: 24 August 1990
Director: Sam Raimi
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $14 million
Stars: Liam Neeson, Larry Drake, Frances McDormand, and Colin Friels
When Doctor Peyton Westlake (Neeson) is left horrifically scarred and burned by mob boss Robert G. Durant (Drake), he uses his advanced (but fallible) synthetic skin and his augmented strength to take revenge upon those responsible while also struggling with his now volatile emotions and sense of humanity.
Long before he took the reigns of Sony’s Spider-Man franchise (Raimi, 2002 to 2007), and after making a name for himself with his Evil Dead splatter-horror films (ibid, 1984 to 1992), Sami Raimi had shown an interest in developing an a comic book adaptation. After failed to secure the rights to characters such as Batman and the Shadow, Raimi decided to create his own crime-fighting character, drawing heavy inspiration from classic Universal Monsters films and the likes of The Phantom of the Opera (Leroux, 1910) and The Elephant Man (Lynch, 1980). Working alongside his brother Ivan, his producing partner Robert Tapert, and Chuck Pfarrer, Raimi crafted a story that was much an exploration of the soul as it was a gruesome superhero production.
After the studio opposed Raimi’s wish to cast his friend and long-time collaborator Bruce Campbell in the title role, he cast Liam Neeson, believing the actor would be able to convey the nuance of the character’s turmoil despite the film’s extensive make-up effects, which were the genius work of Tony Gardner. Darkman is one of my personal favourite movies and I’m delighted to see that it received a decent amount of praise upon release. The film only made $48.8 million at the box office but is often regarded as a cult hit, spawning two direct-to-view sequels (without Neeson’s involvement) and a number of comic book spin-offs. Honestly, I’ll take any excuse to talk about this hidden gem of a film and today seems like the perfect opportunity given that it’s Liam Neeson’s birthday.
The first thing to note about this film is Danny Elfman’s fantastic, operatic score; bombastic, dark, and gothic, Elfman really captured the atmosphere Raimi was going for with this film and it works on many levels to sell it as a brooding tale of a twisted, tragic man turned superhero and as a monster film. The second thing the film does right off the bat is introduce one of the most under-rated and ominous performances ever put to film and that is Larry Drake as mob boss Robert G. Durant.
Drake, then best known for his role on L.A. Law (1986 to 1994), brings a sophisticated menace to the role and steals every seen he’s in with a simple, noticeable presence. Stoic and professional, Durant is an eloquent, intelligent, cold, and calculating individual who carries himself with a quiet confidence; when he walks into the room, he fully believes that he is the most powerful man present and is completely confidant that, no matter the odds, he is in complete control of every situation. This, largely, turns out to be true as he easily and calmly takes out several of Eddie Black’s (Jessie Lawrence Ferguson) men not just with the surprise firepower of his henchmen but also with a few well-placed shots of his gun. Durant’s signature is, of course, the cigar cutter which he uses to slice the fingers off his victims; Durant collects these in a special case, touching them up with reverence to really highlight how sick and sadistic this character is.
When we’re first introduced to Peyton Westlake, he’s a relatively normal, everyday man and a simple scientist struggling to crack the secret of stability in his synthetic skin. Garbed in a nerdy cardigan, Peyton is passionate and committed to his work but not to the point of distraction; although bothered by his inability to get his synthetic skin cells to last longer then ninety-nine minutes, he still has time for his girlfriend, Julie Hastings (McDormand), and dotes on her wherever possible. The two have a fun, easy relationship but Peyton wants more and is heartbroken when Julie appears to turn down his marriage proposal; for all his intelligence and obvious scientific ability, Peyton is a very relatable, somewhat awkward man who is instantly likeable.
It’s thus even more random and tragic when Peyton’s laboratory is attacked by Durant and his henchmen. This is a gruelling sequence in which Peyton is beaten, partially electrocuted, bludgeoned, dipped into acid, and forced to watch Durant’s favourite, Rick (Theodore Raimi), shoot his assistant in the head before his eyes. Despite the fact that he should have died in the ensuring explosion, Peyton clings to life but is irrevocably changed inside and out; unable to feel physical sensations and prone to extreme anger, Peyton is forced to live the life of a vagrant and desperately attempt to perfect his skin so that he can reclaim his former life. When his anger gets the best of him, he turns his attentions just as much, if not more so, to using his synthetic skin to take revenge on those responsible for his horrific appearance.
If there’s a weak link in the film, it’s got to be Julie; Frances McDormand is a decent enough actress but she’s not that appealing as a woman or a character. Like Peyton, she’s just a normal person with a normal life trying to make the most of it and I can respect that they didn’t cast some knock-out bimbo or an overly made up woman and went for the more realistic look but, still, she never really grabbed me as an particularly alluring character. While she shows a lot of conviction in her morals and is even willing to accept Peyton in his altered condition, she ultimately becomes little more than a damsel in distress who Peyton, as Darkman, must fight to save, which diminishes her otherwise strong character somewhat.
Like any good mob boss, Durant is not alone in his organisation and is joined by a handful of one-dimensional but somewhat memorable minions: there’s the aforementioned Rick, a young man who appears to be Durant’s protégé and whom Durant seems more than friendly with; the large, bald-headed Pauly (Nicholas Worth); Rudy Guzman (Rafael H. Robledo) the superstitious Mexican; and the deranged Smiley (Dan Bell). He also has another henchmen, Skip (Danny Hicks), but he disappears after the opening of the film. We don’t really learn anything about these guys except that they’re a bunch of sadistic bastards who follow Durant’s orders to the letter and take immense pleasure in the suffering and killing of others but they exist primarily to cause Peyton’s unenviable position and then fall victim to his machinations and brutal revenge.
To be honest, you could also make the case that Durant is somewhat one-dimensional since we learn very little about him except that he is quick to anger when offended and more than willing to kill anyone, even his own men, if they fail him, offend him, or anger him. Despite this, he’s a far more charismatic and appealing antagonist than his employer, Louis Strack Jr (Friels), who is a slimy, corporate weasel of a villain. Though Durant is always well-dressed, he’s basically a thug in a suit; Strack, by contrast, is the typical suit-wearing puppeteer and, while he does claw back some personality in the finale where he’s revealed to be maniacal and possibly insane, he’s still a shadow of Durant’s aura and if there’s one failing of the film it’s that it ends with a final battle against Strack rather than Durant.
The bulk of the film revolves around following Peyton as he attempts to put back together the tattered remains of his life and concoct his elaborate plan for revenge; this means that we witness first-hand the degradation of his sanity and humanity as he struggles to keep his volatile emotions under control and to hold on to the last vestiges of his humanity. Too monstrous to return to Julie as he is, this means throwing himself into the perfection of his skin; Peyton becomes obsessed with this process and driven to fits of rage at the skin’s inability to survive prolonged exposure to the light, driving him towards a vicious revenge as a creature of the night. This transformation is both emotional and physical as we see Peyton struggling to maintain his composure when masquerading as himself and, as the film progresses, his tattered appearance degrades, revealing more and more glimpses of his true self until he is left to confront Strack with his gruesome visage on show for all to see.
Darkman is quite the ridiculous concept, to be fair; you need to suspend your disbelief quite a bit to accept that a man would not only survive such an attack but also be able to function for any length of time with burns and injuries as grisly as Peyton’s are depicted in the film. It’s also an extremely over the top affair in many ways; Darkman was, and still is, the best “comic book” movie not actually based on a pre-existing comic book and it shows, with elaborate action sequences, cliché henchmen, and favouring style and spectacle more than logic. Still, with that being said, it’s an extremely enjoyable film because of all those elements; it’s dark, brooding, operatic, and bombastic when it needs to be, with much of the film revolving around the exploration of this simple scientist transforming before our eyes into an unrelenting monster of a man, a killer of killers who wants desperately to return to the life he once had despite the fact that he would never be able to even if he perfected his skin due to being changed emotionally as well as physically.
This is seen at numerous points throughout the film but perhaps the best scene at showcasing just how tumultuous Peyton’s emotions and rage have become is his “Dancing freak!” outburst. Frustrated and despondent at his inability to crack the ninety-nine minute barrier, Peyton goes on a half-crazed rant about his condition and begins trashing his lab, ranting and raving before the unimpressed eyes of the cat he adopted by proxy. It’s a gut wrenching scene, one which ends with Peyton catching sight of his horrendous visage in a puddle and collapsing in despair to his knees, desperately attempting to calm himself with his rational mind.
As fantastic as Neeson is at conveying this transformation, it’s Larry Drake who steals the show here; articulate and intimidating, Durant exudes authority and control and commands respect whenever he is onscreen. You get the sense that, in all his years, Durant has never failed and that his operation runs like clockwork so, once Peyton begins interfering in his business, he takes it extremely personally and as an affront to his reputation and position. Unlike Strack, and many film villains, Durant isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty or to avoid being up close and personal for the more violent aspects of his day-to-day; thus, when he learns that Peyton has survived as Darkman, he personally leads his men on an assault on the former doctor’s makeshift laboratory and attempts to kill his foe using a grenade launcher! In the end, Durant meets a horrific and satisfying end when Darkman causes the helicopter he is riding in to crash head-first into a bridge; Darkman revels in the death of his tormentor and there’s a real sense of poetic justice to the scene…it’s just a shame that it wasn’t the finale of the movie and that the sequel inexplicably depicts Durant as having survived this explosive end with minimal injuries.
Unlike many of his more heroic, masked peers, Darkman isn’t afraid to kill those responsible for his shattered life and monstrous condition; he doesn’t take killing lightly and, at first, wallows in despair at the monster he has become but, over time, comes to revel in the deaths of his victims with a haunting, dramatic laugh reminiscent of the Shadow’s. And…why not? Peyton’s suffering is great and endless, his injuries ghastly and irreversible, and his victims more than deserve the fate he metes out to them. Darkman is the story of an ordinary man pushed as close to the edge as possible and, for a vigilante such as he, there is no room for compromise or mercy; he assumes the identities of many of Durant’s men (including Durant in an entertaining scene) and brings about the downfall of his organisation through manipulation, deception, and violence.
It’s a little convenient, you might say, that Peyton is able to so closely mimic the voices of those he impersonates but, to be fair, we do see him practising this skill relentlessly and, while impersonating others, he keeps conversation to a minimum and we also see Peyton padding himself out to impersonate his more stoutly victims, which helps to sell this convenient element of the film. A central crux of the film is the ninety-nine minute time limit Peyton is forced to work around whenever he is out in the daylight; this means that there’s a constant sense of tension as Peyton is always on the clock, which drives him to bouts of mania and aggression as his skin gets closer and closer to disintegrating, and nowhere is this exhibited more explicitly or amusingly than in the iconic “Take the fucking elephant!” scene. While this scene is worth it for the memes alone, it’s also an astounding piece of acting from Neeson as Peyton desperately tries to keep his anger in control and fails, bit by bit, as the scene progresses, the camera skewing and twisting like his fractured psyche and resulting in a brutal explosion of rage and vindictiveness on Peyton’s part. As if to emphasise his true, inner self breaking through, his façade begins to immediately disintegrate in this moment, revealing to Julie that he isn’t the man he’s been pretending to be and, perhaps, never will be again.
Of course, the most impressive aspect of Darkman is its truly gruesome special effects; thanks to Durant’s attack and the ensuing explosion, Peyton has been horrifically burned, with practically the entirety of his body covered in monstrous burns that expose his bones and tendons. The only part of his skin that remains unblemished is a small section of the left side of his face, which remains the last window into his failing humanity. Peyton’s scarring is genuinely terrifying and ghastly to behold, with him resembling little more than a chargrilled skeleton once the full extent of his injuries is revealed, and I remain astounded at how good the make-up effects are as Neeson disappears beneath the full-face prosthetics. Of course, there’s no way he’d be anywhere near as articulate as he is without his lips and the damage to his vocal chords but, again, we see him struggling to talk after he escapes from the hospital so the film does make an attempt to address this and, sure, his constantly-weeping wounds and exposed nerves, muscles, tendons, and skeleton would undoubtedly be a festering ground for crippling and fatal infection. Sadly, not all of the film’s effects are as good as the make-up; there are some pretty poorly-done greenscreen shots and effects compositions that definitely stand out but, thankfully, they are few and far between and also add to the film’s pulp origins and Raimi’s trademark campy filmmaking methods but…God damn the practical effects are absolutely top notch. Best of all, as I mentioned, there are numerous stages to the effects, with Darkman favouring bandages like Doctor Jack Griffin/The Invisible Man (Claude Rains) that degrade and reveal different aspects of his mutilation as the film goes on and it remains astounding to me that the effects can be this impressive and so massively downgraded in the straight-to-video sequels where Neeson’s replacement, Arnold Vosloo, was clearing wearing a far less impressive mask effect.
Darkman is an elaborate pulp adventure with some massively over the top performances at times but, having said that, it’s an enjoyable romp because of it. Many of the performances are somewhat campy and exaggerated, making even the most one-dimensional henchmen memorable and entertaining as a result, but, while it dabbles in camp and simplistic pulp at times, it also has one other foot firmly rooted in the dark, gothic horror of the classic Universal Monsters films that really helps to give the film its unique edge.
This is, of course, bolstered by Drake’s scene-stealing performance as the film’s villain, Neeson’s affecting, complex turn as the titular character, and Darkman’s impressive practical effects and make-up. Just that alone is worth the price of admission as it really shows how realistic and horrific even the most unlikely, monstrous burns can be but Darkman’s position as a monster of a man, granted augmented strength at the cost of his emotional stability and visual appeal, work in conjunction with his unique ability to impersonate others and really help make him stand out amongst other dark, brooding anti-heroes. While the film was an original idea not based on any one existing work, it truly evolved into an entity all its own through Raimi’s exceptional adaptation of many tried-and-tested influences, birthing a new kind of superhero who, honestly and ironically, deserves much more time in the spotlight.
Have you ever seen Darkman? If so, what did you think of it? Did you enjoy the film as an over the top romp or were you, perhaps, unable to reconcile the film’s more elaborate stretches of logic and realism? What did you think to the performances of Neeson and Drake and the film’s ghastly make-up effects? Have you seen the sequels or read any of the Darkman comics? Would you like to see the character get more spotlight or do you think the concept works better as a cult favourite? How are you celebrating Liam Neeson’s birthday and what is your favourite Liam Neeson film? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below and let me know what you think.