Released: 13 May 1994
Director: Alex Proyas
Distributor: Miramax Films
Budget: $23 million
Stars: Brandon Lee, David Patrick Kelly, Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson, and Michael Wincott
Musician Eric Draven (Lee) and his fiancée, Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas), are brutally murdered by “T-Bird” (Kelly) and his gang of thugs. One year later, a mysterious and supernatural crow brings Eric back to life; painting himself up as a tragic masquerade and bestowed with invincibility, Eric sets out to avenge their deaths using his newfound abilities.
The Crow began life as a comic book published by Caliber Comics in 1989 and created, written, and illustrated by James O’Barr. The character, named simply “Eric” in the comic, was a tragic figure modelled after prominent rock musicians, prone to quoting a variety of scripture, and who engaged in the brutal slaying of those who killed him and his fiancée as a reaction to the pain and loss O’Barr felt after losing his own fiancée to a drunk driver. Thanks to its bleak tone, striking black and white artistic style, and emotional narrative, The Crow became an underground success and, with dark comic book narratives quickly gaining popularity in Hollywood, was adapted into a feature film in 1994.
Of course, you can’t talk about The Crow without mentioning star Brandon Lee’s tragic and untimely death after accidentally being shot with a real bullet. The film, which was already mostly complete, was finished through a combination of stunt doubles, stand-ins, and some digital trickery and released to both unanimous critical acclaim and was a surprise box office hit, grossing over $50 million in total. While the subsequent sequels failed to capture the magic of this first film, The Crow inspired not only a darker look for legendary wrestler Sting but also became a cult hit and is one of my favourite movies period so, with tonight being “Devil’s Night”, what better way to celebrate than by revisiting this classic film?
The bleakness and darkness of The Crow’s world is dropped in our laps as soon as the film begins as it opens with Eric already dead and Shelly in critical condition. Considering that Eric spends the entire film as a reborn revenant, it’s oddly fitting that, when we first meet him, Eric is little more than a lifeless corpse on the cold, rainswept pavement. Eric’s return from the grave is a harrowing, disturbing process not just for him but for the audience as well as he literally claws and crawls his way out of his grave and, disorientated and in shock, stumbles his way back to his apartment only to be immediately bombarded with memories of his former life. These brief flashes to happier times with Shelly are juxtaposed with the violent and disturbing memories of the brutal attack the two of them endured at the hands of T-Bird and his motley crew; Eric’s agony at reliving events both good and bad send him into an anguished fury and, very quickly, in the space of just a few minutes, we learn not only that Eric is now able to immediately heal from all physical wounds but are instantly committed to seeing through his burning desire for revenge alongside him, so tangible is Lee’s performance at showcasing Eric’s torment during this deeply affecting and unpleasant sequence.
In the comic, Eric and Shelly were attacked at the side of the road and it was a very random, brutal affair but, in the film, they’re specifically targeted after angering the gang and Eric’s suffering is magnified significantly as he is stabbed, beaten, shot, and unceremoniously throw to his death. After his return, Eric is guided on his journey by a mysterious and supernatural crow (ironically, no crows actually appear in the film and the filmmakers used ravens instead) but, unlike in the comics, Eric never actually refers to himself as the Crow in the film. Instead, Eric explicitly uses his real name so that his victims know exactly who it is who is coming for them. His vengeance comes in systematic fashion as he targets each of those responsible for his suffering one at a time, hunting them down thanks to his ability to see through the crow’s eyes and forcing each of them to not only remember him and Shelly but also making them pay in fitting fashion; “Tin-Tin” (Laurence Mason), for example, favours knives as his weapon of choice so Eric stabs him, off screen, through “all his major organs in alphabetical order” and, similarly, he kills “Funboy” (Michael Massee) by subjecting him to a lethal overdose of heroin.
Although he is an extremely tormented individual and has chosen to commit himself fully to his mission rather than attempt to reconnect to his previous life, Eric isn’t alone in his quest for revenge. While alive, he and Shelly befriended and often took care of Sarah (Davis), a streetwise young girl whose mother, Darla (Anna Levine), is unfit to care for her since she’s dependent on substances and used as a plaything by Funboy. Left alone and devastated by her friends’ deaths, Sarah was comforted by Sergeant Albrecht (Hudson), a jaded cop who was first on the scene at Eric’s apartment and whose tendency to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong causes friction between him and Detective Torres (Marco Rodríguez). Both characters eventually, inevitably, cross paths with Eric during his crusade and offer an emotional link to a life that is now haunting the reborn rock star like a bad dream; Albrecht provides Eric with the memories of Shelly’s prolonged death and sympathises with his plight and Sarah represents Eric’s one remaining link to the happier times in his life. Eric is forced to keep Sarah away since his return was predicated on seeking vengeance rather than reuniting with her but, in the end, their fates converge for the finale and allow Eric to bring closure to his life and death, with even the crow favouring Sarah throughout the film.
The town’s violent criminal element have taken to ritualistically committing arson attacks throughout the city on October 30th, which has become known as “Devil’s Night” as a result. The head honcho of these attacks is “Top Dollar” (Wincott), a charismatic and mystifying gang leader with delusions of grandeur and an unhealthy and disturbingly close relationship with his stepsister, Myca (Bai Ling). A sadistic and perverse individual, there’s a lingering sense of dissatisfaction and humanity to Top Dollar’s character as, while he happily kills and orders annual destruction and anarchy, he seems disgruntled with the routine and predictability of his life and even expresses genuine regret at the pain and suffering Eric and Shelly had to endure. Ultimately, though, he is a slave to the life he lives and, while he may be discontented and bored with how mundane things have become and is largely dispassionate and stoic even when Eric actively disrupts his operation, he remains resolute in keeping his position of power and influence in the city. As a result, Top Dollar is more than happy to kill anyone who gets in his way and even kidnaps Sarah in a bid to lure Eric into a confrontation whereby his powers can be stripped away, starting an annoying trend in the Crow movies. The film greatly expands his role compared to his comic counterpart, who was more of a throwaway goon, but Wincott shines as the gravely-voiced kingpin and the restructured hierarchy of the gang really helps to escalate the action and emotion behind Eric’s crusade.
One of the things I love about The Crow is that there are no corporate, suit-wearing bad guys as the antagonists are generally street-level thugs; Top Dollar and his aid, Grange (Tony Todd in a disappointingly small role), are the sole exceptions to this rule and I can forgive it as they’re not businessmen by any means and it’s implied that they were just street punks at one time and are now simply at the top of the criminal food chain thanks to their power and influence. Indeed, unlike in the comic, Eric has no interest in actively pursuing or killing Top Dollar since he wasn’t present during his and Shelly’s deaths and he only targets the gang leader when he kidnaps Sarah in a bid to steal the crow’s powers. As a result, for much of the film’s runtime, the principal antagonist and the primary target of Eric’s vengeance is Top Dollar’s main street thug, T-Bird, just as it was in the comic. A sleazy, arrogant punk, T-Bird takes a perverse pleasure in unquestionably executing Top Dollar’s every order but prefers to be the more hands-off compared his little gang of thugs. He directs his crew with a simple high-pitched whistle, often while quoting Satanic scripture, and his power and authority out on the streets are never in question. Though he often intimidates and bosses around “Skank” (Angel David), the comic relief of the film and the most cowardly and immature of the gang, T-Bird is reduced to a blubbering wreck when enduring Eric’s wrath and seeing his calm, controlled demeanour break is almost as fitting an end for the character as his explosive death. This scene, which was one of a handful shot using a body double for Brandon Lee, actually benefits from Eric’s silence; rather than explain himself as he did with his other victims, Eric simply allows T-Bird to come to the horrifying realisation that his actions have come back to haunt him, making or an emotionally charged scene that really hammers home how unheroic Eric’s vendetta is.
The city itself is also a prominent character in the film; constantly blanketed in rainfall and violence, it is a bleak, desolate, and ominous place and, to add to its foreboding atmosphere, there are very few scenes that take place during the day or in locations that aren’t squalid or ransacked. The Crow’s soundtrack also plays a vital role in setting the tone and atmosphere of the film; alongside a gloomy, emotional score by Graeme Revell, The Crow includes some fantastic heavy metal tracks from the likes of The Cure and Nine Inch Nails, all of which tie into Eric’s career as a musician and the film’s character. Indeed, if there’s a downside to the film, it’s that some of its effects haven’t aged too well; the scene where Eric holds his hand up so that Funboy can see his bullet wound heal is a noticeably poor effect by today’s standards but, for the most part, the employment of more practical effects and camera trickery hold up well enough.
Eric is an enigmatic and unpredictable character, made even more captivating by Lee’s enthralling performance. In the comic, Eric was a sombre, stoic character who was fond of quoting literature, poetry, and speaking in riddles and, while that is still true of his live-action counterpart, Lee’s Eric is imbued with a justifiable anger and, at times, a sarcastic snark. Sporting an alluring smile (that’s more of a sneer) and an effortless confidence, Eric fully believes in the righteousness of his mission (as he tells Albrecht: “They’re all dead. They just don’t know it yet”) and is brutally efficient at carrying it out, though he still takes the time to taunt and toy with his victims as they did to him. His quotation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven when violently confronting Gideon (Jon Polito) is a notable highlight, as is his rant to Funboy about Jesus Christ, both of which capture the melancholy personality of his comic book counterpart, and is contrasted by his apathetic, silent execution of T-Bird. Eric often revels in his powers, willingly goading his targets into trying to stab or shoot him and then laughing at their terrified reaction to his superhuman healing. Similarly, he often gets so caught up in the fury and pain of his death that he takes a perverse pleasure in toying and murdering his killers, particularly Tin-Tin and Skank, often punctuating their deaths with a crow motif either in blood or fire. Still, his many flashbacks show that he was a carefree and fun-loving bloke while he was a live so he’s also notably appalled at himself and what he has become; this is best seen when, after killing T-Bird and believing that his mission is completed, he removes Tin-Tin’s jacket and tosses it away in disgust.
After his painfully and harrowing rebirth, Eric’s life became consumed with revenge and the desire to return to the grave and be reunited with Shelly after avenging their deaths; however, along the way, he not only indulges in a series of escalating violent acts (culminating in an action-packed shoot out between himself and Top Dollar’s fellow gang members and a sword fight against Top Dollar himself on the roof of a church) but also impacts and improves the lives of his allies. For example, while dispensing justice to Funboy, he conveys to Darla the seriousness of her responsibilities as a mother, thus helping to repair her relationship with Sarah. However, this is also seen in the film’s finale, where Albrecht provides Eric with back-up for his showdown with Top Dollar, Myca, and Grange. Despite the fact that he keeps getting into trouble for acting outside of his pay grade, Albrecht feels he owes it to Eric to help him out and ends up being instrumental in assisting Eric in saving Sarah after Grange shoots the crow and robs Eric of his invincibility. This was a new element that wasn’t in the original comic book and it carried over into the subsequent sequels but it works in service of the film’s larger narrative because, in the end, Eric must confront Top Dollar as a mere mortal man with nothing left but his rage and uncompromising determination. Thanks to the rain, even Eric’s face paint is washed away during this final confrontation and, after enduring a mortal wound, he subjects Top Dollar to the many hours of suffering and pain Shelly was forced to endure because of his orders and dispatches him in brutal fashion by impaling him on one of the church’s stone gargoyles.
Even now, nearly thirty years after I first saw the film, The Crow remains one of my favourite movies of all time. Honestly, I actually prefer it to the comic book thanks to the alterations to the source material improving upon the hierarchy of the villains and making Eric an even more relatable and tragic character. The desolate, violent, and bleak presentation of the film, the city, and the plot were a profound influence on me and, despite a few dodgy effects here and there, The Crow has a real timeless quality. I am continuously astounded at how badly Hollywood managed to screw up the sequels as it seems like such a simple formula to recreate, but The Crow really was lightning in a bottle as it not only captured the spirit of the source material but enhanced it with some fantastic and memorable performances. It’s absolutely tragic that this film saw the untimely death of Brandon Lee; his performance is captivating and full of life, action, and a multitude of complex emotions (from stoic conviction, to subdued melancholy, to unhinged anger) and it’s a real shame that he never got the chance to show the full extent of his range and ability over a long and illustrious career. Yet, his legacy lives on in the enduring strength and appeal of The Crow, which greatly contributed to comic book movies being seen as a serious and worthwhile sub-genre of cinema and whose iconography has left a lasting impression.
What are your thoughts on The Crow? What did you think to Brandon Lee’s portrayal and do you think he would have had a promising career had his tragic death not occurred? How did you feel it compared to the comic book? Were you a fan of the changes the filmmakers made to the source material (such as the removal of Eric’s powers for the finale) or would you like to see a remake that was closer to the original comic book? Were you a fan of the soundtrack; if so, which track was your favourite? Which of The Crow’s sequels was your favourite, if any, and would you like the see the character return in some form or another in the future? How are you celebrating Devil’s Night tonight? Whatever you think about The Crow, go ahead and leave a comment down below or start the discussion on my social media.