The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of the ’80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.
It’s impossible to overstate how game-changing Tim Burton’s Batman was to the landscape of popular cinema. We now live in an era where superhero action films are the norm for blockbuster movies, but the success of Batman had movie studios going in a different direction. Instead of fast-tracking projects based on recognizable comic book superheroes, the takeaway from Batman seemed to be, “Let’s make adaptations of pulp action heroes!” This led to films like Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and The Phantom in the ‘90s. But, the other takeaway from Batman seemed to be a willingness to allow filmmakers to get a little darker and edgier with their heroic stories.
Enter Sam Raimi. Before he delivered his own landmark Spider-Man films, Raimi got a chance to create his own original hero with Darkman, the story of scientist Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) who runs afoul of a vicious mob boss (Larry Drake) and is burned alive. Disfigured and left for dead, Peyton undergoes experimental medical processes that leave him numb to pain and tactile sensation. It also makes him susceptible to intense mood swings and enhanced strength due to adrenaline overload. Determined to get revenge and reunite with his girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand), Peyton continues his work on a synthetic skin in the hopes of replacing his disfigured face. At the same time, he uses this invention to assume the identities of the thugs that attempted to murder him in order to seek his revenge.
Raimi and his co-writers took inspiration from the classic Universal monster stories like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera – appropriate as this is a Universal picture – in order to craft their unique blend of monster movie and superhero story. Darkman is viciously original while also feeling rooted in classic horror stories where the monster is both frightening and somewhat sympathetic. This balance makes Peyton a truly piteous character who is also capable of being genuinely scary when his rage takes over. Simply as a concept, Darkman is so one-of-a-kind that you’ll never forget it once you’ve seen it.
Part of the reason for that has to do with the uniformly excellent cast Raimi assembled. Liam Neeson is a household name today, but back in 1990 this was a breakout leading role for him. And Neeson is perfect as Peyton. He plays the material as operatic as it needs to be, understanding a tonal balance that could easily tip over into being too over-the-top or too sappy. Many folks will immediately point out the more (intentionally) ridiculous moments in Neeson’s performance, but it’s the moments of heartbreaking despair that stick out most in the movie; scenes of him crying in his destroyed laboratory or huddling under a cardboard box in the rain for shelter. These are the moments where Darkman tempers its zanier energy with earnest melancholy.
The rest of the cast is equally on point. Frances McDormand is one of our greatest living actresses and she treats the script with total sincerity. Larry Drake is doing some of the best work of his career as the sadistic crime lord Durant. Between this and Dr. Giggles, Drake is one of the heroes of ‘90s horror. You’ll also get to revel in delightful performances from Raimi regulars like Ted Raimi and Dan Hicks. And the Bruce Campbell cameo is one of Raimi’s best.
Speaking of Raimi, this is a high watermark for his directing prowess. This was Raimi’s first big budget studio movie and he showcased exactly why he was fit to join the big leagues. Darkman is a gorgeous and singular piece of action filmmaking. Raimi had just gotten done producing John Woo’s American debut, Hard Target, and he clearly learned a lot about kinetic action filmmaking from watching that masterpiece get made. Darkman takes all of Raimi’s stylistic flair and puts serious money behind it, allowing for a level of polish and finesse that remains as one of Raimi’s best showings. The scale of the practical action is still impressive and thrill-inducing to this day. If the big helicopter chase sequence doesn’t get your heart rate going, you might be dead already.
Another necessary mention is the special effects and makeup work. Tony Gardner’s design and execution are just a perfect blend of comic book and horror. The entire look of Darkman draws inspiration from characters like the Invisible Man and the Shadow while tweaking things in key ways to make it something fresh. It’s telling that the marketing for Darkman could sell itself solely on the mystery of this character and his striking design. It’s difficult to come up with a superhero look that feels new and iconic, but Darkman more than succeeds at that.
And to boil things down to the most simplistic read ever, Darkman is just COOL. When we talk about comic book cinema, we’re almost pigeonholed into only discussing adaptations. Darkman is easily one of the best comic book films ever made, and it does that by honoring the style and spirit of its inspirations while still managing to craft a brand new hero. The fact that Darkman can act as a bridge between the Universal monster films and superhero movies is miraculous and awesome.
Darkman is unquestionably one of the best blockbuster films of the ‘90s. It’s only become more powerful and exciting over the years and it deserves to be discussed when we talk about the legacy of Universal monster movies. And honestly, if you just want to watch a damn good movie, you can’t go wrong with Darkman.
Side note: Universal released Darkman and Tremors in the same year. Hell yeah, 1990.