So it was with the raving success (by barely-budgeted, cave-dwelling B-movie standards) of Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn that Michigan backwoods filmmaker was granted access to the secret gilded chamber of the Hollywood machine. His goal? Not to spit shine the cogs, nor to tear them to shreds, but to rearrange them, to warp them, into a slightly more feral, crazed mad scientist’s contraption. Well, maybe not quite that far, but he was at least about to switch out a few gears and spruce up the place with his own signature cartoon-ghoulish paint brush.
And what do you know. Warner Bros has been hard at work on their Batman motion picture, and that character is essentially a glorified B-movie horror show anyway rooted in the glory days of Universal Horror and its diluted brand of German Expressionism and pre-noir shadowplay. And Raimi, a natural for the film, was trounced in the bidding process for Batman by old what’s his name Tim Burton who made that maniacal Pee-wee Herman movie and the freak-show haunted house Beetlejuice? Well, said Warner Bros with money in their eyes (and comically oversized, toxically green dollar signs when they found out in mid-production of Darkman that Batman might just be one of the highest grossing films ever released), why don’t we get Raimi and have him write his own Batman story for us? He’ll need a different name, of course. How about Gothman? No, that sounds like that naughty Robert Smith creep and his band of hooligans The Cure. They might scare the kids (the joke, it seems was on Warner Bros when Burton charitably stole Smith’s look for the main character of his own 1990 Universal Monsters homage, Edward Scissorhands).
And thus Darkman was born, and although it was no Batman-sized success, Raimi’s mongrel mix of noirish pulp, cotton candy cinematics, and grave Universal Monsters homage proved a moderate commercial and critical success story (with this film and Scissorhands clogging up the works, one can see why Universal spontaneously decided to revamp their long-dormant-in-the-cemetery Universal Monsters brand for a series of more direct remakes and updates). A deserved success at that, frankly far more deserved than Burton’s Batman, by far his weakest directorial effort for the first decade of his career as a feature filmmaker. Burton’s off-kilter, gonzo amalgam of spitfire camerawork, delusional psychedelic imagery, and dread-infused expressionist melodrama is a visual and aural tour-de-force, far more style-as-substance than Burton managed with his half-hearted warm-up Batman (don’t worry, he would correct course and surpass even Raimi with his improvidently excessive traveling circus Batman Returns).
Raimi’s whipped-up story is not much on paper, and the film suffers in the early going for much the same reason Batman suffers for its entirety: restraint without maturation. Material following Dr. Peyton Westlake (an emerging Liam Neeson) as he attempts to science-up a genetic skin replacement tissue out of liquid has an endearingly non-lucid definition of “science”, but it’s a little hollow and normative by Raimi’s discombobulated standards. Thankfully, Raimi’s beating-heart exploitation liveliness kicks in and jump-starts the film early when Westlake’s lab is destroyed and he is presumably burned and left for dead. Tortured and afflicted with malignant skin a mile wide, he transforms himself into a cruel intermission between the Mummy and the Invisible Man and sets up shop in a modern day Frankenstein laboratory in an abandoned, forlorn urban factory stitched together in shards.
Partially completing his research – he constructs a viscous skin substitute that can only retain its cohesive nature in the light for 99 minutes – Westlake attempts to rekindle his relationship Julie Hastings ( an underused Frances McDormand) and seek bloody revenge on his presumed killer Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake, with a face like a thousand matches with Muhammad Ali in a ring under a speeding train).
After Westlake’s transformation (brutalization, more like it), the stars align and Raimi’s heart realigns with them. Finding kindred spirits with 1990’s other pulp sideshow Dick Tracy, as well as the more juvenile and innocent The Rocketeer from the following year, Raimi’s vertiginous pinball-in-a-crocodile’s-mouth camerawork is delivered like a rattling electric shock straight to the brain. Of all the aforementioned films, Darkman most directly courses through the veins right into the gut, but its true fascination is its precarious counterbalance between the screwball thrills of the film (very much of Evil Dead II) and the more thoughtful, dirge-like drippings of unhinged cinematic depression that undercut the thrills with a plaintive, tragic core right out of the grand melodramas of the old days.
Westlake, it seems, is not only a lost soul, but his soul is busy pressure-cooking loss into bestial wrath and fanglike psychosis straight out of Universal’s The Invisible Man (the prime influence here, and kudos to Raimi for largely forgoing the more obvious Draculas of the world). Darkman acquires the mercurial, edge-of-sanity economy of that particular James Whale film from 1933, but it also acquires more than a touch of Frankenstein’s dejection, evoked most affectingly in Larry Hamlin’s nasty but evocative makeup effects and, interestingly, Neeson’s bandaged performance. Neeson is charitably wooden and inconsequential when out and about during the day in his normal face, but under the bandages and destroyed skin with the specter of death hanging down on him, his guttural grunts and dispassionate matter-of-fact exclamations are able to locate a mind in tragic descent, possibly no longer able to find the core of its saner cousin. There’s a fractured, bestial, Karloff-like confusion to his performance that sells the restless derangement of the character as well as his tragic outlaw underbelly.
Rami’s ever-roving camera ripcords like an instrument of free-floating hostility played with a smile, but even it is able to sense the presence of death, almost as if the camera was gripped in the nether itself to linger over the pall of twisted industry and tortured skin externalizing a fractured soul. And because his camera usually has a case of the jitters, its concessions to silence and stillness are all the more pregnant with tragic existential dread. Like his mythic heroes of old – Murnau, Whale, Freund and the like – Raimi makes B-pictures, but he is in on the same secret, handed down across generations of artists: B is a state of economy, and it can be harnessed as a state of mind, but it is never a statement of worth.