Darkman Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is on the verge of realizing a major breakthrough in the creation of synthetic skin when his laboratory is blown up by gangsters. Having been burned beyond recognition and forever altered by an experimental medical procedure, Westlake becomes known as Darkman, assuming alternate identities in his quest for revenge and a new life with his former love (Frances McDormand). (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Sam Raimi’s Darkman is often remembered as the director’s long game preparation for his biggest mainstream success – the Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007). In this regard, Darkman can also be counted as the precursor to the currently dominant wave of superhero movies. Coming off the cult (that’s cult, not mainstream) success of the first two Evil Dead (1981, 1987) movies, Raimi had initially tried to base a movie on an existing comic book property, but, at the time, studios did not consider superheroes a viable property. In the current climate, it seems ridiculous that Universal Studios would be more interested in making a movie based on an unknown property than making a film based on an existing Marvel or DC product, but there was very little precedent at the time (ironically enough, Marvel actually released a comic book adaptation of Raimi’s film to coincide with the movie’s release). Tim Burton’s Batman (a movie Raimi himself had tried to make) made Warner Brothers fistfuls of cash in 1989, while the era’s other name-brand superhero pictures – Mark Goldblatt’s The Punisher (1989) and Albert Pyun’s Captain America (1990, for example – went essentially straight to video. Universal decided that Raimi and his brother Ivan’s original Darkman treatment was the better bet – especially considering its modest $16 million budget.
Darkman is the unique product of a rare cinematic business climate. It also bears more of Raimi’s influences than perhaps any other movie he made. It’s a veritable grab bag of comic book and pulp horror archetypes. By mixing these archetypes, the Raimis, working with comic book writer and future comic adaptor Chuck Pfarrer (Virus , Barb Wire ), acknowledge the long-standing similarities between movie monsters and superheroes. The Incredible Hulk’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde/Frankenstein’s Monster parallels have always been clearly stated, but other commonalities, like the ones between Spider-Man and the Wolfman, for example, are pretty easy to overlook. There are also a number of classic Hollywood monster analogues hiding within the popular heroes’ rogues galleries, including Dr. Doom, Morpheus the Living Vampire, Man-Wolf, Man-Bat, Solomon Grundy, and Two-Face. Peyton Westlake/Darkman’s origin and ‘powers’ are an amalgamation of a number of established properties, including The Phantom of the Opera (both Westlake and The Phantom are physically scarred that plot revenge from within darkened lairs), House of Wax (Westlake and Professor Henry Jarrod both create lifelike masks to cover their hideously mangled faces), Frankenstein/The Monster (in this case, Raimi’s character fits both roles), Dr. Jekyll & Mr, Hyde (Westlake has a sort of implied split-personality and suffers from violent mood swings), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (in terms of the tragic love story), Batman (at times, Darkman seems like a sort of parody of Batman’s major character traits and modus operandi). Perhaps inspired by Raimi, Tim Burton also took cues from The Phantom of the Opera when developing The Penguin for his Batman follow-up, Batman Returns (1992).
Darkman’s greatest strengths aren’t necessarily in concept, but Raimi’s flamboyant direction and manic tone. Every conceivable thing about the film is over the top. The camera work is swift enough to break your neck, the production design is outrageous, the dialogue is more comic book inspired than any modern adaptation would dare, and the performances are as broad as a barn. Raimi was permitted to preload the cast with his personal friends, including his brother Ted, ex-housemate Frances McDormand, and Evil Dead 2 alum Dan Hicks, but Universal wouldn’t allow him to use Bruce Campbell for the title role, so he used a pre-superstardom Liam Neeson…and then convinced him to act like Bruce Campbell. The resulting performance is unlike anything else in Neeson’s career, including that time he played a Lego brand cop with two faces. Despite unmistakable appearing sans-make-up several times throughout the film, he’s almost unrecognizable behind wild eyes, gaping mouth, and comic blubbering. Note that Neeson’s biggest breakthrough, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), co-starred Embeth Davidtz, who appeared in Raimi’s Army of Darkness the same year.
Raimi took at least a little stylistic inspiration from Burton (Danny Elfman’s score is enough to verify this), but watching the film again, I notice that his blend of comedy and drama has more in common with Paul Verhoven’s Robocop (1987), not to mention the evil CEO and city-rebuilding angles of both scripts. Raimi doesn’t reproduce any of Verhoven’s imagery, though, ensuring Darkman’s status as connective tissue between the Evil Dead and his later, budget-bursting superhero movies. For all of their elastic, digitally-created images and modern special effects, the Spider-Man movies (especially Spider-Man 3, which features basically the same climax) are still extensions of his more gruesome comic-inspired work. And it’s not all maniacal action and hallucinatory montage transitions, either – Raimi jams the film full of indelible images, like villain Durant’s “creative” use of a cigar cutter, a drinking bird toy that triggers a push-button lighter, or the fingers that Peyton bends and breaks when a carnie doesn’t hand over the pink elephant he won fair and square. In the tradition of Evil Dead II, Darkman’s ultra-violence is cartoonish without much of the cruelty that normally coincides with graphic cinematic mayhem. I imagine it would get a PG-13 if released today, minus a couple of f-bombs.
Universal has been happy to release and re-release [I]Darkman[/I] on home video over the years. It has a big enough cult following to make them a couple of bucks every time they add it to a new format. These include DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray releases. This may sound like good news – Scream Factory already has an HD print to work from – but we must remember that Universal was responsible for some awful, over-modulated, and DNR-heavy HD transfers at the beginning of the HD home video era. Among the most notorious of these bad transfers are Spartacus, Tremors, and Cat People. Last month, Scream Factory released a special edition of Cat People using that same unfortunate, but not entirely horrible, HD DVD transfer. Now, Universal’s Darkman releases were not among these despised discs, but was similarly problematic, so fans worried that Scream Factory would, once again, reuse a less than stellar 1080p encode.
First, the bad news: this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer was definitely made using the same encode as Universal’s Blu-ray and HD DVD releases. There are unmistakable signs of DNR and some images, wide-shots in particular, are over-sharpened, causing notable edge enhancement effects. Now, the good news: Universal didn’t mangle this film nearly as much as those others. The digital augmentations are often pretty easy to overlook and the transfer is definitely an improvement over any of the DVD versions. Similar to Universal’s Blu-ray release of Army of Darkness, this transfer is inconsistent from shot to shot in terms of image clarity and detail. This may be the fault of the original material; as in both cases, Raimi’s use of layered process shots (I believe he used a mix of blue screen, Intravision effects, and rear projection) seems to cause the biggest downturns in quality. Having never seen Darkman in theaters, I’m not sure if the dated optical effects were as problematic on the big screen, but they’ve certainly been easy to notice on DVD and VHS. However, there is some comfort in the grain and minor print damage artifacts, because they represent scenes that have not been DNR’d into flat, broad shapes. Colors are a lot stronger and tighter than my DVD copy without the overall palette appearing over-modulated (maybe a shade more red than yellow/orange of older versions).
Scream Factory also snagged Universal’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack for this release and improves upon that release by including the original 2.0, stereo surround in the form of another uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio track. The 5.1 remix seems to be the same one that has been used since the original DVD release and is barely distinctive from its 2.0 basis. Flipping between the tracks the only major difference is the discrete center channel, which gives the 5.1 remix a slight edge. The LFE bounce is really not an issue, but the properly centered dialogue makes a small difference. The mix is pretty aggressive for one predating digital theatrical output, but follows the lead Raimi set with his aurally abstracted Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 sound designs. The dialogue-heavy sequences are definitely low-key, but action scenes are poppy and brimming with directional cues. Perhaps more expressive are those wild Sam Raimi montages, which swirl with cartoonish aural hallucinogens. The sound quality of Danny Elfman’s very Danny Elfman-esque score is the most impressive 2.0 to 5.1 upgrade. The LFE warms up the instrumentations and the multi-channel spread helps separate the subtler musical elements.
Audio commentary track with director of photography Bill Pope.
Dissecting Darkman (7:30, HD) – An interview with Liam Neeson where the actor respectfully and happily recalls working on his first starring role.
Interview with Frances McDormand (10:50, HD) – McDormand’s behind-the-scenes stories are delightfully personal, considering that she and Raimi were personal friends at the time of the film’s production.
My Name is Durant (16:00, HD) – An interview with Larry Drake, who also has particularly fond memories of the production, the first STV sequel, and an unseen pseudo-pilot for a Darkman TV series.
The Face of Revenge (13:20, HD) – An interview with make-up Designer Tony Gardner, including some brief behind-the-scenes video.
Henchman Tales (13:00, HD) – A pair of interviews with actors Danny Hicks and Dan Bell, who discuss the fun of playing the bad guy.
Dark Design (16:50, HD) – A pair of interviews with production designer Randy Ser and art director Philip Dagort, including original sketches, models, and storyboards.
A vintage EPK featurette (6:30, SD)
Full-length interviews from the EPK (9:00, SD)
Further vintage interviews with Raimi (23:10, SD), Neeson (28:00, SD), McDormand (20:40, SD), and Colin Friels (12:10, SD).
Four still galleries – Posters & production stills, behind-the-scenes, make-up effects, and storyboards.
Darkman represents director Sam Raimi in a transitional place in his career, mostly for the better. His hyperactive direction didn’t only foreshadow his work on the Spider-Man series, it likely inspired another harbinger of the modern superhero boom, Stephen Norrington’s even more R-rated Blade (though, let’s not forget Raimi’s other contribution to original superhero properties, executive producing the 1994 TV series M.A.N.T.I.S.). It’s disappointing that Scream Factory didn’t go back to the negatives for a full-on remaster, but Universal’s original transfer isn’t as problematic as some of their others and is certainly an upgrade over DVD versions.
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