When Sam Raimi was tapped to direct the first SPIDER-MAN movie, cult movie fans were left scratching their heads. Up to that point, Raimi was best known as the maverick auteur behind the gorehound-beloved EVIL DEAD trilogy, which introduced to the cultural lexicon such evocative terms as “chainsaw-hand,” “tree-rape,” and “primitive screwheads.” (Those same fans would be even more confounded when Peter “MEET THE FEEBLES” Jackson took the reins of the LORD OF THE RINGS juggernaut). In reality, of course, Raimi was the perfect choice as he had already created a nearly perfect Comic Book Movie more than a decade earlier — without the crutch of having based it on a comic book.
Comic Book Movies, after all, are more than merely adaptations of graphic novels; a great one need only adopt a particular pulpy, whizz-bang attitude, while only incidentally paying lip service to dreary constraints like “logic” and “reality.” THE WARRIORS, FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, and FASTER PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! are all sterling examples of the genre, all without direct origins in the funny pages. Conversely, the films of Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy take great pains not to be Comic Book Movies, despite starring one of comic books’ greatest superheroes.
DARKMAN is a superhero movie, to be sure, but it owes just as much to the gruesome morality tales of EC’s horror comics of the ’50s. In a nutshell: a brilliant scientist (Liam Neeson, pre-SCHINDLER’S LIST) develops a lifelike synthetic skin, but only gets it to last 100 minutes before his lab is destroyed by a psychotic mob boss (Larry Drake, pre-L.A. LAW). Believed to be dead, but rendered both hideously scarred and nigh-invulnerable by his rescue procedure (performed, in an uncredited cameo, by AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON’s Jenny Agutter), Neeson uses his false epidermis to wreak revenge on the gangsters responsible, as well as for necessarily brief attempts at reconciliation with his girlfriend (Frances McDormand, pre-FARGO).
If that sounds ludicrously convoluted, it is — intentionally so. Given the highest budget of his career (though still a drop in the bucket compared to most Hollywood blockbusters), Raimi goes for broke. The plot becomes a framework for all manners of gonzo setpieces: a hitman opens fire with a machine gun hidden in his wooden leg (forcing him to hop as he shoots); Neeson unleashes his wrath on a carny over a pink elephant in a rigged ring-toss game; and, in a gloriously over-the-top finale, the gangsters attempt to do our hero harm by swinging him into buildings from a helicopter. All of this is underscored by Raimi’s signature frenetic camerawork, as well as cameos by frequent collaborators like William Lustig, Scott Spiegel, Raimi’s brother Ted, and, of course, Bruce Campbell. Raimi may have moved onto more lucrative heroes, but to get the full story, you really have to start with the first issue.
DARKMAN (1990) dir. Sam Raimi [96 minutes]
Friday, 2/28 & Saturday, 3/1, 11:59 PM
Coolidge Corner Theater (290 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA 02446)