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Exploring the ever-diminishing returns of the “Crow” franchise

The Crow

While the first movie in the series was stylish & unexpectedly moving, it was tainted by cheap, empty sequels that forgot what made it special.

You don’t have to have seen The Crow to know the story behind it. It’s one of the great Hollywood tragedies, like the Twilight Zone crash, or the Poltergeist curse, where watching them feels a little forbidden and eerie. That’s particularly true for The Crow, because the scene in which star Brandon Lee was accidentally killed with a prop gun was left more or less intact. Granted, there’s some clever editing and use of a body double, but it’s close enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

I shan’t spend too much time recounting The Crow, because, again, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve sort of seen it (and also it’s already been written about at length on this very website). I will say that I rewatched it for this project, and was surprised to see how well it holds up. It might be perhaps the most early 90s movie ever made, but unlike, say, Reality Bites, it’s in a way that’s still cool and stylish. The swooping urban landscape shots, created almost entirely with miniatures, are still a feast for the eyes, and would be put to even greater use four years later by director Alex Proyas, in his masterpiece Dark City. Sure, the villains, who have names like “Tin Tin” and “Funboy,” are laughably over the top, but they’re balanced by Lee, undoubtedly a rising star, who plays doomed hero Eric Draven with subtlety and genuine human emotion.

Mostly, it’s surprisingly moving, in a way you don’t often find graphic novel adaptations to be. It’s perhaps the most romantic take on the avenging angel trope, and whomst among us wouldn’t do the same if the love of our life was so cruelly snatched away from us? Sure, most of us wouldn’t look as cool in Eric’s goth clown get-up as he does, but who doesn’t melt a little bit at the idea of love lasting even beyond death?

Because a completed version of The Crow didn’t exist while Brandon Lee was alive, it’s impossible to determine if it would have been as highly received were things different. It seems unlikely – there were few “name” actors in the cast, and Alex Proyas would, even a decade after The Crow’s release, remain a director whose films were more admired than profitable. It’s morbid to say that people went to see it only because of the tragedy surrounding it, so let’s soften the edges on that and just say it was a large part of what piqued audience interest. It certainly makes watching it a more emotional experience, which one doesn’t usually expect from a movie based in some nonsense folklore about undead vengeance and spirit animals.

In a perfect world, particularly considering the events connected to it, The Crow should have been a one and done, as a tribute both to the memory of Brandon Lee, and to the short-lived grunge era overall. Nevertheless, Miramax noted the doubling of its budget at the box office, decided “Yes, we must make more of these, even if the leading man is dead,” and proceeded to churn out one of the most atrocious film franchises of all time. If you’re reading this and thinking “I didn’t know The Crow had sequels,” stop here and go on with your blessed life, blissfully unaware that these movies exist. If you’re like me, and insist on treating bad movies like delicious, irresistible candy, proceed.

Though it often takes three or even four movies into a franchise before they start getting tiresome and unwatchable, The Crow’s swift descent began just two years later, with the release of The Crow: City of Angels. The most important thing you need to know about City of Angels is that it’s the exact same movie as The Crow. It has the same Graeme Revell score, the same shots of a decaying city that’s occasionally on fire. There’s even a white cat named Gabriel. The primary difference is that, rather than the murder of a couple, it’s the murder of a father and his young son that sets off the events. Yet, it feels every bit the cheap, hollow cash-in it was intended to be, with not so much as a fraction of the humanity that went into the making of its predecessor.

Eric’s adolescent street urchin friend Sarah is now sexy goth chick Mia Kirshner, all grown up and working as a tattoo artist in Los Angeles, which somehow looks even worse than the Detroit of the first movie. She sort of dreams the Crow, now an auto mechanic played by French hunk Vincent Perez, into existence so that he can avenge his and his little boy’s deaths at the hands of yet another group of thugs with silly nicknames, one of which is played by Iggy Pop (for some reason), and another by Thomas Jane, wearing your grandma’s wig and eyeliner.

Though in The Crow the Alice Cooper-esque mime makeup Eric wears is explicitly chosen by him, in the other movies in the series, that, along with floppy hair and roadie-for-Bauhaus clothes, is now the uniform of choice for undead avenging angels. Perez in makeup looks almost exactly like Brandon Lee, enough that you get the impression that the filmmakers were hoping audiences wouldn’t notice the difference. Then he opens his mouth, and it’s all over. With Perez such a personality void, everything else is done bigger. Los Angeles is a nightmare hellscape, where its citizens impassively look on while a man is hanged and whipped. It’s more violent, more unnecessarily sexual (including a full minute of Thomas Jane masturbating in front of a sex worker), even the soundtrack is louder and more aggressive.

Not to be outdone is the acting, which is cranked up so high on the dial that you can almost smell wires burning. Much of the dialogue is shouted, and no one walks through a door whey they could kick it in instead. The farthest out of orbit is Iggy Pop, who recites all of his dialogue with his eyes bugging out, like someone is constantly stepping on his balls. The sole exception is Kirshner, who underacts to the point of unconsciousness. None of this distracts from the fact that it’s a pale copy of the original, one that tries desperately to play the same notes without bothering to read the music. It should have stood as proof that absolutely no more movies in this series should have been made. It’s not even anything to do with a “curse” or anything like that, unless you’re counting the curse of incompetence.

The best you can say about 2000’s The Crow: Salvation is that it’s not a shameless rehash of the first movie. Oh sure, it’s still unwatchable in every possible way, but at least it’s working with a new and original plot. We’re back to murdered lovers, but here their deaths are related to an extremely complicated (and completely moronic) police corruption ring that also involves underground sex clubs, drug smuggling and secret taxidermy/torture rooms. With much of the plot hinging on a mysterious man with a scarred arm, it’s more of a limp spin on The Fugitive than a Crow movie.

Like City of Angels, an absolute blank of a leading man (Eric Mabius) is surrounded by a bafflingly random collection of co-stars, including Ghostbusters villain William Atherton, Murphy Brown’s Grant Shaud, Walton Goggins, Fred Ward and Kirsten Dunst, in between star-making performances in The Virgin Suicides and Bring it On. She’s not very good here, but to be fair no one else is either. Ward at least seems to understand what kind of nonsense he’s in, while everyone else plays it very laughably straight.

Because the mythos changes a little bit in each movie, in this one it’s a magical locket that gives our hero his powers and invincibility. Oh, and he can fly, because, you know, whatever.

Salvation is probably the least bad of the sequels, which is an extremely low bar to meet, and absolutely should not be interpreted to mean it’s good. With its youthful lead (Mabius co-starred in Cruel Intentions just a year before) it seems like it might have been marketed towards a younger audience, as if the earlier movies were big with the Matlock and Metamucil crowd. As with City of Angels, the audience is told that it’s supposed to care about this couple and what’s happened to them, when all we get is a handful of grainy flashbacks, and no sense of who they are as people. It omits any sense of heart or soul, coming off like an extended music video, one in which the audio is regrettably provided by Static-X and Kid Rock.

2005’s The Crow: Wicked Prayer dared to ask what if The Crow, but with some made-up-by-whitey “Native American” bullshit, and Satan? I don’t even know where to start with this, except to say that if you can buy bland TV stalwart David Boreanaz as a Charles Manson-esque cult leader who can single-handedly overcome four prison guards, then you’ll probably be okay with it.

Rather than an urban hellhole, Wicked Prayer takes place on a reservation in the Southwest, though considering there are no actual Native American actors in the cast, the only way you would know that it’s “Native” is that the soundtrack consists mostly of mournful Spanish guitar and panflute (with some occasional mystical “ah ya ya” vocalizing). As opposed to the other three movies, the villains get as much, if not more screen time than the hero. Luc Crash (Boreanaz) and his girlfriend Lola Byrne (Tara Reid) — yes, that’s “Crash and Byrne,” like a bad cop show — along with their henchmen Pestilence, War and Famine (I continue to not kid you) are hoping to partake in a ritual that will allow the Devil to be reborn in Luc. This very small cult lives on the reservation terrorizing its citizens unchecked, while Jimmy Cuervo (Edward Furlong), a young ex-con who committed a fairly noble crime (killing a rapist), is harassed and spat upon by the local constabulary.

Part of Luc and Lola’s extremely complicated ritual involves murdering Jimmy and his girlfriend, sacrificing a virgin, and then murdering a whole bunch of other people on the way to getting married before cult elder El Nino (Dennis Hopper! Dennis Hopper!!!!!) and consummating their marriage in a cemetery. Jimmy returning from the dead to seek vengeance for his and his girlfriend’s murders seems secondary to all this nonsense, which includes Luc wisecracking “How about a little sympathy for the Devil?”.

Though Furlong does try, God bless him, the problem is that he looks like he’s about fifteen here, and thus not terribly convincing as a super-strong undead avenging angel. Nor is David Boreanaz as a mesh shirt wearing devil worshipper with “666” carved on his chest, or Tara Reid, dressed like she came to the set directly from Coachella, as the Devil’s concubine. The miscasting is across the board astonishing, but none so much as Dennis Hopper, who uses phrases like “mack daddy” and “original gangsta” like he knows what he’s saying. Macy Gray, after being called in for a favor presumably, shows up too, for approximately two minutes before she’s killed off.

In a series that plays fast and loose with logic (even the first one suffered from vague and inconsistent folklore), Wicked Prayer is the most incoherent of all. It’s a borderline offensive mish-mosh of “Native American” mythology, Christianity, and Satanism, making a fairly simple storyline unnecessarily complicated. It doesn’t help that all the primary actors think they’re in different movies: Furlong is in a high school production of The Crow, Boreanaz and Reid are in an Asylum version of Natural Born Killers, and Dennis Hopper is just launched into space, floating among the stars in a different plane of existence from the rest of us. Once again, like its two predecessors, it’s so eager to get into the violence and mayhem that Jimmy’s relationship with his girlfriend barely gets more than five minutes of screen time before she’s brutally murdered. For all we know, they could have met yesterday, and as far as the filmmakers are concerned, it doesn’t matter.

Wicked Prayer, which earned a one week theatrical release in Seattle before disappearing into direct to DVD obscurity, remains the last sequel to The Crow. A reboot, starring everyone from Bradley Cooper to Luke Evans to Jason Momoa, has been threatened for years, but so far all attempts have stalled out, largely due to financial and creative differences (you’ll note that “lack of audience interest” is never given as a reason). There’s a certain sort of “only in Hollywood” arrogance that allows one to keep trying to restart a series in which the best part of it died 28 years ago, but just as love never dies, neither does hubris.

*Yes, I am aware that a short-lived TV show based on The Crow exists, but I can only punish myself so much.

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Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.