Remembering the cult hit that combined timeless themes of love and vengeance with grungy goth style.
The Crow could not exist if it had not been born in 1994.
This may seem a facile statement. After all, film history is heavily populated by movies that feel inescapably of their era. The Crow, however, has a unique place among even those films. It stands at a strange crossroads of trends in film, fashion, music, and movie politics. These crashing factors ensured it was not only made, but noticed, celebrated, and enduring. Literally a year earlier or a year later, The Crow could have easily ended up a never released film from a first time director, a straight to VHS curiosity, or a hopeless, out of touch relic of a zeitgeist already in the past.
However, its precarious positioning resulted in a strange alchemy. Despite the clashing factors, The Crow somehow managed to select the exact right mix of elements to elevate itself. Even the tragic death of its star somehow did not send it toppling. Instead, when it hit theaters in May of ’94 it felt entirely calibrated for the exact moment.
In 1994, fashion was a bit of a mess. Grunge had reached its apex only to immediately begin its descent, due both to Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and the co-opting of the look by massive fashion labels at high fashion prices. A dominant replacement did not yet present itself.
Without a dominant mainstream fashion movement of the moment, the production team was able to fully embrace the deep goth look of the source material without interference. Moreover, goth’s own evolution allowed the filmmakers to “mark” the sides in the film.
Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), the man who would become the Crow, his girlfriend Shelly (Sofia Shinas), and the few other non-criminal types we encounter tend to favor a mix of Traditional Goth—think the Cure sans makeup—Deathrock, and the rising Industrial style. This suggested both their coolness—they were embracing Industrial about a year before it would come into its full power—and their lack of resources. It reflected what they loved and they could afford it.
The mainstream was also nibbling on this look with Uma Thurman’s easy to do light Goth in Pulp Fiction, and Madonna’s jet black bob and endless array of black mini-dress with fishnet tops, as seen in the video for “Rain.”
In contrast, the villains fit into two modes of dress. Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), Myca (Bai Ling), and Grange (Tony Todd) represent the top of organized crime in this vaguely futuristic, dystopian Detroit. They all embrace goth of Victorian variety—also often referred to as Vampire or Romantic. This tends to be more expensive and ornamental, fashion as a designation of not just interest, but status.
The thugs, who include T-Bird (David Patrick Kelly) and Tin Tin (Laurence Mason), on the other hand, feel weirdly stuck in an earlier time. Aspects of hair metal seem to dominate their look, especially Funboy (Michael Massee), who looks like he literally just walked off a set with Guns ‘n’ Roses at the Viper Room. The villains, thus, are the rich who co-opt “our” look and miss the point, and the bullies who refuse to make room for the trends that have supplanted them.
The Crow soundtrack hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1994 eventually selling 3.8 million pressings and certified triple platinum. It was powered by a mix of alternative, alternative metal, goth, and heavy industrial music.
Nine Inch Nails, who was heavily featured in the ads for the soundtrack, offered a Joy Division cover on the disk. Simultaneously, the group was riding the success of The Downward Spiral, a quadruple platinum album that proved Reznor and Company’s most successful album ever. It would be the last time they came anywhere near such success. Its follow-up failed to hit a million copies sold, a milestone that NIN would experience only once more in its career.
As noted elsewhere, 1994 marked the effective end of grunge’s rise, and the drop came fast on its heels. While bands like Pearl Jam would continue to experience success, most other grunge acts would disappear from the charts and break up over the course of the next couple of years.
Alternative rock also began to slip, becoming an increasingly the default “rock” genre. Increasingly old stalwarts like R.E.M. found themselves dismissed by serious fans alongside acts like Bush and Dishwalla. As the genre became diluted, so too did the feverish devotion to it.
However, the real killer of the music that gave The Crow its heartbeat debuted the same month the movie hit theaters, when Korn released its self-titled debut and quietly launched a soon-to-be dominant new music style. Rap-rock would completely dominate alternative radio over the next three years, while the pop charts continued to embrace boy and girl bubblegum pop acts.
In 1994, four acts on The Crow soundtrack also had number one albums on the Billboard 200. By 1998, no one even in the same genre had a #1 album.
The Business Side
In 1994, no one thought of the superhero genre like they do now. While many praise it now, Batman Returns was considered both too dark, and too silly, by critics, audiences, and studios, meaning that, despite its success in 1992, Warner Brothers was still retooling the Batman franchise. The Shadow was due out in July, and the writing was on the wall before The Crow even hit theaters. Superman would not fly again on-screen for decades. America would need to wait two more years to slam evil alongside Billy Zane in The Phantom.
As a result, studios were generally not that interested in comic book adaptations. This allowed Alex Proyas, a first-time director who cut his teeth on music videos, the kind of freedom he would not have had prior to Batman Return‘s release, or only a year later when Batman Forever ushered in kid-friendly and toyetic as the new approach to superhero movies.
Thus, not beholden to a particular mode of superhero film (or even his own previous efforts), Proyas created a look and feel to The Crow that was wholly unique.
Moreover, the lack of studio attention allowed Proyas to subvert his own tropes. Looking at the two videos that came before The Crow—both Sting clips—one can see Proyas’ definitive style in them. However, much of what is notable come from the touches of knowing artificiality he would really bring to bear in Dark City four years later.
Intriguingly, Proyas’ videos actually seem closer to Tarsem Singh’s cinematic work than what Proyas did with The Crow. Given Singh and Proyas were music video contemporaries, this makes sense. Given how little you see it in Proyas’s own films—and how much in Singh’s—it is attention grabbing.
Thus, not beholden to a particular mode of superhero film (or even his own previous efforts), Proyas created a look and feel to The Crow that was wholly unique. The Crow ended up released by Miramax when Paramount more or less dropped it in the studio’s lap. If this did not happen, chances are high that no one would be writing about the movie on its 25th anniversary.
First, you have to consider the studio Paramount was in 1993 when it decided to ditch The Crow. After four years of dancing about, Viacom finally got permission to buy out the studio. During that time, Paramount had seen four different heads of studio, and reduced its output to largely sequels and adaptations of existing materials, especially television shows. Paramount was not a good fit for The Crow at that time, and it likely wouldn’t have received any kind of marketing push. That is, if Viacom even decided to release it in 1994 instead of, say, pushing it onto what we now call the SyFy Channel.
Miramax, in contrast, was a studio on the rise. Coming off its most prolific year yet in 1993, including Oscar success for The Piano, the formerly indie studio was looking at its first year as a Disney subsidiary. With the Mouse’s money at its back, it decided to take big cuts in 1994, and it showed. In that year alone, Miramax released Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Sirens, Heavenly Creatures, and Red and White from the Three Colors series. It is not hyperbole to say 1994 marks the official transition of indie becoming mainstream, and right in the middle of it stood The Crow.
If not for Paramount dumping it mid-merger rather than trying to make it work or downgrading it, and if not for Miramax being hungry and ready to truly arrive, The Crow lacked the resources and the attention to make an impact. And speaking of resources…
No article about The Crow can overlook the on-set accidental shooting of Brandon Lee. Due to a disturbing combination of cut corners and mistakes, the film’s star ended up shot in the abdomen by a blank that should have discharged during a prior scene. The wound caught Lee’s aorta and he bled out rapidly, dying just eight days before the production was scheduled to wrap.
While some of the unfilmed scenes could be cut entirely, and others could be framed differently to keep Lee’s double enough in shadow to “pass,” there was simply no way to finish the film without his face appearing in some of the remaining shots. While digital effects were still fledgling, they had advanced enough to map Lee’s face onto his double’s for at least short periods of time and have it still “work.” Compare The Crow to a similar trick in Fast & Furious 7, and the efforts of the Crow digital team stand up incredibly well.
In fact, some of the necessary increase in digital effects created an eeriness to the images that enhance the film’s overall aesthetic. Had it been filmed earlier, no such solution would have existed. Later, and the technology may have advanced so far that you would lose one of the things that make the film so visually interesting.
A Film of Its Time
And so, The Crow came to life. Born on the backs of trends just about to plummet to Earth, it has become a kind of living artifact, a capsule of everything that crested in 1994.
However, it’s not just an ode to dying styles. It also stands as a harbinger of things to come. The reason The Crow succeeded may lie entirely with it being so of the moment, but the reason it endures lies with the inspirations left in its wake. We can see it in the fashions of The Matrix, which ironically rejected cybergoth—Immortan Joe’s look in Mad Max: Fury Road but less dusty—to embrace Industrial and Victorian, already years past their first sell-by date.
You can see it in Blade, both in terms of the heavy leather look, the present dystopian feel, and the career of screenwriter David Goyer, who wrote the first Crow sequel before nabbing Blade. Its use of face mapping has proven invaluable as well, saving Oliver Reed‘s performance in Gladiator, and the aforementioned noted Fast & Furious 7. The MCU, additionally, probably owes The Crow a debt for the incredible realizations of characters like Thanos in Infinity War, and Professor Hulk in Endgame.
Again, a year earlier, a year later, this article does not exist, The Crow is, perhaps, a cult hit or a forgotten curiosity. However, in 1994, it proved a perfect film for the moment and a inspiration point for many films and careers since.