“Darkman” was Sam Raimi’s original superhero classic

Darkman Liam Neeson in Darkman. (Universal)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. October sees not only the onset of Halloween but the birthday of cult horror maestro-turned-mainstream filmmaker Sam Raimi; all month, we’re web-slinging through his vibrant, diverse filmography. Read the rest of our coverage here.

NOW STREAMING:

Sam Raimi can’t escape superhero cinema. After helming a trio of Spider-Man movies, he’s now on board to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Long before those big-budget endeavors, however, Raimi made his debut foray into major studio filmmaking with a wholly original superhero yarn called Darkman.

The title lead starts out as a scientist named Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), who’s currently working around the clock to find a way to create synthetic skin. When he’s not in the office, Westlake spends time with his lawyer girlfriend, Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand). However, mob boss Robert Durant (Larry Drake) upends Westlake’s cozy life. On the hunt for incriminating documents, Durant attacks Westlake’s lab and leaves him for dead.

That is not where Westlake’s tale ends, though. Against all odds, he’s alive. However, he’s been heavily scarred and an unexpected medical procedure has severed his pain receptors. Setting up a makeshift lab in an abandoned warehouse, Westlake works on creating synthetic skin for himself. Also on his agenda is, of course, exacting revenge on Durant and his cronies.

Though technically a superhero story, Darkman has far more in common with classic monster movies than The Phantom. The screenplay—credited to Raimi, Chuck Pfarrer, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, and Joshua Goldin—gives the titular the bandaged bodied of The Invisible Man. It also gives him the secret lair of The Phantom of the Opera and Quasimodo’s doomed romance.

Darkman

Darkman‘s monstrousness is clear in Westlake’s response to his new abilities. The joy Peter Parker felt in trying out his web-swinging for the first time in Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie is totally absent from Darkman. Instead, horror fills Westlake due to his sudden inability to feel pain. This quality is particularly apparent when Westlake discovers first-hand that his lack of pain nerves means he can no longer tell when his hands are on fire.

Looking upon his singed palms, Westlake begins to murmur, “They took my hands,” repeatedly before thrashing objects around his ramshackle lab. Westlake’s recourse in the face of his monstrous new form is to behave like a monster. The tangibly rendered tragedy in this sequence gives Darkman a sense of potent woe lacking in many superhero movies.

It is not all just somber homages to classic monster movies in Darkman, though. Just look at Durant, an enjoyably over-the-top caricature of an evil mob boss surrounded by goons defined by eccentric personality traits. The tormented parts of Darkman take their cues from Universal Monsters movies. The superhero aspects, meanwhile, feature baddies that could have easily wandered off from fellow 1990 blockbuster Dick Tracy.

Darkman isn’t always graceful hopping between these disparate creative influences. One can’t help but wonder if a slew of scenes deleted at the last minute may have helped create a slightly more cohesive product. However, what remains compensates for its messiness with consistent dedication. No matter what Darkman is doing, it thoroughly commits. Like so many other works by Raimi, it may not be the most polished movie on the block, but its creativity proves irresistible.

Just look at how nobody portraying those stylized villains in Darkman is sleepwalking through their roles. Drake especially provides a memorably imposing screen presence as Durant even when his character isn’t chopping off fingers. Even the movie’s approach to romance reflects a sense of dedication too; in the vein of King Kong or The Phantom of the Opera, Darkman is a yarn about a doomed romance between a monster and a beautiful woman. The script calls for high drama in conveying this dynamic, and both Neeson and McDormand are all too happy to oblige.

Like so many other works by Raimi, it may not be the most polished movie on the block, but its creativity proves irresistible.

Darkman has heart, but it also has guts in the form of rampant violence Darkman inflicts on evildoers. Though he had to tone things down for his first major studio gig (no blood here!), Raimi still dishes out the kind of violence that defined his earliest X-rated fare. Most notably, Darkman has a particular fixation on screwing up people’s figures. Everybody from mob bosses to a crude carny gets their fingers messed up. Why fingers? Who knows, but it sure leaves an impact.

In fact, the movie’s violent tendencies are especially apparent during its extended climax. This sequence starts out as an ambush in Darkman’s lair. Then it transforms into a car/helicopter chase, and finally, it settles on being a showdown in an elevated construction site. Much like Aquaman nearly three decades later, Darkman isn’t content to have just one finale. It gives viewers three of them! While some of the blue-screen background work has aged poorly, this barrage of action otherwise proves incredibly fun after 30 years. The home stretch even provides the most overt peek at what is to come in Raimi’s career. If Darkman and Louis Strack Jr.’s (Colin Friels) final showdown is any indicator, Raimi had the idea to set a superhero movie climax at a construction site long before Spider-Man 3 came swinging in.

The setting for a climax is not the only thing Raimi carried over from Darkman to his trio of Spider-Man movies. Merging monster movies with superhero fare runs all throughout the original web-slinging trilogy. That unforgettable scene in Spider-Man 2 of Doc Ock regaining consciousness in the hospital could have come from an unmade Darkman sequel. Even Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s romance fraught with grandiose tragedy took some pages from Westlake and Hastings’ love affair here.

But Darkman isn’t just a precursor to Raimi’s Spider-Man: It’s practically a test run. The past and future of Raimi’s career collided with Darkman as did the world of superhero and monster movies. The result is something that is messy, but it’s also immensely ambition and entertaining, a microcosm of the delightful and tonally expansive productions that define Raimi’s filmography.

Darkman Trailer:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!