These days, the superhero genre is one of the most bankable genres of film. However, a quarter century ago, the cinematic language of the modern superhero film was just beginning to be developed. 25 years ago this August, a bizarre proto-superhero film was released that would set the table for genre-blending aspects that have come to make great superhero films. That film was Sam Raimi’s Darkman. Darkman is great for multiple reasons – it has the best Bruce Campbell cameo in a Raimi film and is one of the only superhero films that is wholly original and not adapted from previously existing material – but 25 years later what makes it still a unique piece of cinema is how it stands as perhaps the first explicit superhero film that blended genres. Not only is it completely original material in terms of its superhero narrative, it’s also a compelling mixture of genres as Raimi brought horror filmmaking to a superhero tale. Plus, any film that has Liam Neeson yelling the line “TAKE THE FUCKING ELEPHANT!” deserves to be put in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress.
Darkman followed the journey of Peyton Westlake, a scientist who went from man to monster to hero. Given Raimi’s cult iconography, Darkman was always destined to bask in the similar limelight of the Evil Dead films. What sets it apart is that nobody better understands how to combine camp and horror like Raimi does, creating a unique mixture of the two in a superhero film format. Raimi’s nature is a heightened one, and it was all over this film, bringing many of the same techniques used to frighten and conjure up camp in his Evil Dead films. He uses canted angles, will attach the camera to a fixed object and then thrust that object around the setting to give a bizarre POV, with quick and theatrical editing to heighten the reality of this world. In his Evil Dead films up to that point, both the comedy and horror came from a theatrical and cinematic sense of absence of subtlety. They were explicit in their construction, and succeeded due to the commitment of dialing things up to 11.
The action and heroics in Darkman are constructed with the same sense of inventive explicitness. When Darkman fights Durant’s men in the climax, he doesn’t just punch it out, he plans it all out like a well-timed scare from a slasher. One henchman, Guzman, discovers the various masks he has with Raimi snap-zooming in on them like he’s discovered the slasher’s lair full of victims. He then taunts Guzman, darting across the shadows and laughing in a way that is echoed to mask its origination point. Having toyed with his prey enough, Darkman lunges from above. It’s a classic type of horror scene in slasher cinema, having the villain toy with the victim and the audience, and it works just as well in this superhero tale having shot it with the suspense and payoff of his horror films.
Given Raimi’s background in horror, he brought a refreshing sense of practical effects filmmaking, as well as many storytelling and character elements from the genre. It’s often believed that the best superhero films are successful at being other genres of films first, then retrofitted to a cape. For example, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy were crime thrillers first, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier operated as a political thriller. Darkman was a horror film, a Frankenstein tale, before donning any sort of crime-fighting outfit. The horror films that stand the test of time are the ones that rely on practical effects, and the same applies to Darkman. The makeup work is a painstaking one with intricate detail in creating Peyton’s burned, Freddy Krueger-like face. It’s a visceral bit of imagery that shocks as much as it captivates. The inspiration of horror is heavily evident in the look of Darkman, with Peyton adopting a Frankenstein-ian narrative and an appearance that draws on the previously mentioned horror icon and The Invisible Man. Half his body has been blown and burned off, hence the image of monstrosity and repulsion that Frankenstein dealt with, and the wrappings he covers his face with call back to The Invisible Man. Given his ability to disguise himself using the synthetic skin, he adopts the traits of anonymity not dissimilar to The Invisible Man.
For Raimi, Darkman also contained the DNA of how he would create certain aspects of his Spider-Man films a decade plus later. Consider how Raimi constructs his montages in both films, where various shots will pour over each other. In Darkman it occurs as Peyton researches how to keep the skin from melting after coming back from the dead. Vials and tubes from his experiments glide across the screen. This technique was mirrored in Raimi’s Spider-Man when Peter is searching for a car and sketching ideas for his outfit. Shots of sketches and notes wash over each other, with Mary Jane making repeat appearances to motivate him. Liam Neeson would also show his first glimpse of action stardom as Darkman before becoming Hollywood’s most bankable action star in his veteran years. One of the things that makes him such an engaging vessel of violence is how urgent he makes every line of his sound, whether he’s speaking calmly or barking threats. With Darkman, nobody else could have made the line “TAKE THE FUCKING ELEPHANT!” sound as believably urgent as he does.
One of the great things about going through a director’s filmography is seeing where certain signifying voices and techniques were developed and refined, where they became definitive auteurs. Darkman stands as one of those signifying works, as Raimi inventively threw together clashing styles of filmmaking and genre to create one of the most unique superhero films. He made a superhero tale with horror filmmaking mechanics, and succeeded in making Darkman a truly unique and unforgettable blend of film genres, and one that will still be as fun to revisit on its 50 year anniversary.