Today I watched Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990)
Sam Raimi made his name in the horror genre but when called up to direct bigger budget features it was superheroes that inspired him. He failed to acquire the rights to any established heroes so he created his own, a freakishly scarred doctor who undergoes an experimental form of treatment and becomes Darkman. The doctor in question is Peyton Westlake played by Liam Neeson, he doesn’t start of with the burn scars but acquires them when goons destroy his lab and blow him up. Said goons were after documents that his attorney girlfriend had left there which implicates a billionaire developer in a bribery racket. After Peyton is blown up he lands in the river and is found by doctors who believe him to be a homeless man since they cannot identify him. They take this as a perfect excuse to use a rather horrible sounding treatment on him which cuts off all feeling but amplifies his strength. It also causes crazy mood swings which leads to Peyton escaping and going on the violent path of revenge. But Peyton is not only relying on his newfound durability and strength, he is also a scientist who was working on creating synthetic skin which allows him to copy the faces of his targets and take their place to further his schemes.
While Raimi may have wanted to create a true superhero with this film, Darkman strikes me as something much closer to the weird tale and gothic horror. There are shades of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well as The Phantom of the Opera in his appearance and mannerisms. He is the tortured monster with a human heart type of hero who grapples with his own internal demons as much as external villains. He is the mad scientist and it is fascinating to see Liam Neeson, an actor known for his subtlety, chewing the scenery in traditional mad science fashion. This all marks Darkman as an outsider and this film plays with that theme, much of the film deals with identity and embracing one’s self and the changes it accrues through life.
While Tim Burton was crafting a vividly gothic world for his superhero films, Raimi sets his film in a gritty modern one. This realistic setting only enhances the weird fiction nature of the story, this is not a world in which Darkman fits, he is truly alien. Raimi really crafts a unique fusion of old fashioned horror and the superhero which hearkens back to the original serials and the strange early days before the medium was codified. Darkman is at once a product of it’s times and a throwback to a earlier era of superheroes, it’s a strange flick that fit’s perfectly into the early 90’s era of gothic weird. 5/5