James O’Barr’s comic book brought to life
No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.
When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about â a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.
For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.
Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it â because summer has always had the better movies.
Over the years, Stephen King has related an anecdote of how, in discussing The Shining, Stanley Kubrick expressed to King his belief that any story to imagine the existence of an afterlife must be considered optimistic; Kubrick’s point being that to argue that there is any life beyond death is to embody a hopeful outlook. Seen from that perspective, the revenge fable The Crow, based on James O’Barr’s cult comic book, ought to be judged as being more light than dark.
At first glance, however â and maybe even at the tenth, twelfth or twentieth glance â The Crow seems to be consumed in darkness. The first feature directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City, Knowing), The Crow shows off Proyas’ background in music videos (while not being afflicted by any hyperactive editing). Abetted by the production design of Alex McDowell (Minority Report, Watchmen), the cinematography of Dariusz Wolski (Dark City, the Pirates of the Caribbean films), and the miniature work of Dream Quest, The Crow is, to this day, a striking film to look at.
From the film’s first shot that swoops down from a night sky lit by the flames of burning buildings to enter the shattered top window of an apartment shared by Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and his fiancÃ©e Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas) to observe police investigating the crime that has ended the couple’s happy life together (just prior to their planned Halloween wedding), The Crow immediately got viewer’s attention. With an ambitious array of visuals belying its relatively meager $15 million budget, this was not just some cheap-looking B-movie. The â80s had suffered no shortage of glossy, MTV-inspired eye-candy but this was a whole new aesthetic for the â90s. Prior to The Crow, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) had imagined the definitive sci-fi dystopia and Tim Burton’s blockbuster tales of the Dark Knight, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), had brought a grand, Gothic sensibility to the screen (inspired in part by German Expressionism and Film Noir) but The Crow adapted those influences into a grungier style.
The slim story, from James O’Barr’s comic, needed that kind of visionary touch. Created in response to personal tragedy (O’Barr’s fiancÃ©e was killed by a drunk driver), The Crow‘s plot was strictly bare bones. What made it compelling as a comic was the passion that O’Barr put on each page. It was a simple story but deeply felt. To bring it to the screen successfully, a comparable artistry had to be there. It couldn’t be as straightforward as Eric Draven icing a series of punks. More than a vigilante tale, it somehow had to be both transcendent and gritty; it had to have both a forbidding look and a hopeful heart and Proyas and his collaborators brought that.
Screenwriters David J. Schow and John Shirley expertly adapted O’Barr’s work, fleshing it out enough to make a feature-length film, but not losing its primal punch. This is still the story of supernatural forces allowing a terrible wrong to be avenged, if never quite put right. A year to the day that Eric and Shelly were attacked in their apartment, an attack that left Eric dead and Shelly raped, beaten, and near-death (she later died from her injuries, after thirty pain-filled hours in intensive care), Eric climbs from his grave, summoned back to the world of the living by a cawing crow.
Applying make-up to his face that gives him the appearance of a harlequin mask (or “a mime from Hell”), Eric goes out into the night to systematically slaughter the criminals that ended his and Shelly’s lives. Is he a ghost, a zombie, a little of both â or something else altogether? The movie (and the comic) wisely never bothered to get too specific. All that matters is that Eric is back, that he can’t be killed (or even hurt), and that nothing is going to sway him from his mission. Not even Sarah (Rochelle Davis), a young girl all but abandoned to the streets that Eric and Shelly had befriended. Or the conscientious Officer Albrecht (Ernie Hudson); formerly Sergeant Albrecht, but since demoted â like all good movie cops â thanks to his inability to follow orders.
Eric’s criminal targets are a priceless rouge’s gallery. The Batman films might’ve had a difficult time juggling multiple baddies but The Crow did it effortlessly, weaving them in and out of the story in perfect measure. There’s David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, Commando) as explosives expert T-Bird, Laurence Mason as the knife-wielding Tin-Tin, Michael Massee as Funboy (who has one of the film’s best lines “Look what you didâ¦to my sheetsâ¦”), Angel David as the I.Q. deficiant Skank, Tony Todd (Candyman) as Grange, an assassin with thick, Dr.Cyclops-style glasses, Bai Ling as the mysterious, mystic-minded Mya, and Michael Wincott (The Three Musketeers) as Mya’s half-brother, the regal crime boss â and expert swordsman â called Top Dollar. All are memorable but Kelly, Todd, Ling, and Wincott play the real stand-out characters (the ones that â for the most part â last the longest against Eric’s wrath), taking roles that could’ve been just anonymous obstacles for Eric to overcome and making them into vivid portraits of evil.
Wincott, especially, is a magnetic prescene with his great, gravelly voice. As his name indicates, Top Dollar is the king of crime in this brutal city but Wincott plays him as a vaugely melancholy, laconic figure, a man who has no great battles left to fight (and for whom wealth is only of passing interest: his words to his criminal associates â “Greed is for amateurs! Disorder, chaos, anarchy â now that’s fun!” â foreshadow Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker) The entrance of Eric Draven into Top Dollar’s world is a welcome challenge in a life that has become too easy. Interestingly, the idea that he would ever lose to Eric never occurs to him. He never seems desperate or intimidated. This confidence is important in a movie in which the main character is invincible. Even though we know Eric can’t be killed, Wincott makes us believe that Top Dollar may just be a match for a dead man.
The film’s climatic battle takes place in a church, complete with a bell tower, drawing a further connection with Burton’s original Batman, which ended in an identical location. But while Burton’s comic adaptation often felt dramatically awkward (if beautifully designed), Proyas’ film glides along as effortlessly as the titular bird (ironic, given its extremely troubled and tragic production history). With the cinematic world becoming so glutted with comic book adaptations over the past ten years that they’ve become an industry unto themselves, fans are in a constant, ever-evolving debate over which adaptations have been the most successful. But while the likes of Spider-Man 2 (2004) and The Dark Knight (2008) are regularly championed as being the best, I think that The Crow is arguably still the finest comic book adaptation to date. This gothic film is still the gold standard of how to bring this type of material to the screen.
Part of its success is due to the fact that the slim original book (comprised of five issues) left ample room for a screenplay to build on. Whereas films like Watchmen (2009), or an adaptation of a long-running character like Batman or Spider-Man have to sacrifice elements of the comic for the sake of compressing the story into a workable running time, nothing essential had to be left out of The Crow. Even very good comic book adapatations usually feel compromised in some way but The Crow doesn’t. Proyas and co. didn’t have to put any plotlines aside for a sequel or for a director’s cut (the Skull Cowboy footage with Michael Berryman as a spectral mentor to Eric â a character that was an expanded version of a recurring vision Eric has in the comic â was wisely left out) and it doesn’t feel like the clueless hand of Hollywood was on this film at all. It feels like a labor of love.
For star Brandon Lee, this film truly was a labor of love, the project that would’ve changed the course of his career by showing off his range and ambition as a true actor and not just an action star. His death in an on-set shooting accident days before the film finished production has often wrongly been credited with making The Crow a cult success but that does a disservice to Lee’s work. While Lee’s untimely death did give the film an instant noterity beyond the fan base of comic book and horror fans who would’ve sought it out regardless, it’s Lee’s heartfelt performance that made the film a favorite. Like the film itself, it’s unfashionably sincere and unironic. Almost twenty years now since its release, The Crow continues to flip the bird at a world that is too often unfair.
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Source: Jeff Allard