I’m not a monster, so obviously I enjoyed the hell out of Darkman. Sam Raimi’s wild-eyed vision of the world always charms me, even when the movie itself isn’t great. And Darkman is not great. It has plot holes you could drive a truck through, and the performances aren’t what you’d call realistic. But if you enjoy your body horror with a dash of comedy and a Batman-esque Danny Elfman score, you could do worse than spend an evening with Darkman.
A very young Liam Neeson plays Peyton Westlake, an idealistic scientist who just happens to be developing a way to grow artificial skin. The only problem is that the skin cells break down after ninety-nine minutes, unless they remain in the dark. You will be shocked to hear that this information will come up again later. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand), a hotshot lawyer, “stumbles onto” a memo implicating building tycoon Strack (Colin Friels) in mob payoffs. So naturally she marches right into his office and confronts him with this information. What could possibly go wrong? Strack asks Julie for the so-called Bellisarius memorandum but she was smart enough not to bring it with her, so the next day he sends thugs to shake down Peyton and then blow up his apartment, all without even bothering to ask Julie where the memo is.
Peyton gets flung out the window and into a convenient lake nearby, and we get treated to a terrifically weird process shot in which Julie stands in front of Peyton’s wrecked apartment as the background fades from the street at night to the cemetery where his funeral is being held, sans body, of course. She picks herself up, dusts herself off, and goes on a date with Strack, despite the fact that her boyfriend was mysteriously blown up the day after she confronted Strack with incriminating evidence. Probably just a coincidence, right?
Peyton is now in the hospital, convalescing under the name John Doe, and a nurse helpfully explains to a group of interns that they’re trying an experimental treatment for his burns that deadens his nerve endings so that he’s not in constant pain. But an unintended side effect is that the patient is constantly flooded with adrenaline, which heightens his emotions and augments his physical strength. Thanks, Exposition Lady!
Peyton breaks out of the hospital with his aforementioned super strength and returns to his bombed-out apartment to start building himself new body parts to replace the burned-up ones, using digital photo imaging and what amounts to a proto-3D printer that uses skin cells instead of filament. I assumed this meant he would print himself a new face that would then graft itself to what was left of his old one. Instead, he prints himself an assortment of really excellent masks that he can pop on and off whenever it suits him.
With this newfound superpower, Peyton makes masks that look like the mobsters who tried to kill him, and then he goes on a series of capers to get the mobsters in trouble. The only catch is that the masks start to bubble and melt really disgustingly after ninety-nine minutes of exposure to the light. You’d think this would encourage Peyton to do his capering in the dark—the movie is called Darkman, after all—but we haven’t reached the eponymous portion of the origin story yet, so Peyton has to hustle home before his faces start to melt.
You’ve probably figured out by now that Darkman is an extremely silly movie. But a comedic body-horror revenge story can’t have been an easy sell, and I really appreciate the gusto with which Raimi and Neeson commit to it. Neeson goes full crazy during his freak-out scenes, which is an amusing contrast to the Stoic Action Dad persona he’s been inhabiting for most of his movies from the last decade. There are also some wonderful Raimi touches, like the way he lights up Neeson’s face from below like a kid telling a ghost story during one of the freak-out scenes. The makeup used to show how Neeson’s face was ravaged by the fire is also spectacular—It genuinely looks as though his cheek and chin have been burnt off and we can see his teeth through the holes.
And my boyfriend wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t mention the action scenes, particularly the climactic scene at the end involving Peyton flying through the city holding onto a cable that’s dangling from the bad guys’ helicopter. You’ll be shocked to hear this was one of his favorite scenes when he saw Darkman in the theater at age twelve, and there’s clearly a real person dangling from that helicopter above a crowded city, so if anything, it’s more impressive today. Darkman isn’t a perfect movie, but it might be the perfect movie for your inner twelve-year-old.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.