Sam Raimi's first studio effort DARKMAN hits special edition Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory's Scream Factory line.
Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, NELL) has been painstakingly developing a liquid skin able to replicate and replace damaged human skin, but he cannot get around the product's ninety-nine minute limitation before it deteriorates. When his corporate executive girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand, BLOOD SIMPLE) uncovers a memo detailing a series of bribes by her real estate developer boss Louis Strack (Colin Friels, A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA) in order to develop his mammoth oceanfront "City of the Future", criminally efficient real estate rival Robert Durant (Larry Drake, DR. GIGGLES) will stop at nothing to get it; including blowing up Westlake's lab when Julie leaves the memo in his possession. Westlake is believed dead, having been blown to bits with only an ear left for burial; but he is indeed alive as a John Doe in an experimental hospital burn ward where his nerve contacts to his brain have been severed to neutralize the pain. Deprivation of sensory stimulus results in spikes of rage which, combined with unchecked adrenaline, allow Westlake to escape the burn ward with a mind towards vengeance. As Strack romances grieving Julie, Westlake salvages his equipment from his ruined lab and moves to a condemned warehouse where he continues to his work with the liquid skin and proceeds to assume the identities of Durant and his henchmen (including Ted Raimi as Durant's "favorite") to turn them against each other and destroy them. Having been able to replicate his own face, he makes contact with Julie and attempts to rebuild their relationship in those limited chunks of time before the liquid skin becomes unstable; but the discovery of Westlake's survival gives away his plans to Durant and puts Julie's life in danger.
Although long in development from director Sam Raimi (THE EVIL DEAD), DARKMAN was obviously greenlighted in the wake of the success of Tim Burton's BATMAN. The innovations of Raimi, cinematographer Bill Pope (ARMY OF DARKNESS), and make-up effects artists Tony Gardner (EVIL DEAD II) and Larry Hamlin belie the budget; which is thoroughly lavish next to Raimi's previous films but in retrospect feels like the resources afforded upon one of Universal's own direct-to-video sequels of their later action hits. The miniatures and matte paintings are often striking (along with some in-camera composites), but the back projection is occasionally laughable (as well as the pre-CGI model of Westlake's body turned projectile following the explosion). Westlake's Darkman ravings and the physicality of his more manic episodes seem more suited to Bruce Campbell's post-EVIL DEAD II shtick (Campbell does indeed make an amusing cameo), but Neeson capably embodies the tragic aspects of the character. McDormand is a refreshingly unglamorous choice for a love interest, even if isn't given much to do for large periods of the time (much of her courtship with Strack is left offscreen so it seems rather sudden when she visits him to break things off). For much of the running time, Australian actor Friels has little to do in the equivalent of Tony Goldwyn's slimy romantic rival in GHOST, but the climax gives him the acting spotlight while Neeson and his stuntman alternating shots and McDormand plays the damsel in distress. Drake – then popular for his polar opposite character on L.A. LAW – is better served here as the villain than as DR. GIGGLES even if his comeuppance isn't particularly satisfying (Raimi would bring him back for a sequel anyway). PRINCE OF DARKNESS' Jesse Lawrence Ferguson appears in the film's shoot-em-up prologue and a strangely uncredited Jenny Agutter (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) plays a burn unit doctor. Pablo Ferro – who designed the titles and cut the trailers for Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE – designed the film's title card as well as Westlake's psychotic montages.
I have not seen Universal's own barebones VC-1 Blu-ray, but Scream Factory's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 is a major step up from Universal's DVD which not only looks softer but the warm tones of Pope's lighting look almost sickly in comparison (although both discs are framed at 1.85:1, the Blu-ray reveals more image on the bottom and left sides of the frame). If the facial features do not always look as detailed as one would expect, I have to wonder if that has to do with the make-up, especially on Neeson and Drake where their features may have been smoothed over to better match Tony Gardener's facial casts (not actually worn by the actors beyond the unmaskings with the doppelganger-ed characters performing in split-screen and with back-to-the-camera doubles), but detail even in the scenes without visual effects isn't always impressive. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upmix of the Dolby Stereo mix has a bit more breathing room than the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, but this film would seem to demand a souped-up discrete remix with a sound design to match Pope's camera movements. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.
The film is accompanied by a newly-recorded audio commentary track with cinematographer Bill Pope moderated by Michael Felsher. DARKMAN was Pope's first film, with his prior experience being commercials and music videos. Pope was recommended to Raimi by his classmate Barry Sonnenfeld who had shot the Coen Brothers' BLOOD SIMPLE, and was wary about the assignment because his previous interviews for features fell through as soon as he told them he had not shot a feature before. Pope had not studied Raimi's previous films, but he describes how the two of them established a comic book style with next to no stylistic predecessors. Thankfully, it's a more anecdotal than technical commentary (although there is plenty of discussion of lighting and old school effects), and Pope gives a good sense of his working relationship with Raimi and how the director was on his first studio film (in the vintage interviews, Raimi himself discusses the challenge of working with professional crews and trusting them when in earlier films he, Robert Tapert, and Bruce Campbell would just jump in where needed).
While Sam Raimi contributes no new input on the disc, Scream Factory and Red Shirt Pictures have wrangled new interviews with a handful of participants. First up is star Liam Neeson (7:29) who recalls going for the role up against Gary Oldman and Bill Paxton, and his trepidation about having to do most of his acting with his eyes under the make-up. He also speaks highly of his co-stars and Raimi. Once again, it's refreshing to see a star proud of his more schlocky work. Larry Drake (15:56) talks about how the role was a departure from his usual typecasting as "big and funny, big and dumb, big and mean", the ways he tried to vary his delivery and mannerisms for the revolving door double scene, enjoying the helicopter setpiece, and the sequel where he took center stage. He also makes mention of Raimi's pitch for a TV series which he thought had merit but was badly presented. Frances McDormand (10:50) talks about her Hollywood beginnings, sharing a house with Joel and Ethan Coen and Sam Raimi, feeling that Raimi cast her in response to criticisms about his portrayal of women in his previous films, and feeling somewhat miscast (although liking the rare opportunity to be able to use some of her stage combat training). She states that she was not aware of the film's cult reputation until recently when a make-up effects artist she was working with told her that it was the film that got him interested in the field as a teenager.
"Henchmen Tales" (12:56) is a featurette that intercuts the remembrances of actor Dan Bell (WAYNE'S WORLD) and Danny Hicks (EVIL DEAD II), who played two of Durant's henchmen. Bell recalls Neeson being helpful in helping him get into his mindset for the scene in which he had to face off against himself in split-screen (as well as the pain of wearing contacts to match the ones that Neeson had to wear to make his own blue eyes stand out from the make-up). Hicks mentions that they spent a week shooting his death scene which ended up not appearing in the final film, although some aspects of it were incorporated into Ted Raimi's death scene. Effects artist Tony Gardner (13:21) – who also cameos as the carnival freak – recalls being consulted by Raimi about designs for the film while working on EVIL DEAD II. Gardener sculpted some models for DARKMAN with Bruce Campbell's more angular features in mind before learning that Neeson had the lead role and realizing that the actor's distinctive features would be more recognizable through the make-up. Production designer Randy Ser (TV's MY NAME IS EARL) and art director Phil Dagort (THE X-FILES) discuss constructing contrasting environments for the characters of Westlake, Durant, and Strack (also describing a cut scene set in his upscale apartment), as well as designing Westlake's computer equipment, Strack's "City of the Future" set (with a 120' x 120' Translight city background) and the half-glass-half-mirror compositing in-camera compositing to film the actors on the city mock-up.
Two EPK-style vintage featurettes are included (6:26 and 8:58) which intersperse talking heads of Raimi and the actors with action clips (for once, some of the narrator's hyperbole is not exaggerated as with his statement about Raimi's trademark style being wildly inventive camerawork). The disc also includes vintage interviews with Friels (12:14), McDormand (20:43), Neeson (28:02), and Raimi (23:09) which are the sources of the talking heads sound bites seen in the aforementioned two vintage featurettes. Friels talks about his conception of the character as the "ultimate American Dream gone wrong", being comfortable with an American accent from doing American plays in Australia but less so when he auditioned for actual Americans for the film. McDormand discusses meeting Raimi through her friendship with the Coen brothers, and how Raimi advised them on funding BLOOD SIMPLE. She tells a lot of the same stories and her interpretation of the character sometimes identically to the above newer interview but without the advantage of reflection. Neeson makes an analogy between DARKMAN's theme of acting behind masks and the classical drama tradition, as well as the challenges of working under prosthetics. Raimi goes more in-depth on the origins of the project from a one line concept of a person able to change his face and developing the possibilities over a three year period, numerous script drafts, and pitching it to a number of parties. Just as Neeson expressed some concern about how much work the make-up would do in his performance, Raimi also expresses concern here about whether the actor's ability to emote would be able to show through the make-up (as well as actors' subtle facial movements that might not register at all under prosthetics). The extras are capped off by an old 4:3 theatrical trailer (1:47), twelve TV spots of varying lengths (4:24) which does indeed show how hard Universal tried to sell the film, and four still galleries for make-up effects, posters and artwork, production stills, and storyboards. Conspicuously absent from the package is any new participation of Sam Raimi himself; and yet it's still a pretty spectacular special edition package in terms of extras. (Eric Cotenas)
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