Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.
Viking Night: The Crow
By Bruce Hall
August 3, 2010
Several columns ago, I made a solemn vow to eventually discuss a film that I didn’t particularly like. I started out with this as my goal and I think I’ve said this several times recently, but I can assure you that this is still not the week. I am going to say in advance that today’s selection is a movie that I absolutely, dearly love and that maintaining any kind of artistic subjectivity is going to be hard. I guess that in and of itself is a bit of a challenge, because sometimes it’s easier to write about something you love, and sometimes it’s easier to write about something you hate, because in either case your emotions allow the words to fall almost effortlessly from your fingertips - it all depends on your state of mind.
So, my state of mind regarding The Crow is this: I love this film. It’s one of my all time favorites. I am a Goth at heart, a music lover, a Bruce Lee fan, an action movie junkie and somewhere deep, deep inside a little bit of a romantic. The Crow delivers for me on all those levels. I love this movie so much I would marry it, I would listen to it talk about its feelings, I would put up with its obnoxious friends and I would bring it flowers and make it dinner every Sunday. I guess that makes for a good laugh, but it isn’t for purely sentimental reasons that I am such a huge fan of this movie. Sure, I can’t deny that part of it is nostalgia - this is a quintessentially '90s film in every sense of the imagination, and I can’t help but revert to my formative self when I watch it. But its central theme is timeless; it’s just a powerful film – and it's one that’s custom made for people who don’t normally respond to powerful films.
The Crow is based on a popular series of comics by author James O’Barr, who sought to deal with the loss of his fiancée by penning a story where his protagonist was able to gain some measure of relief from the agony he suffered. So here’s how it works: When someone dies under especially heinous circumstances, their soul is often unable to rest. A crow (which in mythology carried the dead to the afterlife) brings the spirit back to serve justice and find peace. Once the deed is done, the crow carries you back to your eternal reward. Needless to say, in this case the deceased comes back with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. If you’re going to take the trouble to rise from the dead and avenge yourself, researching legal loopholes at the library isn’t an option - you’re going to want to crack some skulls – and this is exactly what happens to Eric Draven (Brandon Lee).
When Draven and his fiancée are slain by a gang of hired thugs, the young musician returns as a ghostly avenger, assisted by a mystical bird and intent upon hunting down his murderers and returning the favor. And there you have it; that’s pretty much the entire story. The Crow is on the surface a revenge flick, and once Draven begins to methodically eradicate Tin-Tin, Funboy, Skank and the rest of their crew, his inevitable showdown with Top Dollar, the crime lord responsible for Draven’s death is only a matter of time. Detractors will point out that there’s a pretty minimal level of plot development present here, and that’s not an unfair thing to say. But in a world where most of the antagonists seem to be named after obscure brands of dog food and naughty lad magazines, this is probably to be expected. Plus, the streamlined structure allows The Crow to play to its other strengths, which are considerable.
One of the earliest films to have been based on what are now called "graphic novels," The Crow is translated to the screen by director Alex Proyas, whose previous credits were primarily music videos. But not only does this lend itself well to the story’s dark, anarchic visual style, but James O’Barr himself drew inspiration from the music he listened to while creating the comic, which included acts like The Cure, Bauhaus, Iggy Pop and Joy Division.
Music is a huge part of The Crow’s style and the soundtrack’s dour mix of hard rock, Gothic and industrial tunes propels the story as much as anything that happens on screen. If watching Draven apply his evil clown make-up to the moody strains of The Cure’s “Burn” doesn’t give you a charge, then you just might be dead yourself. Likewise, the visual design of The Crow at times makes it feel like an extended music video; creative use of miniatures and early digital effects was partially out of necessity but it also served to give the film a distinctive appearance.
The iconic scenes of a lone crow soaring over the rust colored cityscape of Detroit (yes, it’s Detroit) reinforce the universal nature of Loss, and remind us that the pain Draven is experiencing could happen to any one of us (laugh at me if you want, but that actually was the intent). The skyline below is comprised of obvious miniatures but they’re so lovingly detailed and meticulously crafted that the effect is not distracting – it’s actually seamless in a way, and quite breathtaking. And having seen more than a few Godzilla movies in my time, ‘breathtaking’ is not normally a word I associate with miniatures.
But the most important aspect of The Crow, and the one that makes the story – thin as it is – so effective is the persistent idea that love and loyalty can overcome any obstacle and motivate any of us to achieve things that we never felt were possible. These sentiments are as old as humanity itself but they aren’t the sort of thing you often find in a revenge tale, let alone one with this level of violence. The characters, both good and evil, are intertwined in a meaningful way that isn’t apparent at first, but makes everything that happens to them seem preordained once the end credits roll.
Draven and his fiancée were caring for a young orphan named Sarah (Rochelle Davis), who finds herself alone again after their deaths. The kindly police officer (Ernie Hudson as Sergeant Albrecht) who investigates the homicide takes her under his wing and becomes involved with Draven when the vengeful wraith tracks his fiancée’s engagement ring to the pawn shop where one of their killers hawked it. Brandon Lee was himself engaged to be married at the time and the coiled, righteous wrath with which he dispenses his judgment appears to come naturally.
Draven is motivated by the most profound love a man can know and it isn’t hard to believe that Lee was, as well. This isn’t just a story about revenge, it’s also about commitment. Draven is shown to be an attentive person, but is clearly someone who regrets not fully taking advantage of the time he was given. At one point in the film he laments to Albrecht on his occasional insensitivity toward his lost love by remarking: “Nothing is trivial.” The line was ad libbed by Lee and in that moment, the seriousness with which Lee took his own commitments becomes an indelible part of Eric Draven. Suddenly, the wanton cruelty of his reprisals seems entirely justified and in the end, he changes almost as many lives as he claims.
Speaking of Brandon Lee, it is impossible to discuss The Crow without making mention of his untimely demise. Considering the subject matter of the film – love, grief, loss and recovery – it is difficult not to mark the irony and even harder for it not to color your perception of what you’re seeing. The movie’s ruminations on the aftermath of tragedy take on additional weight in light of the senseless accident that took Lee’s life, and in a way this allows the film to become something that it oddly might never have been had its star lived. It’s a terrible conundrum but while the cuts and rewrites that became necessary after Lee’s passing took a great deal of context from the story, they elevated the beauty and intensity of the material to a level rarely seen in an action film.
What was originally an even darker, more brooding meditation on death and vengeance became – despite a great deal of violence – an enduring and emotionally powerful love story about two people who refuse to be apart, despite the handicap of mortality. I’ve found over the years that despite the wanton level of brutality in this film, the darkly romantic subplot lends it appeal beyond the usual geek/dork/fanboy demographic. I originally watched The Crow in theater with someone I cared about very much, and being a pair of stupid kids, we originally disagreed about seeing it. But I got the requisite dose of ultra-violence I craved, and she was moved by Eric Draven’s devotion to his beloved – and so was I. The film’s closing words had an impact on us both at the time, but in retrospect they seem all the more poignant, especially considering how things with this person eventually turned out:
“If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.”
If it seems unlikely that a simple story about a man who returns from the dead to avenge the death of the woman he loves could carry such weight, remember that the story was conceived by a person who grappled with the very same feelings and brought to life by a person who sacrificed himself to put it on screen. A lot of cult films lean toward violent subject matter, and it may be because by nature we are violent creatures and our attempts to stifle it makes us forget that it’s there. This is something that controversial films commonly explore and to most of us, this is probably a little unsettling. But while violence committed in the name of love is not something we should condone, in the context of a fictional story it can be one of the most profound expressions of the most significant part of our emotional palette. And when you add The Cure, Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine, it just gets really, really damn cool.