Viking Night: Darkman
By Bruce Hall
February 23, 2011
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.
Once upon a time, there was a talented young director who wanted to make a superhero movie. But nobody with the power to make it happen was willing to trust him with an existing property. So, he created his own hero and managed to get a picture made around the character. He got Danny Elfman to write the music. He got Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand to star in it. He even found a place for Bruce Campbell. And if I’m the one you’re talking to, I’d say the results were mixed like nuts. In fact, if it weren’t for Sam Raimi, I’m not sure I’d like Darkman very much. It’s a pretty pedestrian story and a lot of its creative shots miss the mark. But if nothing else, Raimi proved that generally speaking, he knew what he was doing. And if you look at Darkman that way - as a proof of concept, its shortcomings are much easier to forgive.
It doesn’t hurt that years later, Raimi was attached to the new Spider-Man franchise and he did great things with it. In fact the second (and best) of those films successfully executed a dramatic arc similar to the one that hadn’t quite worked with Darkman. In large part, Raimi’s experience with Darkman would seem to be a blueprint for the success of both Spider-Man films. I say "both" because everyone says there was a third one; I just have no idea what they’re all talking about.
One of the most reliable plot staples in science fiction is the scientist whose life is radically changed by hubris. Stories like that usually have something to do with the old idea that intelligence is no defense against selfishness. It was at the center of the Frankenstein myth, and Sam Raimi was a big fan of Universal Studios’ classic horror catalogue. So when he set about creating Darkman, he drew on both of these sources for inspiration, and on Universal for a home. Our scientist is this case is Peyton Westlake (Neeson, dodgy American accent and all). He’s your standard movie egghead, always single handedly inventing things in a basement with a set of socket wrenches that in real life would take dozens of people and billions of dollars. What Westlake has managed to create is a skin replacement that could ease the suffering of millions worldwide.