Darkman Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie

by Erik Amaya

Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Darkman

Every so often, we like to highlight a film that is successful in its aims and yet is undeniably cheesy. Sometimes these movies are campy, but others enter the realm of cheese for committing to a tone Hollywood studios and their marketing departments shun. We still haven’t come up with an appropriate term for these sorts of films as they mix operatic emotions and silliness into their stew. But one thing is key: theses films commit to their unusual tones. Total Recall is one such film and so is Darkman, this weekend’s cheesy movie.
The plot involves Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson). A researcher attempting to create a synthetic skin for burn victims. The problem: it remains stable for only 99 minutes, then it turns into goo. When not in the lab, Peyton spends his time with his girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand). She’s an attorney downtown, and as the movie begins, she accidentally uncovers “The Belisarius Memorandum” — a document outlining payments from Strack Industries to various members of the city zoning commission. Julie confronts the CEO, Louis Strack Jr. (Colin Friels), only to find he has no problem admitting he bribed the commission so his “City of Future” development near the riverfront could go through. He also warns her that a business rival, Robert G. Durant (Larry Drake) would be willing to kill her if he knew she had the Belisarius Memorandum.
And, as it happens, Durant and his goons raid Peyton’s lab to find the document. They also shoot his research assistant (Nelson Mashita) in the process and badly burn Peyton’s hands. Durant also sets up an explosion which seemingly kills Peyton. But as it turns out, he washed up on the river and found himself part of an experiment at a local hospital to help badly burned patients deal with the pain. The procedure severs all sensory input from the skin to the brain. It leaves Peyton without the sense of touch, but it also grants him heightened strength and endurance as the brain uses adrenaline to compensate for the loss of sensation. Peyton’s emotions are amplified as well.
Escaping the hospital, he tries to track down Julie. But as he looks like an ersatz Phantom of the Opera, it does not go well. He manages to find the remains of his research at the bombed-out lab and continues his work on the artificial skin in the hopes of at least restoring his hands and face. He also spends some time tracking down Durant to plan revenge. And as his skin replacement tech allows him to made a mask of anyone he photographs, Peyton starts picking off Durant’s gang one by one.
Now, if the premise sounds like a great 6-issue comic book from, say, Dark Horse, that’s definitely the charm. By the mid 1980s, director Sam Raimi was interested in making a comic book movie — still a rarity with only the Superman films as truly successful examples of panels-to-film adaptation at the time — but with Batman in development and properties like The Shadow and The Phantom scooped up by other entities, Raimi simply fashioned his own. Nonetheless, Darkman feels like it was sourced from an issue of Dark Horse Presents or a title from Eclipse or even Comico. It’s hero is a conventional human (beyond the adrenaline rushes) who fights criminals with a seemingly plausible gimmick. It feels surprisingly fleshed out and lived-in. That sensation is all the more surprising when you learn Raimi, his brother Ivan, Navy Seals writer Chuck Pfarrer, and screenwriting duo Daniel and Joshua Goldin wrote twelve drafts.
Then again, that feeling of Darkman as an existing property may have been hard-won across that exhaustive drafting phase. But while the broad strokes of the plot feel like a 1980s indie comic, its sensibility is a far cry from those grimdark tales coming to life from creators frustrated by the strictures of DC and Marvel. Darkman is oddly playful with ideas that could be quite disturbing.
Durant’s invasion of Petyon’s lab, for example, is shot with plenty of cantered angles, harsh tracking shots into actor’s faces, and surprise lighting changes. The techniques were already considered cheesy by the time Raimi was making his first films, but he uses them here to purposefully blunt the horror of Durant’s actions. Neeson’s screams are over the top throughout and, in one truly baffling moment, the film asks you to accept the notion that Raimi’s brother Ted has the upper body strength necessary to lift the hulking Neeson and put his head through several glass medicine cabinets. As in his earlier Evil Dead films, Raimi commits to antiquated and cheesy elements of film grammar to both engage the audience and give the terrors on display a more child-like sensibility. In Darkman‘s case, it is important to do so in order to set up the rest of the film, which is filled with cheesy delights like Peyton bending a carny’s hand the wrong way to the shock of himself, the carny, and Julie or the film’s odd helicopter chase; a scene played more for laughs than tension.
On the performance front, Raimi could not have asked for a better cast. Neeson is wildly operatic as the post-burn Peyton. Whether ecstatic or despondent, Neeson goes big. In some ways, it shouldn’t work, but its perfectly aligned with the film’s overall tone. McDormand, saddled with the girlfriend role, stands out as the authority she is known for today appears in fits and starts. This can seen most clearly in the scenes where Julie interacts with Strack. While perhaps not as fiercely independent as the characters she play nowadays (or her award speeches for those parts), she certainly shows off more of a character than Julie should be in a 1990 comic book movie. As for the villains, Drake’s Durant is an idiosyncratic weirdo who would be right at home in the Burton Gotham City while Friels’s Strack proves to be the most over-the-top performance by far, making him the perfect ultimate Darkman foil.
Rounding out the film is a full-throttle score from Danny Elfman. Certain notes and phrases will feel like ideas he first drafted for Batman, but it is clear he felt free to go even wilder for Darkman. Curiously, though, that wildness very much dates Darkman as a film of the Bush 41 era, as does its unacknowledged Los Angeles backdrop, the hair styles, and the terrible green screen composite shots. But because the film already commits to cheesy cinematic staples like the crash zoom, you won’t really mind the handful of wickedly terrible special effects. One would even be tempted to say Raimi wants them to be noticeably bad as part of his overall aesthetic.
Which means Darkman is a thorough delight from beginning to end. It is also the rare cheesy movie which compels you to want more. There are Darkman sequels we might profile some day. But without Raimi, Neeson and McDormand committing to their offbeat hero a second time, we imagine those latter films are cheesy for very different reasons. In the meantime, make Darkman your cheesy comic book movie this weekend. You’ll be glad you did.
Darkman is available on HBO streaming platforms with a paid subscription. It is also available for rent on Amazon.

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