When Sam Raimi came to Hollywood in the early 1980’s following the release of the original The Evil Dead, one of his dream feature film projects was a big screen version of the classic pulp magazine/radio/comic book crime fighter, the Shadow. Unfortunately for Raimi, the rights had been purchased by powerhouse producer Martin Bregman (Scarface), who would ultimately oversee the production of a Shadow film for Universal Pictures under the direction of Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) that was released in the summer of 1994 to middling reviews and box office and failed to spawn a new franchise.
After making Evil Dead II in 1986 for the legendary Dino De Laurentiis, Raimi signed on with Universal to develop a film project based on a superhero idea of his own – a tale of a scientist who develops a revolutionary formula that can repair damaged skin for only for a maximum of 99 minutes and must use that formula in a complicated revenge plot against the gangsters that destroyed his laboratory and left him burned beyond recognition and for dead. Incorporating elements of the Batman comics, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Phantom of the Opera among many other influences, Raimi teamed up with four other screenwriters – including his own brother Ivan Raimi (with whom Sam wrote Army of Darkness and Spider-Man 3) and Chuck Pfarrer (Red Planet) – to flesh out his amalgam of ideas into the story he titled Darkman.
Raimi initially cast Bill Paxton, the future star of his celebrated adaptation of A Simple Plan, in the title role of Dr. Peyton Westlake, the disfigured scientist hellbent on brutal vengeance, and a young up-and-coming actress by the name of Julie Roberts as the girlfriend he inadvertently places in harm’s way as a result of his actions. Due to scheduling conflicts the roles had to be recast hastily; Roberts went on to star in the movie that kicked her career into overdrive, Pretty Woman, but in the process Raimi gained two future Hollywood heavyweights in the form of Liam Neeson (replacing Paxton as Westlake) and his old friend and former roommate Frances McDormand as Westlake’s besieged lady love.
Darkman was not the first time Raimi and McDormand had worked together; after playing the female lead in the Coen Brothers’ classic film noir debut Blood Simple, she popped up briefly as a nun in the opening sequence of Raimi’s post-Evil Dead stab for Tinseltown legitimacy, the frenzied, failed screwball comedy Crimewave.
Released in the final days of the summer of 1990, Darkman wasn’t an instant smash hit as Universal and Raimi had hoped. However it did manage to dethrone the season’s reigning box office champ, the supernatural romance Ghost, and with a final domestic gross of $33 million it earned a tidy little profit since it only cost $16 million to make. Five years after Darkman‘s theatrical release, excellent video rentals and sales and the film’s status as a modest ratings success on network television convinced Universal execs to green-light a pair of sequels to be produced for the studio’s home video division.
Since they weren’t going to have but a fraction of the budget Raimi had at his disposal the first time, Neeson was replaced in the role of Westlake by South African actor Arnold Vosloo. Vosloo had previously appeared as a secondary villain in John Woo’s first American action feature, the Raimi-produced, Pfarrer-scripted Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Hard Target. Bradford May, a veteran cinematographer who worked mostly in television but also shot the 1987 kid-friendly horror-comedy The Monster Squad, was drafted to direct the sequels which were released on VHS and laserdisc in 1995 and 1996 and enjoyed a fair amount of success with critics and fans of the original.
After Darkman III: Die Darkman Die the franchise ceased to exist. A remake/reboot has been hinted at over the years, and it may likely happen, but there hasn’t been any movement for quite some time. Let’s hope it stays that way. The original was released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory in February 2014 in a jam-packed special edition package. You can order that disc HERE.
In between the release of Darkman and the two direct-to-video sequels, Universal commissioned a pilot for a half-hour television series loosely based on the original in 1992. Raimi and his producing partner Robert Tapert lent their names and credibility to the questionable endeavor, while Christopher Bowen (Tomorrow Never Dies) took over for Neeson as Dr. Westlake and Kathleen York (Crash) was drafted to play a new character named Jenny. For some odd reason, the only actor from the movie to appear in the pilot was Larry Drake, so memorable in Darkman as the odious villain Robert G. Durant, the exact same role he was playing in the much cheaper TV version.
The pilot cannibalized the movie for stock action footage, and even a shot from the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner makes a jaw-dropping appearance in the beginning. The movie footage looks terribly out of place when you consider the lower-budgeted scenes shot for the pilot. Everything is barely held together by Bowen’s ponderous narration. For that part we can place the blame on Robert Eisele, who wrote the pilot script and served as an executive producer alongside Raimi and Tapert, and the direction was handled by ace music video helmer Brian Grant. The 22-minute final product never made it to air.
I have included two separate embeds from Dailymotion and YouTube for your viewing displeasure. Enjoy….or don’t.