Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Devil's Night Greeting Cards

My friend Sean Williford characterized the 1990s as "the Decade of the Dork," an era in which American popular culture finally began to reflect the tastes of the nation's long-submerged nerd population. You couldn't have easily proved it by looking into movie theaters, however. Very few decent science fiction movies debuted between 1990 and 1999 - just Terry Gilliam's inventive 12 Monkeys, the entertaining space-opera satire Starship Troopers, and the Trekkie spoof Galaxyquest. (One might add The Matrix, if one considers it science fiction rather than just an elaborate videogame.) There were no fantasy films to speak of, certainly nothing comparable to the druggy fairytale movies of the 1980s or Peter Jackson's more recent Lord of the Rings trilogy. And, with one exception, there were no good superhero movies in the 1990s, despite the huge popularity of Tim Burton's Batman just before the decade began.

The exception in the superhero category was The Crow (1994) a film about a supernatural vigilante, Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), who returns from the dead to kill the gang members who murdered him and his fiancee. Presuming that my readers have already seen the movie, I can safely report that Draven, who has returned to the land of the living with a panoply of superhuman powers - super-strength and agility, invulnerability, limited clairvoyance - successfully and rather ostentatiously dispatches his foes. In the process he runs afoul of the city's crime boss, the elegant, dissolute Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), who exposes Draven's vulnerability, the eponymous crow who is his bridge between "the land of the living and the realm of the dead." Ultimately, Eric prevails in a climactic rooftop fight with Top Dollar, and returns to the embrace of ghost-Shelly. It's a straightforward revenge story, satisfyingly-plotted, and gifted with first-rate actors: Wincott, Ernie Hudson as Draven's police sergeant friend Albricht, David Kelly as the gang leader T-Bird, and Jon Polito as a sleazy pawn-shop owner. It did well in the theaters, in part due to notoriety generated by Brandon Lee's death during filming. It then went on to spawn several dreadful sequels and a Canadian TV series, the latter of which I've avoided watching for fear it might cause brain tumors.

I have watched the original Crow, however, at least once a year (on average) since I first viewed it at the U.K. student center two decades ago.* It falls squarely within the category of "good bad" media first described by Chesterton and Orwell: works that continue to give pleasure even to readers or viewers who recognize their flaws. The Crow's flaws are significant. Some of the dialogue is, and most of the flashback scenes are, nauseatingly sentimental. The director, Alex Proyas, lays on the pathos and the "gothic" detail pretty thick - Draven dons his "mime from hell" outfit to the tune of a Cure song, runs across the rain-soaked rooftops to the sound of Nine Inch Nails, fights his climactic battle atop a cathedral (complete with gargoyles), and assails Top Dollar with what one can only call a Psychic Anguish Attack. Puh-lease. Meanwhile, the lead, Brandon Lee, had almost no acting talent. He might have become a good actor with time and practice, but his premature death makes it impossible to know. This is a pity, because Eric Draven is a far more sympathetic superhero than, say, Superman or Batman; he is an ordinary person whose superpowers come from the terrible wrong he has suffered. As a character, Monsieur Crow is one of the movie's strengths; so are its well-edited action scenes, the professional casting of the rest of the film's roles, the generally competent and occasionally witty** dialogue, and the satisfying structure of its revenge story, which offers a sense of closure usually lacking in real-world confrontations.

Most likely it also still appeals because it so effectively evokes two of the dominant geek-culture tropes of its era: goth culture and what we might call "occult modern fantasy." The Crow's goth elements practically drip off of the screen: its trenchcoat-wearing, white-makeup-clad hero; Shelly's fondness for candlelight, antiques, and bad poetry; important scenes filmed in a cathedral and cemetery; the grey-on-black color palette, interspersed with the red of omnipresent fires; the industrial-goth soundtrack; even the fishnets that Eric and Shelly's youthful ward Sarah is way too young to wear. "Occult modern fantasy" deserves more explanation: it is a genre whose central idea is that "Great Weirdness Lurks Just below the Surface," that bizarre aliens secretly visit our world or are being kept under wraps by a conspiratorial government, that disguised vampires and werewolves and other supernatural beings live covert lives among us while we mundanes go about our business, unaware. This was an implied theme in one of the most popular TV series of the early '90s, Twin Peaks; it was the principal theme of the most popular geek-TV series of the rest of the decade, The X Files; it informed the comic-book series The Sandman, whose godlike main characters flickered in and out of a "real world" filled with outre but ordinary people; it infused the game Vampire: The Masquerade, whose lurking, mafia-like vampires also appeared in a number of spinoff novels and a ghastly TV series; it was the central conceit, applied with great wit, in the buddy-cop/sci-fi comedy Men in Black; and it was skillfully inverted by the Wachowskis in The Matrix. You can put just about any kind of horror, sci-fi, or fantasy content on the screen, producers seemed to say, as long as it's subtle and covert, and as long as the setting is still recognizably our own world. The Crow lacks the paranoid, conspiratorial edge of X-Files or The Matrix, but it is still much more of an occult fantasy than a four-color superhero movie. Its setting, for all the gothic trappings, is a down-to-earth one, a gritty, rainy, run-down industrial city fleetingly identified as Detroit (hometown of James O'Barr, who wrote the graphic novel on which the film is based), where the only holiday is the organized arson spree known as Devil's Night. Its characters are almost entirely mundane: a motley assortment of low-lifes, junkies, and working stiffs, they know no heroes, either of the ordinary or super- variety, and they have no idea what to make of Eric Draven  Most fear him as a ghost or blow him off with jokes; only one other character, Top Dollar's sorcerous half-sister Myca (Bai Ling), understands who Draven has become. Like the other occult-mod-fantasy worlds mentioned above, it is a world we can imagine ourselves occupying, with characters - even a hero - we can imagine ourselves becoming.

I understand that a remake of The Crow, stripped of the gothic elements of the Alex Proyas film, is in development. Personally I think this is unnecessary, unless the director of the new film intends to make it a comedy. And to cast Paul Rudd in the lead. That, I would see.


The image above is from Wikimedia Commons. The Crow is copyright (c) 1994 by Miramax Films.

* I could have done without the drunken frat boys who sat behind me and said "The crow!" every time Draven's familiar appeared on screen.  It got old fast.

** "Mime from hell," for instance, isn't my line; it's Officer Albricht's.


  1. While the movie is good, I never felt like it did the original Crow comic book justice. The comic is a very simple, powerful story. It makes me cry every single time I read it because it's a beautiful love letter that James O'Barr crafted to his dead fiancee. The power of the original Crow book versus the lackluster sequel series that it spawned, I think, is the personal nature of the story. The other books tacked on things and made a very simple story overly complicated, with characters that were hard to identify with or care about. It's like you said in your post, Eric and his girlfriend are just regular, unremarkable people who suffer a violent, gross, and tragic end. The audience wants him to succeed in his goal of revenge. It's one of those rare stories where an invincible superhero is actually not a turnoff, but a boon. He's justice incarnate, Divine Retribution in the form of a Punisher in mime paint. It's an unusual story, but it's power, I think, comes from the truth of the author's experiences with his own grief over the loss of his fiancee. It's from a personal place like that that brilliant artwork comes from. The sequels are just obvious grabs at money.

    In any case, James O'Barr is authoring a new Crow series set in World War II. I'm not holding my breath for quality, but maybe it won't suck.

  2. That's very well said, Bria. I've been meaning to read the Crow graphic novel since I watched an interview with O'Barr last year - he's an odd, shut-in sort of fellow, but strangely appealing in his way - and now I think I'll move it further up my "to-read" list.

  3. If I may make a recommendation, do not buy the "Director's Cut" or "Extended Edition" or whatever of the Crow book. It sucks. The added stuff is just stuff and doesn't really add anything of value to the story. Just the good old fashioned Crow is the best.

    Also, that's a shame that they are going to "de-Goth" the movie remake. I mean, the clothes, the setting, are all influenced by and went on the influence Goth subculture. The main character's appearance is based in part on the lead singer from Joy Division, for heaven's sake! It seems a shame to cut those elements out. Maybe they'll just be toned down to be somewhere in between the Underworld movies and the Matrix?