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Darkman Trilogy – Review

4 Sep

The super hero genre is more alive than ever before nowadays, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because most of them are very entertaining, and bad because it’s flooding the market. A name that goes hand in hand with super hero films in my opinion is Sam Raimi. Raimi successfully brought the webslinger to life in Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (not so much Spider-Man 3). Before any of this, however, Raimi created a character named Darkman, a dark super hero based on characters like Batman and The Shadow, but also inspired by the old Universal monster movies. This idea spawned a trilogy of movies called the Darkman Trilogy. While two of these movies are direct-to-video with differing qualities, it can’t be denied the first film has become a cult classic.

Let’s start in 1990 with the original film, Darkman.

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Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson) is a brilliant, but completely underfunded scientist who is on the verge of developing a new synthetic skin. Even with the hidden variables making this project difficult, Peyton still has the support and love of his long time girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand). Julie is a district attorney who is close to uncovering illegal business dealings by a major developer named Louis Strack (Colin Friels). Another party is interested in this incriminating evidence, a violent gangster named Robert Durant (Larry Drake). Durant breaks into Westlake’s lab to look for the evidence, and in the process destroys his work and severely burns and disfigures Westlake. Now thought to be dead, Peyton hides himself in a condemned factory where he rebuilds his machines that can construct any face he needs to disguise himself with, and soon begins to take revenge on Durant and his henchmen as the face changing vigilante Darkman.

Since it was first released in 1990, Darkman has become something of a cult classic. It’s over the top style and direct influences from Universal monster movies of the 1930s mixed with dark superhero action is a fantastic combination. In many ways, Sam Raimi hit the mark with Darkman, and in some ways it doesn’t quite stick. Where the movie slips up is the pacing of the story. This is an origin story, and origin stories can be tricky, especially when they aren’t based off of any real established lore. The character of Darkman came right from the head of Sam Raimi into the form a short story, so the film makers had to create a way to start the tale of Darkman. The first half hour of this movie goes frightfully quick, and it didn’t give me a chance to really care about the characters or their situations before Peyton’s transformation happens. The rest of the film goes on pretty good, with some odd speed bumps along the way, but the ridiculously fast pace of the beginning makes the character development suffer.

The movie really gets good whenever the action picks up or Sam Raimi does what he does best and goes crazy with the camera and the stylistic editing. This is a really cool movie to look at with the camera jumping all over the place and colors really popping in certain scenes. Raimi also knows how to direct action with his use of outstanding practical effects, stop motion, and blue screen to create a unique looking movie that only early-90s movies could do. Neeson also gives a pretty expressive performance as Peyton/Darkman, and it’s equally impressive given the huge amount of makeup and bandages on his face throughout most of the movie.

Darkman is a really cool, yet minor movie in the superhero genre. It’s not going to be a classic like Raimi’s later Spider-Man entries (excluding the third), but it does have a following of people that will defend it to their last breaths. While I definitely enjoyed the movie, the flaws that crop up throughout the film are very noticeable, and it’s clear that the production of this movie was pretty bumpy. Still for fans of oddball filmmaking and dark superhero tales, Darkman is a movie that deserves another look.

In 1995, Universal Studios released their first ever live action direct-to-video movie. That honor(?) goes to Darkman II: The Return of Durant.

darkman2-mca1 (VHSCollector.com)

Years after being horribly burned and disfigured, Peyton Westlake (now played by Arnold Vosloo) still dons the title of Darkman and is still working hard to perfect his formula for synthetic skin and make it last longer than 99 minutes. What Westlake doesn’t know is that while he’s been working, Durant (again played by Larry Drake) has been alive in a coma, and he has just recently gotten out of it with plans to take over the city’s crime scene using a new super weapon designed by a mad scientist named Hathaway (Lawrence Dane). After Durant is responsible for killing the one man that may have had the secret to the synthetic skin problem, Darkman once again begins a mission of revenge against the sadistic crime lord, and this time he means to end things once and for all.

Whenever something’s released direct-to-video, I have some measure of fear that I’m about to watch a really awful movie and throw an hour and a half of my life out the window. That being said, Darkman II: The Return of Durant certainly feels like a direct-to-video movie, but it also was still a pretty entertaining film. Let’s get the garbage out of the way first. For one thing, Durant’s plan of using a super weapon designed with plutonium is way out of left field. His main goal is for a group of gun happy vigilantes to get rid of the competition so Durant will reign supreme. What? There’s so many plot holes there that it hurts to think about. The side characters in this movie are also completely useless and almost don’t even need to be in the movie at all. Most of them are just a testament to awful B-grade acting. Of course the cheesy screenplay adds a lot to that, as their characters and dialogue weren’t written well in the first place.

That being said, Darkman II is not a complete waste of time, in fact it felt like a pretty good sequel in terms of style and action. It still has this pulpy kind of fun that relishes at being way over the top. Believe it or not, I think Arnold Vosloo is a great replacement for Liam Neeson. Unfortunately, his performance is a little stifled by make up that doesn’t quite match the make up done on Neeson in the original. The only returning member from the first film is Larry Drake as Durant, and he hasn’t missed a beat in his performance. It’s still fun and easy to hate his character and he gives Darkman a villain worth defeating.

While this is definitely a step down from the original, Darkman II: The Return of Durant is not an awful movie. In fact, it’s a pretty entertaining movie that kept me watching for it’s entire run time. There are some really ridiculous plot holes and the acting is less than acceptable, but it’s B-grade minor entertainment that would be interesting to see for fans of the first Darkman. Just don’t expect anything great.

One thing these movies didn’t need was a third entry, but alas, we now have a trilogy. In 1996, the third film was released direct-to-video titled Darkman III: Die Darkman Die.

darkman3-mca1 (VHSCollector.com)

Still trying to find the secret to permanent synthetic skin, Peyton Westlake accepts to offer of Dr. Bridget Thorne’ (Darlanne Fluegel) help to not only fix his destroyed nerve endings, but also allow him to use her laboratory. During his time there, Westlake finds the secret, but is betrayed by Thorne, who is actually working for a crime lord named Rooker (Jeff Jahey). Rooker wants to extract whatever it is that makes Westlake so strong, so that he can synthesize it and inject it into his henchmen. These super soldiers of Rooker’s will then go on to assassinate the district attorney and give Rooker unlimited power over the city. Feeling vengeful towards both Thorne and Rooker, and feeling an overwhelming desire to protect Rooker’s innocent family, Westlake becomes Darkman again to now save the city, a task more important than saving himself.

So here we have the second direct-to-video release of this trilogy, and boy have we really gone downhill. Darkman II: The Return of Durant was a pretty ok, pretty standard B-movie that had some problems, but was ultimately entertaining. Darkman III: Die Darkman Die is a complete train wreck of a movie. There is such little action, hardly any humor, and a story that is so boring and out of place that I lost interest before the halfway mark was even close to hitting. The whole plot of Rooker not spending enough time with his family, and Westlake disguising himself to take care of them is so stupid I almost can’t even handle it. There’s so much bland family drama with cringe worthy lines said by a terrible child actor that I was almost embarrassed watching it. How can a cool superhero action movie turn into this?

Arnold Vosloo is back playing Peyton Westlake/Darkman and he’s still a good substitution for Liam Neeson, but his role is written really poorly in this entry. He’s either grunting with pain, screaming with anger, or being overly sentimental with Rooker’s family. Darkman’s entire story of trying to fix his skin is also too played out by this point and the amount of stock footage from the second film just goes to show how repetitive this whole movie feels. The only positive I can think of is Jeff Fahey’s performance as Rooker. He’s an over the top, smug villain with a face that you just wanna hit. He seems to be having a good time oozing evil, so the entertainment I did have with this movie came from him.

Darkman III: Die Darkman Die is an insult to the first film and a disappointment to its ok sequel. It walks a fine line of being way too familiar while also straying uncomfortably far from the source material. The story could have easily ended after the second film, which makes this third movie feel like someone just thumbtacked it on to the canon that was already present. Do yourself a favor and do something better with your time. Spend an hour and a half tying and untying your shoes. It’s more fun than watching this mess.

So there you have it. The Darkman Trilogy is a pretty uneven group of movies. Nevertheless, the first film is a super cool dark super hero film and the sequel really isn’t all that bad considering the casting changes and its direct-to-video status. The only one to stay away from is the third film. Stay far away from that. If you haven’t exposed yourself to the dark anti-hero that is Darkman, I suggest you give it a try.

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My Top 10 Horror Movies

30 Oct

Halloween is upon us, which means it is the best time to completely numb your senses with fear with your favorite horror movies. The horror genre isn’t the genre that is the most respected or taken seriously, but part of that is what makes it so great. Film makers don’t always have to worry about the dramatic presentation or the production values of their horror movies, because it’s all about the scare. I love me a good horror movie, so in light of this wonderful holiday, I’d like to share my 10 favorite horror movies of all time.

10. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)

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I remember watching the trailer for this movie when it first came out and thinking how insane it looked, but I really had no idea until I actually sat down and watched it. Antichrist is the story of a Man (Willem Dafoe) and a Woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat to their home in the woods after the sudden death of their young child. What happens next can only be seen to be believed. Demonic talking animals, the brutalization of the most sensitive of body parts, and a twisted and depraved sexual escapade into the most primal and dark parts of the human psyche. Lars von Trier is an amazing film maker and his work on Antichrist is incredible, and while it’s one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, it is also one of the most visually beautiful and haunting.

9. Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)

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I firmly believe that some of the most frightening movies are from the silent era of film. The fact that there is no sound is odd enough, but the soundtrack and eerily grainy visuals is enough to make me squirm. One of the finest examples of this is Nosferatu, a movie about “Dracula” that came way before the Universal classic. While the vampire is known as Count Orlok (played by Max Schreck, in one of the most mesmerizing performances ever put onscreen), the story is still based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. There are images in this movie that will stick with me until the day I die. One being Orlok’s shadow as he’s walking up the stairs, and the other being his rise from the coffin. Sure, there’s no sound or dialogue in this film, but Schreck’s performance and the nightmarish visuals are out of this world.

8. Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)

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Here we have another silent film (sort of) that was actually released in the beginning of the sound era of film. That being said there are some sounds in this film, but it is still all about the visuals. Not only the visuals, but the amazing special effects that still have me baffled. Shadows dance along the walls and a man’s spirit leaves his body for a haunting walk through a field. Like the previous film, Vampyr is also the story of a vampire. In this film we follow Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg), a traveling student of the occult who becomes mixed up with a family who has been attacked by a vampire. When I say this movie feels like a nightmare, it really feels like a nightmare, one that I’d be excited to wake up from. The story plays out at a slow pace and the camerawork plays tricks on the viewer in ways that was surprising for the year 1932. Not only is this an outstanding horror film, it’s also, in my opinion, one of the most important movies in film history.

7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

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Now we’re really getting into the gritty stuff. Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains one of the most brutal and no holds bars horror movies ever, even though it had its 40th birthday this year. This is the story of a group of friends on a road trip to a graveyard when they come across a sadistic and murderous family of cannibals who begins killing them in gruesome ways. This film introduced the now iconic character Leatherface (played by Gunnar Hansen in this film), and spawned a series of sequels and remakes that never came close to Hooper’s original vision. The actors and film makers were put through hell making this movie with uncomfortable and cramped sets and heat that made many of them sick. While it was shot on an unreasonably low budget and starred a group of unheard of actors, this film has still become a landmark in the history of horror, not because of how beautifully shot it is nor how well acted it is, but simply because of the terror that it evokes.

6. Dead Alive/Braindead (Peter Jackson, 1992)

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Before making the record breaking Academy Award winning Lord of the Rings series, Peter Jackson and the rest of his crew were making much more different films, one of them being the cult class Dead Alive. Originally released in its home country of New Zealand under the title Braindead, it was soon released in the United States under the title Dead Alive. Not only does this movie combine horror and comedy almost seamlessly, it has also been crowned the goriest movie ever made, and that’s just awesome. In this film, the timid Lionel (Timothy Balme) has to fight an endless horde of zombies caused by a mutated rat-monkey, while taking care of his mother (Elizabeth Moody) and winning the heart of the girl of his dreams (Diana Peñalver). Probably the most notorious scene of the movie features Lionel face to face with a room full of zombies armed only with his trusty lawnmower. The result is what can only be described as geysers of blood, which confirms the hundreds of gallons that Jackson went through making this movie. Not everyone could probably stomach the gore in this movie, but you just have to remember how much fun you’re actually having watching this ridiculous film.

5. Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987)

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In the same vein as Peter Jackson’s gorefest, I bring you the only other horror comedy that could possibly top it: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II. In 1981, Raimi and his friends made the first Evil Dead on a shoestring budget that had some pretty impressive effects and scares, but was ultimately still viewed as a horror comedy. After the surprising success of his first film, he released the sequel in 1987, but this time upping the gore and the humor, as well as turning Ash (Bruce Campbell) into one of the best heroes you’ll ever see. This film pits Ash against the demonic forces in the forest that possess household objects, kills his girlfriend, and even takes over Ash’s hand forcing him to cut it off which results in his trademark arm chainsaw. This movie isn’t necessarily scary, but it still does have horror tropes like the undead and demons, but you’ll be laughing too hard at this movie to be scared. I absolutely love this movie.

4. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

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Here’s a movie that is widely considered the best horror movie ever made, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. This is the movie that is known for making grown men cry like babies, and for good reason. The idea of the devil and demons is scary enough, but the idea of them taking over your mind, body, and soul is probably one of the worst things ever, which is exactly what happens to the poor little girl, Regan (Linda Blair). The best parts of the movie, however, are the scenes where the two priests (played by Max von Sydow and Jason Miller) face off against the demonic forces that are harming the child. The effects are unbelievable and the sound design is probably the most horrifying part of the story. What is really frightening about The Exorcist is the understanding of what’s happening to the characters in the movie, and anyone who has seen it will testify just to how jarringly disturbing Friedkin’s masterpiece is.

3. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

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What’s different about this movie is that it can be argued that John Carpenter’s The Thing is actually a science fiction film more than it is a horror, but I believe it is exactly the opposite. Sure, the story is about a microscopic alien that invades the workers on an Antarctic base, but the horror is what really makes this film memorable. First of all, let me just say that this movie is my pick for best special effects ever. There’s no tricks with computers or digital effects, but instead all of the effects are achieved by practical effects and concrete creature designs and puppeteering. Still, what is just as terrifying as the creature effects and the gore that results from the different transformations is the paranoia and isolation that the characters experience throughout the movie, and how the close knit bonds between them are completely shattered by something that can’t even be seen. I couldn’t recommend this movie more, and I would even say choose this one over the 1951 original, The Thing from Another World. Carpenter’s version is far superior.

2. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987)

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Clive Barker is a name that goes hand in hand with paranormal and surreal horror. His masterpiece, in my opinion is the 1987 film Hellraiser. While Barker is mostly known as an author, penning the books that inspired Candyman and Midnight Meat Train, he still has the credit of directing Hellraiser, while also being responsible for writing the book and the screenplay. This is one of the most demented horror films I have ever seen, and much like Antichrist, succeeds at turning sex into something repulsive. The story is almost too strange to give a one sentence description, but all you need to know is that it revolves around a box that summons beings from another dimension that will take you back to their world and torture you for all eternity. Death is not the end with the beings called the Cenobites, the pain lasts forever, but their goal is to give the taken what they describe as the ultimate in pleasure and pain, which is where the bizarre sexual themes come into play. The make up and effects are great, but so is the story and the suspense, making this one of my absolute favorite horror films ever. But there is still one more…

1. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

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Yes, ladies and gentlemen, my favorite horror film of all time has to be John Carpenter’s Halloween. I chose this film for multiple reasons. First of all because of the character of Michael Myers, but also because of the soundtrack, the suspense, and the nostalgia. This is the one that started it all for me. I wouldn’t love horror movies as much as I do if it weren’t for the “night he came home.” Michael Myers is a horrifying icon of horror, with the expressionless mask (which is a Captain Kirk mask spray painted white), the black eyes, and the slow way he chases after his prey. Much of the movie is actually pretty slow, mostly with Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) babysitting the neighborhood brat, but also of Michael just watching everyone. Some of the most terrifying horror movies are the ones that could actually happen, and someone stalking and murdering people is one of those things. The fear really comes on strong when Myers’ theme begins and the chase between him and Laurie begins. Nothing gets me ready for Halloween like Halloween.

 

Horror movies are a special kind of movie that make being scared into something to enjoy. So turn off the lights, grab a beer, and check out some of these movies if you haven’t already. Happy Halloween, fellow cinephiles!