Director: Alex Proyas
Producers: Sherman L. Baldwin, Robert L. Rosen
Writers: James O’Barr, David J. Schow, John Shirley
Stars: Brandon Lee, Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson, Michael Wincott
TRIGGER WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAKES MENTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT AND MORPHINE INJECTIONS. (As always, see this post’s tags for trigger warnings for the film itself.)
THE CROW is difficult to place. Is it a zombie flick? A revenge story? A snuff film? Indeed, it may be all of these things (if the rumors are to be believed). More than anything, though, THE CROW is a Gothic romance, a terrible and beautiful love story.
When he and his beloved fiancée Shelly are brutally slain on Devil’s Night—the night before Halloween, marked by widespread arson and violent crime—sensitive rock guitarist Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) has no choice but to rejoin the land of the living. When he rises from the grave a year later, the odds appear to be against him—Shelly was raped and beaten by a motley group of criminals: Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), a powerful drug lord, and his minions, Tin Tin, Fun Boy, T-Bird, and Skank. However, Eric has an advantage; with the crow—a sacred vessel for the disembodied soul—on his side, he is invincible and possesses great strength. With the help of Sergeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) and Eric’s brave young friend, Sarah (Rochelle Davis), he stands a fighting chance at vengeance. And he will have his revenge …
I’ll admit it: before I watched THE CROW, I was skeptical. For starters, I knew it was based on a comic—never an appealing start for me. I have little interest in superheroes, I don’t like cartoonish filmmaking aesthetically, and am painfully aware of the misogyny that plagues the world of comics. Plus, I hadn’t really heard much about the film. (Granted: I was 17 months old when it was released in 1994.) But, as always, I was game to give it a try. Admittedly, too, I was intrigued by the rumors surrounding Brandon Lee’s death on-set. And, after all, my heroes, Andrea and Alexandra at the Faculty of Horror podcast were planning on discussing it this month.
I am so, so glad that I overlooked my misgivings and gave it a chance.
THE CROW is a beautiful film. The cinematography is dark and alluring, portraying Detroit as the site of great danger and great excitement all at once, a playground for lovers and criminals and misfits of every fabric. We see Eric ducking through the streets, brooding, hair hanging over his face, guitar slung over one shoulder. We see Sarah, conspicuously alone, skateboarding to the cemetery where Shelly remains buried. We see Fun Boy and Darla—Sarah’s mother, as it were—twined together in a motel bed, morphine dripping from fresh tracks. All of these striking images, and more, stay with me, feeding my imagination in the way that the art of Jan Svankmajer and Lars von Trier does. No film I’ve ever seen has portrayed Detroit in such lush, dark surrealism—with the possible exception of ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013).
It’s a slow build, and the horror comes in unexpected bites. First, of course, there are the flashbacks to Shelly’s rape and murder, torturous to Eric. (She dies in the hospital, though fatally wounded at the scene.) Then there are unexpected moments of disgust: Eric snapping back Darla’s arm to watch the morphine ooze back out of her veins; Tin Tin sneering: “I shagged her white ass and she loved it!” I hate to compare anyone to Tim Burton—it seems even mentioning his name, or Guillermo del Toro’s, is equivalent to beating a dead horse—but the inspired contrast of blood and concrete seems an urban twist on Burton’s go-to visual motif.
I can’t help but deduct a star for quality. At times, the filmmaking is transparently cheap—$23 million was significantly below average in the early nineties—and the costuming is a bit shabby. The dialogue, too, occasionally strays into the melodramatic. (Almost every line out of Top Dollar’s mouth is poorly written and poorly executed, his character the most likely to resort to cartoonish bravado.) It doesn’t help that, after Lee’s death, the filmmakers had to resort to digitally superimposing him, an experimental tactic at the time. But, in a way, all of this adds to the charm of the film—the grit of an off-beat comic-book movie about a guy so heartbroken that he just had to disturb his eternal rest for a taste of revenge.
James O’Barr—the artist behind the comic series and a writer on the film—is perhaps the only real-life Eric Draven there can be. He’s much less effortlessly cool than Eric, and the fact that he is in an amateur metal band goes to show in his long, graying ponytail and perpetual grimace. His life, wrought as it has been, is in itself an incarnation of Eric’s torment. O’Barr created Eric Draver when he was in the Marines, stationed in Germany, in 1981. He had enlisted as a way of coping with the death of his own beloved fiancée, Beverly, who was killed by a drunk driver. Growing up in Detroit—in the foster care system, no less—O’Barr was no stranger to criminals, either. They may not have been in his backyard—O’Barr maintains that even the worst parts of Detroit are much safer than the public perceives them to be—but he saw their names plastered in newspapers and in graffiti in the city. (In fact, the names of the criminals in the comic and film are the very same written in graffiti in Detroit: Skank, T-Bird, Top Dollar, Fun Boy.) After reading an article on a young couple murdered over a $20 engagement ring, he was similarly inspired.
The most tragic piece of all of this, maybe—beyond Brandon Lee’s untimely death, beyond even the futility of revenge—is that James O’Barr, the very man who created Eric Draven in the image of what he might have imagined he could be at a different time, in a differnt world, could not be healed. Like Eric Draven, O’Barr was filled with rage, which only worsened as he wrote. He told an interviewer: “As I drew each page, it made me more self-destructive, if anything.” And yet, although he claims the The Crow did nothing to help him, I can’t help but marvel at how a man so angry could render such a poignant portrait of grief. In the mess of destruction and tragedy that is life—and was the set of THE CROW—we should count ourselves lucky that O’Barr bestowed this gift on us, his fellow heartbroken misfits.
There’s so little of it (gunshot wounds and the beatings sustained in Eric’s flashbacks) and what is shown is done tastefully.
The horror is minimal; this film is a hybrid with elements of fantasy and action…so, while it’s no fault, there’s little true horror to be felt here.
Yeah, no. Eric Draven gets riiiiight to it.
See “Horror.” If anything, THE CROW is depressing, but certainly not terrifying.
I streamed THE CROW on Netflix (instant stream) with a subscription.