Before he made Peter Parker swing dance, Sam Raimi gave us one of the strangest superhero movies from a decade teeming with strange superhero movies. Released in the summer of 1990 on the heels of Tim Burton’s Batman, tantalizing teasers (“Who is Darkman?”) promised another dark avenger. What Raimi and company delivered was a twisted mash-up of pulp heroes like The Shadow and classic movie monsters tinged with the Evil Dead filmmaker’s distinctive blend of horror, action, and frequent bursts of comedy.
Over the years, Darkman has developed a healthy cult following, in no small part thanks to stellar performances by then up-and-coming actors Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand. (Larry Drake’s Durant, a psycho with a penchant for removing his victim’s fingers, was so effectively creepy he scored his own sequel.) But helming his first big budget production was no cakewalk for Raimi, who had to deal with multiple script rewrites, studio interference, and a vocal cast who were also interested in pushing the boundaries of what a superhero movie could be.
With Shout Factory’s new extras-laden collector’s edition Blu-ray offering the best presentation of Darkman thus far, now is a good time to take a look at a few of the strange, interesting, and downright awesome facts surrounding the making of one of the best and most underrated superhero films of the ’90s.
1. Gary Oldman and Bill Paxton were up for the lead.
Paxton reportedly told his pal Liam Neeson about the role and was angry when the Irish actor, who only had a few big screen credits under his belt at the time, was cast as the lead. Sam Raimi wanted Bruce Campbell to play Peyton Westlake/Darkman, but was told that his Evil Dead homie wasn’t a big enough star. Of course, Raimi showed those stuffy ’80s movie suits who’s boss by giving Campbell a cameo at the end as one of Peyton’s many disguises. (Uh, spoiler alert for a 24-year-old movie?)
2. Sam Raimi wore a suit every day on set.
Raimi has worn suits on set since the Evil Dead days as an homage to the great filmmaker and clothes horse Alfred Hitchcock.
3. Liam Neeson had a fear of heights.
4. There was a failed Darkman TV pilot.
In 1992, Sam Raimi produced a pilot presentation for FOX for a possible Darkman TV show. Larry Drake returned as Durant, while Christopher Bowen took over the role of Peyton Westlake/Darkman. In the retconned origin, Durant killed Peyton for his skin regeneration formula instead of for the document that revealed Louis Strack’s shady dealings. Also, Julie is now dead, having perished in the explosion that scarred Peyton. Oh, and Darkman is suddenly British for some reason.
Filmed on what looks like the set from Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” video, the pilot has a distinctly low-rent Beauty and the Beast/Phantom of the Opera vibe. This Darkman is a huge jerk, scolding a kid for spray painting and yelling at a lady cop (Kathleen York, of The West Wing and that terrible song from Crash fame) who is trying to take down Durant. As laughably awful as the pilot is, it’s hard to believe that king of ’90s genre TV Sam “Xena” Raimi couldn’t get a Darkman series on the air. After all, he did unleash Cleopatra 2525 onto the world.
5. Frances McDormand and Sam Raimi were housemates at the time.
As the future Marge Gunderson reveals in a new interview on the collector’s edition Blu-ray, Frances McDormand was living with the Coen Brothers and Raimi in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles when Darkman went into production. McDormand claims Raimi cast her in an effort to create a character who would break the traditional “damsel-in-distress” mold. Also, to make sure she was able to make rent as a then up-and-coming actress.
However, the pair clashed quite a bit on set as McDormand pushed for Julie to be more than the typical comic book movie heroine who ends up bound and gagged waiting for the hero to save her. (Of course, her character eventually ends up bound and gagged and waiting for the hero to save her.)
6. Prior to playing Durant, Larry Drake was known for nice guy roles.
Drake was easily one of the most recognizable members of the cast at the time thanks to his role as the mentally challenged Benny on L.A. Law. (Raimi had never seen Drake on the NBC legal drama and claims he cast the actor for his imposing presence and resemblance to famed heavy Edward G. Robinson.) Following Darkman, Drake scored quite a few bad guy roles. (Dr. Giggles, anyone??)
7. Durant may have had a crush on one of his henchmen.
As Larry Drake reveals on the new Blu-ray, there are a few hints in the film that Durant might have romantic feelings for his henchman Rick, who is played by Sam Raimi’s brother Ted. There’s the quick moment after they dunk Peyton Westlake in acid where Durant puts his arm around Rick and congratulates him on a job well done. At Strack’s party, Durant offers to get the jittery Rick a martini. Then later, after Rick has been killed by Darkman, henchmen Skip notes that Durant is particularly steamed about Rick going missing because he “likes” him. Professional respect or something more? Rewatch the movie and decide for yourself.
8. You can blame VHS for the sequels.
While only a modest hit in theaters, Darkman developed a substantial cult following on home video. It did so well, in fact, that Universal produced two direct-to-video sequels — Darkman II: The Return of Durant and the wonderfully named Darkman III: Die Darkman Die. (You can tell it’s the end of the franchise because Jeff Fahey is one of the stars.)
9. Also, the sequels were released in the wrong order.
Die Darkman Die was actually intended to be the first sequel. But once Larry Drake became available, it was held back until Return of Durant could be filmed and released. (No doubt to capitalize on the success of Dr. Giggles.)