Sunday, October 29, 2023

Ten Days of Terror!: Darkman

Film: Darkman
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

It’s hard not to love Darkman just a little bit. It’s such a completely bizarre collection of parts and performances that it’s almost inexplicable. This is very much a superhero movie that was made in the style of Tim Burton’s original Batman film. It has the same kind of energy, and at the same time, it’s hard not to see this as at least a partial influence on the later Batman films in the original quadrilogy. Darkman is Grand Guignol on a massive scale. It’s also a film that features Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand.

We’re going to start with Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), a scientist who is working on creating a new type of synthetic skin. He can’t get it to last more than 99 minutes, once it is exposed to light. At the same time, attorney girlfriend Julie Hastings (Frances McDormand) has discovered that local developer Louis Strack, Jr. (Colin Friels) has been bribing the zoning commission. She leaves the document indicting him at Peyton’s lab. Shortly thereafter, Peyton is visited by Robert Durant (Larry Drake), a mob boss, who is also implicated in the paperwork. In an effort to get it back, he kills Westlake’s assistant and blows up the lab, leaving Dr. Westlake horribly burned and scarred.

Westlake is discovered as a John Doe and taken to a hospital where, in an experimental treatment, essentially sever his nerves so that he no longer experiences pain. Because this is a superhero movie at its core, this gives Westlake super human strength at times because of overloads of adrenaline. Injuries no longer slow him down, but the lack of sensory input changes him mentally.

Once we have this origin story, the rest of this is going to be essentially a revenge story. Westlake rebuilds his lab in the rubble of his first lab and rebuilds his formula for artificial skin. This allows him to appear as other people for up to 99 minutes before the skin deteriorates. And so, with this basic ability, Westlake starts to dismantle what he can of Durant’s organization, stealing his money to continue his operation as well. He also comes out to Julie and tries to re-establish a relationship with her, but with the same 99 minutes at a time limitation. The wrench in this part of the story is that despite his shady dealings, Julie has become involved with Louis Strack.

Darkman is insanely over-the-top. Westlake gets aggressive at times and Durant plots to remove this sudden thorn from his side. In one of the more entertaining moments, Westlake impersonating Durant runs into the real Durant in a revolving door and hilarity ensues. This really is Grand Guignol in every sense. It’s grotesque and melodramatic and ridiculous, and it’s also a great deal of fun.

It's also a movie that wants to make a lot of reference to other films. There’s a great deal of The Phantom of the Opera in this in the character of Darkman himself. But there is also a sense of barely restrained camp in how the plot works and how the characters react to things. The weird science of the light-sensitive artificial skin just adds to this same sense. Liam Neeson plays Peyton Westlake/Darkman like the Phantom in large respect. He is melodramatic and florid, and were this made a couple of decades earlier, there would be clear comparisons to Dr. Phibes.

The reality of Darkman is that the logic of the movie doesn’t really survive any deep scrutiny. In that respect, it is very much like an old school comic book or comic book movie. The science is goofy, the medical procedure used to give Westlake his super powers is ridiculous, and his ability to withstand physical punishment goes far beyond the “he doesn’t feel pain” storyline. This is not a movie that should be carefully examined for plot holes because in a sense, it’s all plot holes of that type.

That said, there’s not a good reason to care. Darkman doesn’t want to be serious and doesn’t want to say anything real about the human condition. It wants to show ridiculous action and explosions and give people an excuse to cheer for a new superhero. It does all of that exactly as well as it needs to. Darkman is unsuccessful in a lot of serious ways, but it’s completely successful in every way it wants to succeed. And, how can you resist a ridiculous B-movie about a guy who doesn’t feel pain starring Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand?

Why to watch Darkman: It’s a perfect storm of everything.
Why not to watch: If you dig too deeply, you realize that it’s ridiculous.


  1. I have seen this film. It is silly as hell but it's entertaining as fuck. I enjoyed this especially the scene where Westlake's lab gets blown up and he flies into the air. I hope Sam Raimi does more of that and if he does do the next Doctor Strange. Bring some of that silliness as I was one of those that really liked Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness as it felt more like a Raimi film than a Marvel film.

    1. Yeah, this is bombastic and crazy, and it's a lot of fun because of that. Early Raimi is a lot of fun.

      Also, I think he learned a lot of lessons on this that he used in the Spider-Man films.