By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we attempt to shed a new light on some of our favorite misunderstood and often overlooked films. In this week’s installment, we discuss the 1994 film adaptation of James O’Barr’s The Crow.
In the late 1980s, my mother managed a bar and because she was, at the time, a single mother, I was essentially raised in the place. Being around 7 years old, I had very few outlets for entertainment, beyond stealing maraschino cherries and “winning” quarters out of the cigarette machine. I was, however, often given a few bucks to walk down to the (slightly) seedy newsstand, to buy candy or comics. That’s the first time I became aware of O’Barr’s comic The Crow. Knowing that I was way too young to even attempt to buy it, I would escape the bar whenever I could to sneak glances at the cover art, too afraid to even touch the thing. Still, something about it fascinated me and while I never gathered to courage to even crack the cover, I wondered for years what dark, goth-y goodness it contained.
Cue 1994, my mother’s new ponytail-clad boyfriend Randy, and the theatrical release of The Crow. Knowing fully well that I hadn’t a chance in hell at convincing my mom to take me to see it, I took aim on Randy and, slowly but surely, crushed him. Despite the practically tangible sense of discomfort radiating from Randy, I sat in awe, finally discovering The Crow. Those 90 minutes changed my tiny life, transforming the 12 year-old me into a slightly weirder, more serious, and way fucking more into The Crow version of me.
James O’Barr’s The Crow was published in 1989 by the lesser-known Caliber Comics. (Not necessarily surprising, it was penned while O’Barr was coping with the death of his girlfriend.) The series received critical praise and an staggering amount of underground readership, leading Miramax to develop it into a feature film. The studio enlisted Australian director Alex Proyas (who went on to direct the ridiculous films Dark City and I, Robot), and odd-couple screenwriters John Shirley and David Schow. The combination of mega-nerd Shirley and splatterpunk Schows may have been a happy accident, but the two opposing styles compliment each other very well and, while the screenplay certainly drifts from the comic, the majority of O’Barr’s literary flair and love of blood comes through flawlessly on the screen.
The final formula, comprised of Proyas’ intrinsically noir aesthetic, and the slasher-meets-scholar vibe of Shirley and Schow, is well… pretty great. O’Barr thankfully took on a creative consultant role and apparently, was quite hands-on during the entire production process. He is also said to be the driving force behind the shoegazing-ly incredible musical theme of the film. We could, absolutely, write an entire other article about the soundtrack, it’s just that good.
Set in an apocalyptic Detroit during Devil’s Night, the film follows Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) through a not-so-typical story of love and revenge, focusing mostly on the latter. One year after he and fiancé Shelly (Sofia Shinas) are brutally attacked and murdered in their apartment, Eric rises from the grave, with the sole purpose of bloody fucking vengeance. Guided by a supernatural crow, a now invincible Eric begins carving his way through the underground, yet over-the-top, crime syndicate of Tin-Tin, Funboy, Skank, T-Bird, and boss Top-Dollar. As Top-Dollar’s crew proceeds to burn Detroit to the ground, Draven wreaks havoc, picking them off one at a time with increasing drama and brutality. In order to lend some humanity to the character, Eric does take the occasional break from his murderous plight (and roof top guitar solos), encountering Sarah (Rochelle Davis), the girl that Eric and Shelly had practically adopted, and Albriecht (Ernie Hudson), the officer who was assigned to their case and keeps eye on Sarah.
Originally, director Alex Proyas wanted to shoot the film in black and white, literally mimicking the comics. While the studio wouldn’t allow it, they did bend enough to permit Proyas to use a stark color palate consisting mainly of black, white, red, and blue. While a B&W version would have been seemingly perfect for The Crow, the slight use of color breathes some needed life into the film adaptation. Flashback scenes are coated in rich, saturated warm color, lending a palpable difference between the visual perceptions of on-screen life and death. The writing too, makes massive leaps back and forth, but operate with perfect timing. The Crow delivers some of the highest quality one-liners of any action film, and still, during more quiet times, the dialog can be very touching, witty, and sweet. The actors enhance this attribute. Obviously, Ernie Hudson is always good for a one-liner, but it’s some of the less expected characters that really command attention.
Despite the massive legacy left by his father, Brandon Lee had been flying under the Hollywood radar. O’Barr was terrified that Lee was cast to play Eric but, once on set, Lee took on the character beautifully and kept incredibly true to the “sad clown” that O’Barr had created. Top Dollar, the swashbuckling, eye-eating, coke blowing crime boss played by forever-villian Michael Wincott, is simply spine-chilling while every awful sentence that leaves his mouth is nothing less than poetic. In addition, David Patrick Kelly’s role of T-Bird is, subjectively speaking, amazing. A Detroit native, Kelly might be best known for his role as Luther in The Warriors, or Sully in Commando. His take on T-Bird, Top Dollar’s #1 underling, deserves an honorable mention, at least, in the cool-as-shit Hall of Fame.
The large amount of the film’s initial reception was likely and unfortunately due to the death of Brandon Lee during filming. (Yes, of course we’re going to mention it.) Lee was shot on set during the apartment scene, when T-Bird and pals invade Eric and Shelly’s home. The gun used was loaded with blanks, however, an empty dummy shell from a previous scene was accidentally left inside of the chamber. Funboy (Michael Massee) fires the shot as Eric enters the apartment. Lee was rushed to the hospital and after 6 hours of surgery, he was pronounced dead on March 31st, 1993. The remaining scenes of Lee were produced using a body double with Lee’s face often added in post.
With the film already being tailored to the angsty MTV-obsessed teenagers of the mid 90s, the addition of a posthumous performance solidified its eventual cult status. The Crow was, mostly, a pecuniary success. It received a few nominations and an award or two for best song. A series of shitty sequels and a TV show followed, and fell short. Regardless of potentially promising reboots, most fans remain satisfied in knowing that a comparable Crow adaptation isn’t likely. It may be a tasteless comparison, but like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, Lee’s interpretation of Eric Draven cannot be replicated.
Five things about The Crow that we refuse to confirm or deny…
1) James O’Barr is said to have a small cameo, stealing a TV from Gideon’s Pawn after it explodes.
2) Michael Massee has never seen the film and actually quit acting for years following Lee’s death.
3) Lee’s on-set death was predicted by many, including his father.
4) O’Barr’s first choice for Eric Draven was Johnny Depp. River Phoenix and Christian Slater also turned down the role… allegedly.
5) Iggy Pop was slated to play Funboy, and eventually appeared in the 1996 POS sequel.