Friday, 8 June 2018


Before American filmmaker Sam Raimi adapted Spider-Man in a big screen trilogy (2002-2007), he made his first major studio picture with a superhero of his own: Darkman (1990). This amazing movie spawned two direct-to-video sequels, Darkman II: The Return of Durant (1995) and  Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (1996). They were preceded by an attempt to launch a TV series in 1992.

In November 2017, the French home video company L'Atelier d'images released Darkman - Édition Ultime, a limited edition (2 Blu-Ray discs + 1 DVD) containing Darkman, Darkman II, Darkman III, the comic book Darkman Vs. Army of Darkness (for the first time in French) and more than 3½ hours of bonus material. On June 5, 2018, L'Atelier d'images released Darkman on Blu-Ray and DVD.

Dr. Peyton Westlake experiments a synthethic skin for burn victims but it disaggregates after 99 minutes. He's about to find a solution when his assistant and him are attacked by sadistic mobster Robert G. Durant and his thugs. Durant wants a memorandum forgotten by Peyton's girlfriend Julie Hastings, an attorney. This document proves that real estate developer Louis Strack Jr. used corruption for his "City of the Future". Severely burnt and disfigured, Westlake is brought (as a John Doe) to a hospital where he undergoes radical surgery. Now he no longer feels pain because of his severed nerve endings and his strength is considerably enhanced by adrenaline flows, at the price of his mental stability. Presumed dead, Peyton Westlake plots his revenge in a condemned factory. With the artificial skin he can take any face he wants, including his own, but only for 99 minutes.  

Darkman originated from the desire of Sam Raimi, then a young independent director behind cult films The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987), to adapt Batman or The Shadow. Unable to secure their rights, Raimi decided to create a superhero. Inspired by those classic characters and films like The Phantom of the Opera and The Elephant Man, he got the idea of a man who could change his face for a short story which became a 40-page film treatment. Raimi also paid homage to the Universal monsters of the 1930s and 1940s. Universal Pictures liked the pitch, the budget was set in the $8-12 million range and Darkman went into pre-production (1). Chuck Pfarrer (Navy Seals), Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan Raimi (2), Daniel Goldin and Joshua Goldin worked on the screenplay.

The director wanted his longtime friend Bruce Campbell (Ash in the Evil Dead films) to play Peyton  but the studio vetoed. Irish actor Liam Neeson, not yet a household name, was cast and Raimi gave Bruce Campbell a superb cameo at the end. Gary Oldman and Bill Paxton were considered. Julia Roberts almost played Julie before reaching stardom with Pretty Woman (1990). Frances McDormand, Oscar nominee for Mississipi Burning (1988) and friend of Raimi, got the part. For the villains, Sam Raimi chose Australian actor Colin Friels as Strack and Larry Drake as the sinister Robert G. Durant. He thought Drake looked like Edward G. Robinson and he actually didn't watch L.A. Law (1986-1994), where the actor caught attention as Benny Stulwicz. Danny Elfman, who scored  comic book movies Batman (1989) and Dick Tracy (1990), composed a  soundtrack both mysterious and tragic.

Produced by Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert's Renaissance Pictures for Universalthe action-packed thriller came as an unique take on the superhero genre thanks to the director's style and inventivity, his dark humour and a perfect cast. Liam Neeson's performance as a humanist turned into a monstruously scarred antihero reaches shakespearean heights. The helicopter scene and the final showdown are memorable. Darkman performed very well at the box office and even more on home video. In 1992, Universal Television produced an unaired 22-minute pilot/demo for a potential TV series but the Fox channel didn't pick it up. Written by Robert Eisele (The Equalizer) and directed by Brian Grant, Darkman retold the origins of the character with some changes. English actor Christopher Bowen (Le Roi Mystère) (3) starred as Peyton Westlake. Larry Drake reprised his role of Robert G. Durant.

Universal wasn't interested in funding a sequel to the film until they decided to follow the example of Disney's The Return of Jafar (1994), the hit direct-to-video sequel of Aladdin (1992), and bypass theaters. The studio financed, partly through its television division, a home video "double bill" of the dark vigilante. Helmed by experimented TV director/cinematographer Bradford May, Darkman II: The Return of Durant and Darkman III: Die Darkman Die were filmed back-to-back in Toronto in winter 1993-1994 for almost $5 million (4). They were released in 1995 and 1996 respectively. Larry Drake came back as Durant but he wasn't available immediately so Darkman III was shot first. South African born actor Arnold Vosloo was asked to play Peyton Westlake while he was filming John Woo's Hard Target (1993), co-produced by Renaissance Pictures.

In Darkman II, Peyton befriends David Brinkman, a scientist who found a solution to disintegration of the synthetic skin. His old enemy Robert G. Durant awakes from coma and projects to rule the criminal underworld with the help of Dr. Hathaway, the mad inventor of a particle-beam gun. Durant wants Brinkman's building but David doesn't wish to sell and the gangster gets him killed. Peyton must protect Brinkman's sister Laurie. Written by Steven McKay (Hard to Kill), Robert Eisele and Lawrence Hertzog (creator of the 1995-1996 series Nowhere Man), The Return of Durant is carried by the top billing Larry Drake and tries to emulate Raimi's style with some cartoonish moments. Arnold Vosloo is a honourable successor to Liam Neeson. Except for Hathaway (the great Canadian actor Lawrence Dane), the secondary characters are quite insignificant. Like the reporter played by Kim Delaney, who quickly disappears. Renee O'Connor (Laurie Brinkman) later co-starred in Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001) as Gabrielle.

Penned by screenwriting duo Michael Colleary and Mike Werb, Darkman III would definitely have made a better TV pilot than the 1992 demo. Dr. Bridget Thorne, one of the physicians who saved Westlake's life after the attack by Durant and his men, offers Peyton to repair his nervous system but corrupt businessman Peter Rooker wants Darkman's strength for his profit. Jeff Fahey (The Lawnmower man) makes an excellent new villain and the late Darlanne Fluegel (Crime Story, To Live and Die in L.A.) is brilliant as Thorne. Roxann Dawson (Angela Rooker) played B'Elanna Torres in Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). The supporting cast is filled with familiar faces like Nigel Bennett (Forever Knight) or Von Flores. The music of the two direct-to-video sequels was composed by Randy Miller.

Blu-Ray Disc 1 of Darkman - Édition ultime is comprised of Darkman (French dubbing + Original dialogue track), a conversation between journalists Julien Dupuy et Stéphane Moïssakis, interviews of production designer Randy Ser and art director Philip Dagort, interviews of Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand, interviews of Dan Bell and Danny Hicks (Durant's henchmen Paulie and Skip), and an interview of makeup designer Tony Gardner. The Larry Drake interview is refreshing (Durant's crush, the "pilot") and even moving as the talented actor died in 2016. There are interviews of Sam Raimi, Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand and Colin Friels for the film's release, a "Making Of", trailers and TV spots, storyboards and photo galleries. Blu-Ray Disc 2 is comprised of Darkman II & III (French dubbing + Original dialogue track) with their trailers. The DVD of the Édition Ultime has Darkman and the trailers of the three films. All the bonus material is subbed in French.

(1) Fangoria #96 (Sept 1990). It ended up at an estimated $16 million.
(2) In Darkman, their brother Ted Raimi plays Rick.
(3) Christopher Bowen played the eponymous 19th century vigilante in this 1991 four-part French drama based on a novel by Gaston Leroux (author of The Phantom of the Opera). His very good performance looks like an audition for the role of Darkman.
(4) Cinefantastique v25n06-v26n01 (Dec 1994).  (Darkman - June 2018 French Blu-Ray, with details about the bonus material)

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