Autumn Classics: The Crow

What do you get when you cross Batman, the Joker, goth and grunge?

Movies Features The Crow
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Autumn Classics: <i>The Crow</i>

As the night air grows chill and the bare branches of trees seem to beckon to you, many movie lovers seek the familiar pleasures of spooky, macabre and melancholy films. Ken Lowe is revisiting some of these Autumn Classics that are reaching major milestones this year. Get up to speed with last week’s look at Batman and see all past entries here.

The ’90s shook up action movies, comic books, music. Marvel Comics was going bankrupt and facing down open rebellion by creators who decided to jump ship rather than sign away their original characters. The ’roided out, bare-chested, machinegun-in-each-hand ’80s action star was so played out that Arnold Schwarzenegger was sending it up himself in 1993’s Last Action Hero. Punk was evolving into industrial-metal and grunge. Hot Topic was expanding to a local mall near you.

Somehow, The Crow exists right in the middle of all of those trends. Its every sensibility is a ’90s trend in every conceivable way: Gothic punk, grunge, guns-akimbo action, black on black on black color palette, and a gritty hero. For that reason, it is dated, but for it’s un-self-conscious story of a disastrously sexy revenant rocker returning from the grave to avenge his own murder, it is timeless.

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The story was based on James O’Barr’s comic, which had garnered a cult following. Hanging over the whole production—and possibly a morbid reason for the film’s success—is the death of star Brandon Lee, who was shot on set as a result of a series of mishaps arising from poor firearms supervision. It’s an unsettling feeling to have as the film begins with Lee’s character murdered, the fiancée he was to marry brutalized and fatally wounded. Left to pick up the pieces are their young surrogate daughter, skateboarder girl Sarah (Rochelle Davis) and easygoing local cop, Albrecht (Ernie Hudson). Devil’s Night, October 30, was a real-life cause of mayhem in Detroit, so much so that the very next year after The Crow came out, local authorities organized a citizen’s counter-arson effort called “Angels’ Night.”

Fast forward a year, and Draven bursts out of his grave with the aid of a strange corvid familiar, finding that any trauma to his body instantly heals itself and that he can see out of the eyes of the crow. Fortunately for him, all of the violent assholes who killed him have been hanging out in plain sight, waving their guns around and in one case, dating Sarah’s mother, so none are particularly hard to find. Draven wastes all of them with extreme prejudice and maximum poetic justice, painting crow symbols in blood and gasoline as he goes.

It helps that the movie believed in the Die Hard method of writing bad guys, which is to say, with personality: The cast’s big bad is prolific character actor Michael Wincott, and he’s backed up by Tony Todd and David Patrick Kelly, an actor with a decades-long track record of hyping up audiences for the beautiful moment when the hero kills the hell out of him. Draven dispenses with them all through a combination of Batman’s flair for the dramatic and the Joker’s fashion sense.

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The Crow’s episodic structure and stylized sequences of heightened emotion seemed familiar to me somehow, and it only clicked when I learned that director Alex Proyas, like Highlander director Russell Mulcahy, got his start in music videos. The Crow’s individual sequences all have the exact feel of dark and twisted music videos that exist at the nexus of grunge, industrial and goth.

It also makes sense when you consider the film owes its cult status not just to the towering neo-noir visual style and goth-tinged plot, but to its soundtrack. The music was a dark and eclectic collection that included some of the most famous acts of punk and grunge, right alongside those that existed on the fringe: Nine Inch Nails, Pantera, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Medicine, a cover of “Ghost Rider” by Rollins Band and even an original song by The Cure just for the movie. Even a just-rising-to-fame Rage Against the Machine makes an appearance. This is painful, rain-swept world in which our hero pauses in his killing spree to wail on a guitar in the apartment where he was murdered, and his young charge falls asleep lovingly clutching his band’s LP to her heart.

It’s ultimately a back track to the carnage, though, and the movie doles it out: Draven is cheeky and arrogant in his invincibility, soaking up bullets, playing possum for dramatic effect, and then mowing his foes down with impunity. Outside of Hong Kong productions, audiences weren’t likely to see so many squibs again until The Matrix.

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A lot needed to happen to salvage The Crow after Lee’s death, even as it came near the end of the production. The script was re-written in parts and numerous reshoots were handled by using computers to incorporate Lee’s face over his stunt double, Chad Stahelski. (Yes, that Chad Stahelski.) Miramax picked up the movie, originally intended to be direct-to-video, and then shelled out more money for reshoots.

It’s hard to say what might have happened had Lee not been killed tragically during the production of the movie. Would he have become a perennial costumed hero, returning Death Wish-style for ever more over-the-top rampages? Would it have launched him, finally, into the kind of stardom that would mean he didn’t need to occasionally slum it in movies like Laser Mission? We’ll never know. It certainly hasn’t helped the careers of anybody else. Various attempts to keep the series going succeeded only in sinking further and further in quality, until we got Edward Furlong in the mime makeup, for God’s sake.

Proyas’ Dark City would later come back to the chilly neo-noir aesthetic he created in The Crow, in which the twisted urban hellscape surrounding the protagonist is his literal enemy, instead of the figurative one Eric Draven’s murderers have turned into an uncaring cesspit. O’Barr’s original comic book was inspired by the grief he felt at the sudden death of his fiancée when he was 18. What’s funny, as O’Barr said in an interview, is that his rage-fueled revenge fantasy didn’t make him feel any better.

“I thought that by putting some of this anger and hate down on paper that I could purge it from my system,” O’Barr said. “But, in fact, all I was doing was intensifying it—I was focusing on all this negativity. As I worked on it, things just got worse and worse, darker and darker. So, it really didn’t have the desired effect—I was probably more fucked up afterwards than before I started.”

The Crow is nonetheless a rip-roaring and proudly adolescent action movie whose central premise is that revenge is awesome and grief is kinda hot. Twenty-five years after its debut, it remains a perennial favorite, a ’90s touchstone, and a movie that might be either really great or really stupid, but is definitely unforgettable, inseparable from the time it came out and the grim season in which it’s set.


Kenneth Lowe says I’m dead, and I move.

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