Looking back, it was a pleasure to write this one. This is in part because I genuinely love this movie, as well as the original graphic novel. I might revisit it some day.
“Believe in Angels”
While I have read the original graphic novel, I’m a bit more familiar with the 1994 film adaptation. But the stories behind both are fascinating and tragic alike. The motivation behind James O’barr’s classic work was the loss of his girlfriend at the hands of a drunk driver in the late ’70s. Following several years of coping with loss, he witnessed a news story of a young couple murdered over an engagement ring. In a mixture of inspiration and sorrow, he created the concepts behind “The Crow”, which became published under Caliber Press in 1988. Years after film rights were secured, production with famed actor Brandon Lee (son of the late Martial Arts cinema legend, Bruce Lee) began in 1993. But, just like the tragedy that drove the original novel, the film project was plagued by its own turn of events. A blank gun jammed and accidentally shot off like a regular firearm on set, mortally wounding and later killing Lee. The film was subsequently dedicated in his memory.
In the film, the late and great Brandon Lee plays Eric Draven, an up and coming rock musician in the bad parts of a local city with his girlfriend, Shelly. The gang that holds a tight grip on the city doesn’t take too kindly to his girlfriend’s list of complaints against all the shit that’s gone down in the city, especially on her block. So, the gang’s lackeys come to spread some chaos, knowing they can easily get away with yet another part of their yearly crime spree. While the couple die; their passion, love, and rage don’t. Draven returns as a revenant like being, with the guidance of a crow spirit to avenge Shelly and himself while ridding the city of the vile filth that continues to pollute it.
Cinematography wise, the world of The Crow is a dark, noir-tinged underworld coated in equal parts grime and fire. The lights are faint, as shadows take hold of the broken Detroit, and the only warmth is a blazing inferno. Even in a well lit room, phantasmal shadows take over. This works in favor of the film’s fantastical premise. To fit with the grungy look of the ’90s, the color in the film also has German expressionism levels of washed out. This atmosphere matches not just the decayed world of Detroit, but Draven’s descend into chaos and hysteria in the name of revenge. And of course, it’s a perfect fit for the “Grunge era” of the 1990s.
Effects and props wise, this movie is certainly an interesting case. Not so much for the visuals themselves, but as a warning to film crews maintaining equipment. Most fans know Brandon Lee, who played Draven, was killed by a malfunctioning gun prop as the result of a cartridge part being jammed along with the blanks. Many scenes were never shot and finished. Indeed, this only helps to heighten its infamy as a cult picture, adding a chilling new level of depth to the film itself.
Beyond the look and feel of the film, this is truly something abnormal from the comic book superhero. Even in the “pulp age” prior to comic book regulation, heroes had standards. Granted, this is because the majority of them were grounded in humanity. However, come the 1980s, there was a call for more graphic and mature storytelling. The heroes became more flawed, more frustrated, more violent. This ushered in the “dark age” of comic books. When these stories hit the mark, they unveiled tragic characters with emotionally deep stories. Not only do we cheer on their fight, we empathize for them and sometimes question WHY we cheer on their brutal acts. This is likely part of the appeal behind The Crow.
Besides a more mature and deep anti hero, The Crow is deep down about humanity. What makes us human? What defies what’s okay to do as a human? What makes us good or evil and what crosses the line? Throughout the film, Draven’s crusade for revenge makes him as unstable and destructive as the bandits who killed him in the first place. True to the revenant myths, he has become this inhuman creature driven by passion and revenge. While both are very human aspects, his powers take them to very inhuman extremes. When you pursue a target with as much wrath or malevolence as that which attacked you, you become no better (if not worse) than them! Or as famously stated, “and if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
On top of that, there’s a deeper tragedy to this piece. It’s not just that Shelly was brutally raped and died 30 hours later. It’s not even Erik Draven falling several stories before facing a gruesome death on the concrete streets below. It isn’t even the awful life of Sarah. It is the character of Draven. It’s the fact that Draven gains nothing from his mindless rampage. Sure, less criminals are on the streets; but no man deserves to explode in a blazing inferno or be vivisected by your own knife collection. In the end, Draven becomes a victim of his own madness, something that drains his humanity. It doesn’t help that his targets had little hope for their humanity either. Their lives are meaningless and empty in and of themselves. And despite him taking away all of these perpetrators, it still doesn’t bring back his love; his greater sense of humanity.
It isn’t till he performs an act out of love that he is reunited with Shelly in the afterlife, as his connection to his humanity had won over this rampaging monster. Perhaps this is saving Sarah, maybe it’s taking Officer Albrecht’s memories of Shelly’s last moments. Either way, it is his friends like Shelly’s friend Sarah or Albrecht that anchor him to his humanity and end up helping him to realize his motive for destroying the thugs in the first place, Erik Draven’s love for Shelley Webster. And with this realization, he can pass on in peace.
That isn’t to say the film is perfect. The character arc between Sarah and her mother feels very rushed and predictable. Even Sarah is baffled by the mother’s transformation to “Mom of the Year” following a terrifying visit from Draven the night prior. Not to mention, despite Sarah being a more involved character, she seems to get caught in danger. Plus, some of the details of the film were unfinished due to the tragic accident which took Draven’s life. Granted, this isn’t the fault of the film per se, but the props department for failing to inspect the blank gun.
All in all, this is a fantastic film! Unlike most heroic stories, this one carries a more realistic world without trying to be “GRIMDARK”, as well as deep, relative themes that dive deep into our humanity. Check this one out if you have the chance!