20 years have passed since the release of 1994’s The Crow. Today, I would like to take a look back at some of the elements that have made this film so popular and discuss why it remains a favourite among so many fans, myself included.
The Crow is perhaps most commonly and tragically associated with the death of Brandon Lee, the son of the legendary martial artist, Bruce Lee. Brandon was fatally wounded when a prop gun accidentally propelled a piece of shrapnel (which was unexpectedly lodged in the barrel) at his stomach while they were filming on set. This very sad point aside, the film is noted for his committed performance to the title role, along with its dark and Gothic presentation.
When you look back at how the film started out, it is easy to see how this was always going to be more geared towards a cult audience. The source material (the original comic) comes from a dark and melancholy place. The author, James O’Barr, used the comic to vent his anger and sadness over the loss of his girlfriend at the time. The comic gained an underground following during its first run because it had a more violent, brooding and gloomy style than most mainstream comics of the period. In addition, it was also a lot darker when compared to its film counterpart. The story follows Eric, a murdered man who is now guided by a crow and brought back to avenge the death of his lover, Shelly. The tale quickly descends into the dark underworld of crime until the eventual conclusion. Originally published by Caliber comics, the project took James O’Barr several years to complete. Eventually, it gained the attention of Hollywood studio Paramount Pictures, who were most likely looking to buy up rights for darker style comic book stories in a similar vein to Batman due to the success of the Tim Burton incarnations. In fact, this is probably the reasoning behind many of the comic adaptations that started to arrive in the early-to-mid 90’s. The comic is often re-printed and combined into a graphic novel which is well worth tracking down if you haven’t already.
Paramount intended to release The Crow as a direct-to-video film, giving it the green light with a relatively small budget. Interestingly, the story was apparently too dark for the studio, which again raises the question of why they purchased the rights in the first place. The original plans for the screenplay were written and re-written by many studio writers, some straying into a total contrast to the original writing and vision of James O’Barr. In several interviews since, O’Barr has recalled some of the ideas that were thrown around that he ultimately fought against, including the extremely laughable and unbelievable idea of filming it as a musical and getting Michael Jackson for the title role. The screenplay got so far away from its source that the project was nearly cancelled. Luckily, Brandon Lee and director Alex Proyas became interested and attached to the project, desiring to remain somewhat faithful to the comic. David J. Schow and John Shirley were hired on as screenplay writers and retained many of the themes O’Barr created, although they did have to tone down some elements.
As a reader of the original comic, Brandon Lee understood how to portray the character of Eric Draven appropriately. He would go on to capture some of the darkness from the comic while injecting his own charisma and style into the role. Committed to the performance, Brandon Lee strongly shines every time he is on screen. His passion for the project can be seen in interviews where he talks about making the film, somewhat eerily mentioning the subject matter of death and “what if” scenarios. His acting in this easily surpasses his earlier efforts in Rapid Fire and Showdown in Little Tokyo, leaving many people to ask what might have been and proving himself as a respectable actor. Much of the same could be said for the supporting cast, who provide stellar performances. Michael Wincott’s portrayal of Top Dollar, the sadistic anarchist villain, is extremely fun, as he gives off the vibe that this is a man who just loves being evil and is so awesomely good at it. The crew of misfits lead by T-bird (David Patrick Kelly) and consisting of Fun-boy (Michael Massee), Tin Tin (Laurence Mason) and Skank (Angel David), go about the city carrying out the missions of fear and destruction given to them by Top Dollar. Nothing happens without the say of Top Dollar, not even the dealings of sleazy pawn shop owner Gideon (Jon Polito), who is profiteering on the wrecked lives of the gang’s victims. The Crow has some help in the form of Officer Albrecht (played by Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters fame), a really likable cop who befriends Draven and a girl named Sarah (Rochelle Davis), a close friend of both Eric and Shelly. Each bring something memorable to their characters and add credibility to the film, especially at a time when some of the other comic book inspired films being released were ridiculed due to the hammy performances from their casts.
To compliment the excellent performances, the cinematography of Proyas and his crew were focused on capturing the dark and gritty world of the comics, making it equally as beautiful and crisp. The director brings forth a palate of toned down colours to mirror the feel throughout the film as Eric Draven reaps his revenge upon the murderers, using strong vibrant reds for flashback sequences in order to create a beautiful contrast between scenes. The camera and lighting work is fantastic; deep shadows and shafts of light penetrate some of the set pieces of the film, again giving it a beautiful aesthetic. Perhaps the two best examples of this happen to be shots of Eric. The first example features him leaning against a lamp post in the rain as children in Halloween costumes run around him with torches, each of which shine a shard of light on his face as he begins to laugh joyfully. The second example is a long shot as a lighter is thrown to the floor, igniting fuel which forms the outline of a crow, the main character being highlighted by the flames before him, almost casting him in silhouette. Given the budget, the effects work is also impressive, with excellent uses of miniatures when the camera sweeps over the cityscape to provide a birds eye view of the Gothic architecture.
The orchestral score of the movie makes prominent use of the piano and string instruments for emotional depth. Graeme Revell’s score seems sadly romantic; several scenes are made very poignant by the music and may well bring a lump to the throat. The theme used for the final appearance of Eric Draven is by far one of the saddest, but at the same time one of the most beautiful pieces in the film. The Crow also employed the use of many heavy metal, post punk, new wave and industrial music groups such as Nine Inch Nails and The Cure. Interestingly, when James O’Barr was writing the comic, he would listen to and even use quotes from bands like Joy Division and The Cure. Nine Inch Nails provides a cover of Joy Division‘s song Dead Souls. The soundtrack, with music featured in and inspired by The Crow, was released along with the movie and became a very successful album.
Of course, due to the tragic event of Brandon Lee’s death, some of the film had to be re-shot and re-edited. The production was picked up by Miramax after Paramount pulled out from distributing the film. Miramax invested more money and would release the film theatrically. A few shots were unfinished, so a body double was employed to complete these scenes, mostly where Eric’s face isn’t seen. There are also some digitally imposed shots of Brandon Lee’s face, not unlike those in his father’s final film Game of Death, which had Bruce Lee’s head as a cut out stuck onto a mirror facing another actor to give the impression of Bruce Lee looking into a mirror. A couple scenes were changed, most notably Eric’s murder scene, who was initially shot by Fun-boy. This was changed to having a knife thrown at him by Tin Tin instead. All footage of Brandon Lee’s death, which had been captured on film, was destroyed.
The film was released in May of 1994 and was successful at the box office. It had gained a lot of publicity through the media reports and picked up more of a mainstream audience in the process, gaining praise for the performance of Brandon Lee and the overall style and tone of the movie.
What is left is a brilliant and visually stunning film, which I find utterly compelling to watch. Its excellent cast and strong story deserve the following and fan base that the film has garnered. It seems that despite several poor sequels, a re-telling of the story in the form of a TV series, and an upcoming reboot of the franchise, the original film from Alex Proyas is still fondly cherished and remembered. It might be a film you have to be in a certain mood to watch, but you don’t need to be a fan of the comic or comics in general to appreciate the story it is telling. Certainly as striking in its style today as it was 20 years ago, everything about The Crow holds up. The action within the film is fast paced and exciting while still providing the same emotional and powerful ride as the comic. This movie has earned its well deserved praise.