Monday, October 28, 2019

The Crow (1994): Putting the Wrong Things Right

(This blog post is part of Dark and Deep: The Gothic Horror Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer)

"People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can't rest. Then sometimes, just sometimes, the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right." (Sarah in the movie The Crow)

In 1989 the movie Batman proved to be a smash hit. Its success led to a a whole cycle of superhero movies that lasted through the early to mid Nineties. It was a little over twenty five years ago, on May 13 1994, that a superhero movie was released that differed from any other superhero movies of the time. First, it was darker than even the movie Batman and its sequels proved to be. Second, it was much more violent. Third, it was nearly as much a work of Gothic horror as it was superheroics. The Crow (1994) drew upon folklore, superhero comic books, and Gothic horror movies to create a tale of revenge that was different from any other films out at the time. Not surprisingly, it would also prove to be a cult film.

The Crow centred on rock musician Eric Draven (played by Brandon Lee in his final role). Eric and his fiancée Shelley planned on getting married on Halloween. Unfortunately, on the previous night (known as Devil's Night) a gang breaks into their apartment, assaults Shelly, and murders Eric. Shelly later dies at the hospital. This was not the end of the story, as a year later a crow brings Eric back from the grave to exact his revenge on the gang. 

The Crow was based on the comic book of the same name by James O'Barr. Mr. O'Barr was only 18 years old when his fiancée Beverly was killed by a drunk driver. As a means of dealing with his grief he began working on The Crow, taking further inspiration from a story he had seen in a Detroit newspaper about a young couple murdered for a $30 engagement ring. It would take James O'Barr nearly ten years to find a publisher for The Crow. It was finally published in 1989 by Caliber Press. It has since become possibly the best selling independent comic book of all time.

It was only as the third issue of The Crow came out that James O'Barr was approached by writer John Shirley and producer Jeff Most about adapting The Crow as a movie.  Impressed by their enthusiasm and retaining the copyright to The Crow, Mr. O'Barr decided to sell them the film rights even though their offer was less than some previous ones he had received. John Shirley began work on the screenplay while Jeff Most shopped the film treatment around to various producers. Ultimately it was independent producer Edward R. Pressman, who had worked on films from Phantom of the Paradise (1974) to Talk Radio (1990), who signed onto the film. He worked out a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures. It was also Mr. Pressman who brought director Alex Proyas, who had directed the Australian film Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989), on to the project. 

The screenplay for The Crow would see some changes from the comic book. Chief among these was setting the film at Devil's Night. The screenplay also centred more upon the love story between Eric and Shelley than the comic book had. One major change is that in the movie Eric is a rock musician, while in the comic book his profession is never actually specified. Not all of the changes would remain in the screenplay. At one point James O'Barr thought too many changes were being made and so he wrote a 10-page outline that explained Eric Draven's motivations. Eventually David J. Schow was brought in to rewrite the screenplay. It was Mr. Schow who reduced the number of villains in the film and also gave them a central motivation beyond murder and mayhem.

In casting Eric Draven, the producers wanted someone who had both acting talent and athletic ability. It was for that reason that Brandon Lee was ultimately cast. Brandon Lee read the comic book and made several suggestions, the biggest of which was the removal of an Asian character trying to steal Eric's power that Mr. Lee felt was a stereotype. 

As to casting the crow that appears in the film, the bird is not actually a crow, but instead a raven. What is more, multiple ravens were used in the film. The movie did present animal trainer Larry Madrid with some problems. Ravens are diurnal, meaning they sleep at night. Since The Crow was shot at night, he had to accustom the birds to staying awake when they would otherwise be asleep. He also had to train them to fly in both the rain and in a wind tunnel. Fortunately, ravens are very intelligent birds and easily trained.

Unfortunately, filming on The Crow would not go smoothly. In fact, the movie would experience accidents from the first day of shooting. That day, February 1 1993, a carpenter received burns to his face, chest, and arms when the crane on which he was working hit live power lines. It was that same day that an equipment truck caught fire. Still later a construction worker accidentally drove a screwdriver through his hand. It was then on March 13 1993 that a storm destroyed some of the sets for The Crow, as well as some of the sets of The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

Sadly, the most famous accident on the set was yet to occur. It was on March 31 1993, with only a few days of shooting left, that a flashback scene portraying Eric Draven's death was filmed. The scene called for Eric to be shot at close range. The gun was loaded with dummy cartridges for close-up shots of the weapon. Unfortunately, once the close-up shots were finished, a prop assistant failed to check the gun's barrel for any obstructions before loading it with blanks. As it turned out, a dummy cartridge had lodged in the barrel. Worse yet, there was still enough percussion primer at the rear of the dummy cartridge that when the gun was fired, it was propelled out of the barrel. The round struck Brandon Lee in the abdomen, wounding him severely. He was rushed to the hospital where he underwent six hours of surgery. He died at 1:03 PM Eastern Time on March 31 1993. 

Brandon Lee's death presented the producers with the decision of whether to continue production on The Crow or not. With only three days of shooting left, it was ultimately decided to complete the film. The screenplay was reworked and ultimately one whole character, the Skull Cowboy (who acts as a spirit guide for Eric Draven) was cut. Any uncompleted scenes using Brandon Lee were completed using doubles, CGI, and scenes that had been shot already using Brandon Lee. Despite claims otherwise, the footage of Brandon Lee's death was reportedly destroyed. Mr. Lee's death was determined to be accidental. Brandon Lee's mother and Bruce Lee's widow Linda Lee Caldwell did file a wrongful death lawsuit, and it was settled out of court.

Because of the delays in shooting, the producers would not be able to deliver The Crow in time for its then scheduled August 1993 release date. If the producers could not meet the delivery schedule, then Paramount had the right not to accept the film. After viewing an early cut of the film, Paramount ultimately decided not to take The Crow. That having been said, Edward R. Pressman suspects that Paramount may have been "scared off" by a possible public relations nightmare. 

It was only three months later after Paramount had rejected The Crow that Miramax picked the film up for distribution. Miramax also provided $8 million to complete production of the film. When The Crow was released to 1200 theatres on May 13 1994 it became the largest release at that point in the history of Miramax. The film ended with the dedication "For Brandon and Eliza" (Eliza being Mr. Lee's fiancée).

Regardless of the controversy over Brandon Lee's death, The Crow proved to be a success. It opened as no. 1 at the box office in the United States. In the end it grossed $50,693,129 in the United States and £1,245,403 in the United Kingdom. It also did well in Europe and Asia. The Crow also received generally positive reviews. 

The success of The Crow led to three sequels, The Crow: City of Angels (1996), The Crow: Salvation (2000), and The Crow: Wicked Prayer (2005).  The latter two sequels were both released direct-to-video. None of them were well received. In 1998 a TV show inspired by the movie, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, debuted. While the show received relatively good ratings, it ended after one season following the sale of Polygram Television to Universal.

The Crow would prove to be influential. Certainly the look of the film drew upon both the neo-noir look of Blade Runner (1982) and the superhero Gothic look of Batman (1989). That having been said, what set The Crow apart from both Blade Runner and Batman (1989) was that Detroit as portrayed in the film could actually exist. This combination of Gothic and realism in The Crow would prove to have a lasting impact, influencing such films as Spawn (1997), the Blade Trilogy, Sin City (2005), and even The Dark Knight Trilogy. Not only did The Crow bring a sense of Gothic to superhero films, but it also brought violence and rawness to them as well. Most comic book and comic strip movies of the early Nineties were generally family friendly affairs, such as Dick Tracy (1990) and The Rocketeer (1991). The Crow paved the way for superhero films that were grittier and more violent.

Of course, The Crow is as much Gothic horror as it is a superhero film. What makes it unique as a Gothic horror film is that it takes the well-used trope of the newly returned dead and flips it on its head. It is not Eric Draven who is the source of horror, but instead his flesh and blood opponents. The villains of The Crow are particularly brutal and quite capable of senseless violence. To give an example of how terrifying they are, they murder Eric and Shelly in their own apartment, a place one would generally feel safe. This is in sharp contrast to Eric, who metes out vengeance to those who have wronged him while genuinely caring for truly good people. In The Crow it is not the undead who is the monster. It is the living.

It is perhaps because The Crow was a decidedly different superhero film and a decidedly different Gothic film upon its release that it would become so successful. That having been said, its appeal goes far beyond the film's look and atmosphere. The comic book The Crow grew out of James O'Barr's grief over his fiancée's death. Central to both the comic book and the movie is not only grief and death, but also the idea that love is eternal. In interviews James O'Barr has said that over the years many fans have told them how reading the comic book has helped them deal with their own grief. Having experienced my own personal tragedy last year, I certainly think that is true of the movie as well. Last October I watched The Crow as I am usually inclined to around Halloween and it was an entirely different experience for me. For the first time in my life I fully knew how Eric Draven felt. As a result The Crow acted as a catharsis for my grief, if only temporarily. It also reminded me that good can defeat evil. Of course, perhaps more than anything else I appreciated its message that love transcends death. In Sarah's last bit of narration in The Crow, she remarks, "If the people we love are stolen from us, the way they live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever." 

The Crow has proven to be a lasting success, exerting an influence on films to this day. And while The Crow has stunning visuals, its appeal goes well beyond its look. Despite being a Gothic tale of revenge from beyond the grave, it is ultimately a tale of the victory of good over evil and of love over death. That sets it apart from many superhero movies released today.


Caftan Woman said...

Cathartic creativity can reach out and touch so many others. And when you make a world and a vision that is different, people will find it. I'm so glad you wrote about The Crow for this particular blogathon.

18 Cinema Lane said...

Fantastic post, as it was very thorough and informative! I've never seen 'The Crow' before, but your article presents a good argument for why I should consider giving it a chance. You also bring up a compelling perspective on why this movie is classified as a superhero film. It shows that not all superheroes wear capes, but sometimes gothic make-up and leather jackets. I also participated in the Gothic Horror Blogathon, so here's the link to my article if you want to check it out!

Anonymous said...

Such a well written and researched article, Terence. As you said, this film has such a powerful message. It really has had a deep impact on people for many reasons, and for me, is one of the most important cult films made. Thanks so much for contributing such a wonderful article to my Blogathon!

John V said...

Thanks for this comprehensive and thoughtful article on "The Crow." It's a dark, compelling tale, and it certainly was (and is) a very influential film. A great read.

The Classic Movie Muse said...

Terence, you article is absolutely excellent. I love how you brought out that this film has been inspirational for many people. The themes that love conquers death and good defeats evil are empowering. Thanks for the great read!