Best Horror of the 90s: The Crow

thecrow“To The Birds”

Paint it, black…

Like the Nazi eagle of the Third Reich, The Crow flaps with a brass howl, a dispossessed, thrice-divided soul shriek of the body’s mind and meat — spectacular, Teutonic rays of hope and pain: in death is gain; the city, the clown, the cool. This is the velvet triangle. This is Dr. Caligari’s hard rain.

I. The City

Production designer Alex McDowell, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and director Alex Proyas douse the viewer in a virtual vent of derelict Gotham; a big, expressionistic nowhere, sopped in absinthe and jutting decay. Though it is a graphically familiar, and decidedly vogue, urban hell-on-earth design1, The Crow‘s grave emphasis on look is given flight by and animates its psychological and emotional context. Here the movie’s primary substance derives from its form, whereby the naturally simplistic form is ultimately its own content.

While The Crow‘s funereally warped, sugar-light world is no stranger to superhero stock, (one might call it a granulated Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), both directed by kitschy fantasist Tim Burton), it surpasses if not transcends its ilk with a more explicable nab of nihilism in the counterbalance of bruised protagonist and broken environment. Otherwise, the story is cut-and-dried Catholicism plied to the thousand-told tale of the avenging, exterminating angel:

As ravenesque, leather handsome, and pale-hale as when he and fiancee Shelly (Sofia Shinas) were slain senselessly on “Devil’s Night” by dope tyrant “Top Dollar”‘s2 dim, pick-off-and-rape taskrunners, Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), a rock star, rises from the tomb to settle his vengeance a year later so that he can more peaceably transition to the spirit realm. Guiding him spectrally from fiend to foe is the crow — no mere token Tonto, but Draven’s crucial link between immunity from harm in this world and final passage into the next.

The Crow is religious. Indeed, given his background in commercials and music videos, director Proyas’ craft would seem to dictate that no matter how substantial his stylishness, any dalliance with the concreting of this or that faith3 would wind up intellectually short and so, arrested at a kind of ideological foreplay. But in light of the movie’s catholic-sized contradictions — an absolutist, black & white noirscape where penitent and conflicted characters are bound inexorably to original sin — Proyas tightropes capably through every scene that is beautiful and ugly, harsh yet elegiac, aspiring yet vain. His tautly split approach suits the dichotomized subject material well.

The Crow, then, is great modern gothic, not simply hack revenge, because it fleshes completely the protagonist’s purgatorial plight. At once noble and ignoble (a messenger of death), who clips killers coolly and cathartically even as he emotes existentially, (fighting sin with sin: getting nothing from nothing), Crowman personifies the human condition’s endless wrestling with itself — the constant, futile, fated push to rout or rectify man’s good and bad sides; overwhelmingly impressive due to his resolve, but staggeringly impossible because he is mortal. And Proyas stages an outer apocalypse to mirror the one going on inside Draven. Rarely before has the subjective reality of such a profoundly agitated soul been so appropriately manifested, with its starkly confined, contrasted shots and radical angles — chaos become anarchy.

Unfortunately, there are too many shades of gray: In all sense, and if only to better emphasize its themes, the film’s grainy nightmare totality should have been photographed in black & white, not the compromised-for-crowdbait color that is toned down. Also, the director slips — in another pander to lean, green attention spans — in sometimes failing to follow through with the by turns pretty and pounding, dualist lift of the action sequences (that Lee choreographed). Instead, he wants to discombobulate the viewer with a harried, rapid-fire haze of camera-edit jerkings. In this way, Proyas isn’t able to tap the pure Pabst of Peckinpah, the late auteur most renowned and responsible for the ‘ballet of bullets’ actioner. And Crowman’s corny, cliched anti-drug admonishment is didactic and uncharacteristic…and his dead lover needs a fuller persona, lest our sympathies sag…

But these are quibbles. This is a splendid B movie. All the attendant trappings are here: in particular, one heck of a stellar supporting cast of character actors that includes the likes of Ernie Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, and Tony Todd, all of whom should be recognizable to any cineaste. Yes, the story and plot are mediocre; each role, each player, is kinked in accordance with the singular surroundings. The only worth is the almighty gloom ‘n’ doom.

II. The Clown

In the center of the steady, blown city, Eric ‘the Crowman’ Draven speaks from behind the curd visage of death: the ‘stucky’ face of the clown — two-way indicative icing, blatant soul show; supposed name: Fickle Chuckles, his own naked reminder of his waddling condition. Expediently contained within the frosty clown-white aspect — the petty, peeled make-up, pendulous of farce and fear — is The Crow‘s lone suggestion of outright horror.

Clowns can be frightening because their manner is grotesque. Through exorbitant, childish emotionalism — violence followed by teary remorse, then round again — they, like Draven, act out the inherent facts of their flesh-painted masks. Taking after, say, the Joker in Batman, or the title freak in Ray Russell’s short story, “Sardonicus,” the jet, lockjaw leer (equal parts grimace and grin) chills us because of its bold patheticness; the “heroic deformity,” as horror maven Clive Barker would call it. So perfect, so unnaturally unsullied, is this loud, meditated mockery of the human self, that it is contextually apt in pitting Eric’s heightened, absurd nature against the mighty indifference of the void.

…Slowing down, slow; far yet close: tucked away in each of us is a sharp, dusky Truth: beached Byrons, some crimped with cry, others resigned — sound on a dark margin. There is a leaf on this spanning wind, sad but smiling. Perhaps it will set, put and pat in a common lane. Maybe it’ll wreck out on the highway, dash on the brain. Or just that it came, came, came, to get back in, and could not. All for gravity and grace. As Draven, Brandon Lee treads a similar kind of twilight with several fine, plangent moments; where we can see him, hunkered and spare on the stormy backlot, in sway to The Weight, his eyes shut to watch the rest of his character’s life reel around to a foreseen and premature close. On March 31, 1993, near the end of postproduction, Lee was shot with a shell from an unchecked gun supposedly loaded with blanks. Funboy (Michael Massee) fired, and Lee died, fueling and fulfilling the mythical martyrdom with which the film is solemnly suffused, and casting an overall, undeniable pall. Alas, it is an extraordinary swan song for one poised to become a star, and one now kept immortally safe by the celluloid seal of his zeal. Just like his late, martial-arts father, Bruce.

Survived by Eliza, his fiancee, and mother Linda, Lee was 28 years old.

III. The Cool

When it opened in 1994, ‘Kurt’s kids’ (i.e., disaffected Gen-Xers) flocked to The Crow. They sniffed the core snuff of a youth-event valentine to industrial teen-beat ethos: a correctly soundtracked, fully enacted rock ‘n’ roll Dionysium of heroin chic — ‘die young, stay comely’ — whose morbidly curious, cool-as-contrary self-indulgence matched theirs and is thus perceived as being excused and enabled by modern technology’s amoral advents and appetite for destruction. (‘Screw salvation, we’re damned — f*ck mad and tickle tech tit!’)

And yet, from the burning boulevards to the kindling of discomfort in Draven’s head, The Crow is all about noise. The movie’s fantastic, why, because without virtue of its heart, brain or courage, Oz just would not be Oz.

1Whose many scattered, imagistic props, references and cues (e.g., crosses, fried eyeballs, dead flowers, and MTV-wise fast-cuts) handily stoke and incorporate up to a gory, numb-skulling viscera for our postmodern satiety — as much as the source black & white comic book by ex-marine James O’Barr.

2The actor Michael Wincott: fabulously snorting, frill-cuffed, and flanked by his half-sister concubine and bowls of cocaine.

3And nihilism is a hope-seeded belief, a reverse negative. That is, the promise of a no, zero or none, whose bottoming-out continuance and reliance hangs heavily upon the constitutive want to be unwilling, and which, therefore, true to its tenet, never ceases to void itself; always scavenging after an ever-elusive spark…would that the fast nihilist should cop to his own faith’s baselessness and awake for once and all a dualist-realist.

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