I neither loved nor hated The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, so it’s no surprise that I’ve had a hell of a time attempting to write about it. This isn’t a City of Angels or Wicked Prayer situation where it’s obvious in its terribleness. It’s not a Salvation situation where it’s a pleasant surprise either. Stairway to Heaven sits firmly between the realm of good and bad.
It sits in the realm of syndicated 90’s television. The story has undergone massive changes to the point where it’s now in the vein of ‘kicking cop’ shows like Walker Texas Ranger or Martial Law. These are shows that don’t even exist in the modern TV landscape. So where do I even begin?
Stairway to Heaven comes after City of Angels and before Salvation. It aired for one season (1998-1999) in syndication. I couldn’t find what station it aired on, so if you’re dying for that information I’m afraid I’ve let you down. The twenty-two episodes follow Eric Draven come back from the grave to put the wrong things right. There’s a catch this time around though: it’s not just straight, brutal revenge. This time it’s about redemption and putting the cosmos in balance by helping others and not just himself.
What’s the point of The Crow if not to get bloody, vicious revenge?!
What does Eric even do over the twenty-two episodes? Here are some very brief (and lazy) synopsises:
- A quick, non-bloody retelling of the first movie
- Follows a gang that crashes and trashes houses
- We learn it was the CEO of Eric’s record label that put out a hit on him
- A business man’s daughter is murdered and the boyfriend is blamed for it
- Eric comes upon a circus boy who’s actually physic
- Albrecht is hunted on an abandoned island by a criminal he put away
- A woman on the run is using Shelly’s identity to hide
- Top Dollar recovers from his insanity, the Skull Cowboy makes himself known, Shelly’s spirit ends up possessing a woman; Eric ends up killing Top Dollar and is ‘disowned’ by the Crow
- Shows us a past life of Eric and Shelly (set on the frontier, Eric is an Indian, Shelly a preachers daughter; Eric still ends up dead, Shelly still ends up raped)
- Eric hangs out with the ghost of a little boy named Casey whose father is a daredevil doing crazy stunts to passive aggressively kill himself
- Eric tries to force open a portal that connects him to Shelly and ends up letting a demonic spirit bent on revenge out
- Eric becomes a henchmen for a guy that Albrecht is trying to take down
- Albrecht arrests Eric for the murder of Shelly
- Eric is in jail when the Skull Cowboy sends Eric back in time to try and prevent his and Shelly’s deaths
- Eric’s guilty sentence is overruled and he’s free after six months of imprisonment; meets another Crow named Hannah
- The Lazarus Group, a shady, ancient secret society is looking to achieve immortality
- Eric joins up with his band again and a ghostly melody begins driving him insane
- Hannah is back as her and Eric stop human traffickers stealing babies
- Eric becomes entangled with his half-brother Chris when he gets kidnapped and tortured (Chris is Corey Feldman in a hideous goatee)
- A guy wants to resurrect Rasputin through a ritual to gain his powers
- The leader of the Lazarus Group has split Eric into two people, his good mortal self and his evil self, the Crow
- There’s a cop serial killer on the loose and Albrecht is on the chopping block
First off, what demographic was this made for? The average Crow fan won’t care for the tonal shift and the average hour-long TV drama watcher won’t care about the Crow mythos. So who watched this? Some of these are just so ridiculously un-Crow like, right? Combine these with the fact that there’s no violent revenge and I’m sure you’re left wondering what’s left that makes this series The Crow? Name recognition? That’s what it felt like. Let me walk you through the huge narrative changes. Let’s get angry together!
The biggest change is definitely Eric. He’s back from the land of the dead to put his karma in balance and not just get revenge on those that wronged him. Which is bullshit, right? Why should Eric have to go to all the trouble of helping others? If they die horribly, the crow can bring them back! Honestly, it’s just a weak plot contrivance to tone down the violence for syndicated television.
To have Eric have to problem solve, denying him his justly earned retribution and being with Shelly, is the most backwards thing these writers could have come up with! The reason for not being able to kill? The people you kill can come back to seek revenge on you in some sort of never-ending cycle that benefits nobody! But… why would the crow bring back assholes? Is the door from world of the dead to world of the living just left wide fucking open?!
And talk about a fucking raw deal in Stairway to Heaven. Spirits unable to rest are brought back to the world of the living and then forced to balance the universe before moving on and that means they’re around for a while. This means that if they don’t want to live on the street, they get an apartment. And a job. And if others died with them, hounded by the police and possibly sent to jail (which totally happened to Eric). And what the actual fuck is going on?! A dark spirit of vengeance has to get a job?
*stares dead-eyed into the distance, searching my very soul for an explanation… and finding none*
Eric has to spend the entire series assuring people that it was an FBI witness protection program hoax and that he’s not dead. He has to get a job as a bouncer at the club his band used to perform in. He has to deal with a landlord! The humdrum activities of everyday life expounded by guilt and rage and sadness that someone you love was brutally murdered and you can’t do anything brutal to get cathartic closure. Fun.
Characters & Acting:
Everything about Stairway to Heaven is distinctly television. 90’s television at that. There’s not an actor in the bunch that doesn’t feel like a television actor. But that’s fine because there’s not a character in the show that needs more than a television actor’s level of skill.
Does that make sense? Like, the characters you’ll recognize in Stairway to Heaven are toned-down, washed-out caricatures of people. TinTin has an Afro, rose-tinted glasses, and sass. FunBoy is a fat guy with close cut hair and a goatee. Top Dollar is trying to be the movie’s Top Dollar and failing. T-Bird is so bland as to be instantly forgettable, and Shank doesn’t even exist! None of them strike me as hardened, violent criminals. None of them even strike me as villains at all! As far as side characters go, Sarah is the only one that shares both physical appearance and attitude with her movie counterpoint and I applaud the child actor that pulled that off.
Then there are the new characters that get introduced. There are a lot of them. There have to be in a ‘monster-of-the-week’ type show like this. If you think the recognizable characters are ridiculous, just wait until you see what the original ones have in store! There’s the crazy, wheelchair bound CEO of Eric’s record company, the guy that kidnaps Albrecht to hunt him for sport, the lady crow (who I ended up liking a hell of a lot because she actually went about getting her revenge proper), and so many more that I don’t really have the patience to name here. They’re all played up to extremes and it really hinders any believability I have in this universe. Top Dollar in the first movie was pretty out there, but he was a born of a comic and needed to be a larger than life villain. Characters in Stairway to Heaven are born of characters that were born from a comic but then toned down for television. They come off like cartoon personalities. Sometimes it works, but most times it doesn’t.
But what about Eric? Well, like Sarah, he shares physical appearance and attitude with his movie counterpoint, so count that as a win! Mark Dacascos is physically very similar to Brandon Lee and, with wide angle shots, you can almost believe it is Brandon Lee himself. Dacascos also manages to bring some of the poetry and deadpan, bleak humour back into the franchise, plus he has good chemistry with Shelly. I can’t say I like Shelly’s look, but having the two of them interact more naturally than Vincent Perez and Mia Kirshner or really anyone from City of Angels (which was released two years before this series) is a huge fucking relief.
The chemistry between Eric and Shelly is probably the one thing that Stairway to Heaven does well all the way through. It’s clear they love each other and it’s really touching. So are his interactions with Sarah. It feels very genuine and, as weird as it is to just have Eric back from the dead paying rent and wearing jeans, it’s kind of nice to see how he would have been before, you know, the murder and vengeance and all that.
Like everything else in Stairway to Heaven the effects are at an unbelievably 90’s level. If I had to compare it to a similar but more popular show of the day, I’d say it’s on the same level Charmed was on. The effects are cheesy but they’re not horrible. It wasn’t like watching City of Angels or Wicked Prayer; I didn’t cringe every time an effect was used because I didn’t really expect it to be good in the first place, you know? What’s presented in Stairway to Heaven is exactly what I expected it to be. It’s choreographed pretty well (it comes from the era of cop shows with kicking) and some of the ‘being injured and healed’ effects on Eric are pretty cool but there’s nothing that really stood out and made me think ‘this is awesome’. It’s neither terrible nor amazing.
There are some major changes to the mythos that in turn change some effects. Eric doesn’t crawl out of his grave so much as he falls through an interdimensional portal back into the world of the living. He also uses these portals to communicate with Shelly who is just wandering around the other side waiting for Eric. This, I do not care for, but that ties more into my dislike for how the story was changed more than effects, so moving on!
Eric’s tragedy mask makeup always undergoes a huge change in Stairway to Heaven. It isn’t painted on, it just sort of… bleeds on when he needs it and then bleeds off when he doesn’t need it. I’m not saying it’s a terrible effect, I’m just saying… I don’t like it. But again, this ties into my innate dislike for how they changed the goddamn narrative!
As far as the setting goes, I think it’s meant to be Detroit but (since it’s so very Canadian and was filmed in Vancouver) it comes off more like Seattle. The architecture of Vancouver is more modern than Detroit and the feeling of crumbling art deco, post-modern neo-gothic spires, and historic estates that have a Victorian feel that populate Detroit are lost. Not to mention that there’s no use of model sets and most of what happens in Stairway to Heaven happens during the day. So there’s little to no atmosphere throughout.
And, just a quick digression here, but Eric comes back from the dead to his loft and is told to start paying rent again. His rent for a downtown, top floor loft that’s architecturally beautiful with that huge window is $750 a month. Is that too high or too low for 90s Detroit?
Stairway to Heaven is a Canadian produced/filmed, syndicated television show and it still managed to get itself a more Crow like soundtrack and score than either Salvation or Wicked Prayer. That’s unbelievable to me! The score is a slightly toned down version of the first movie’s score, which is a nice touch considering the television show and the movie both follow Eric Draven. The soundtrack is truly where it’s at though. At the end of each episode it will list off the featured songs and the band and it is absolutely the appropriate level of 90s television hardcore/gritty. Plus, Bif Naked is just all over this series! In episode one, posters for her album I Bificus were plastered down every street. In episode two, she’s giving a live performance of Spaceman in the background. If this show’s Canadian-ness was ever in question, I refer you back to that to drive home the point!
So where does The Crow: Stairway to Heaven stand in the franchise? It’s in no way the worst. That honour goes to City of Angels with its Tom Jane masturbation scene and Wicked Prayer with its… god, there’s not even one thing I can point out that’s worse than everything else because that whole movie is just an abortion. It’s in no way the best either because what could ever top The Crow? I wouldn’t even really call it a pleasant surprise like Salvation because I wasn’t. It was exactly what I thought it would be: which was 90s syndicated television.
What an anticlimactic ending to this retrospective series. But what else is there to say?
The Crow: Stairway to Heaven is remarkable or (depending how you look at it) unremarkable in its… existence? Yeah, that’s it. It exists. My level of caring about its existence? *shrugs* I could have it on for background noise but that’s about it. I suppose I should applaud it for not being the worst thing to happen to The Crow franchise even though it’s syndicated television. That in itself is pretty damn impressive, so congrats for that!
Now that all is said and done, it’s a big yes to The Crow. It’s the first in the series and the truest to James O’Barr’s original comic. It’s dark, it’s violent, but it’s also beautiful. Then there’s a solid yes to The Crow: Salvation. It’s dark and violent as well, and while the atmosphere is off from the first film, it delivers a story and establishes a tone that makes it a decent sequel to a cult classic. Then there’s a moderate yes to The Crow: Stairway to Heaven if you’ve got time to kill and want something not totally offensive. It’s kind of goofy in its quality and a far cry from anything the movies were doing, or would end up doing, but it’s not the worst television I’ve ever seen. And then I have to give a tremendous hell-fucking-no-please-for-the-love-of-Christ-not-even-for-a-joke to both The Crow: City of Angels and The Crow: Wicked Prayer. These movies are tedious, ugly, physically painful misadventures in film making.
Four movies and one television series later and what’s the official standing on the franchise? Well, I got two (two and a half if I’m feeling generous) out of five. So celebrate Devil’s night with The Crow. Prove your innocence with Salvation. Balance your background karma with Stairway to Heaven. But throw yourself into the harbour to avoid City of Angels and just plain forget that Wicked Prayer ever existed, lest they kill you and you rise from your grave with vengeance in your heart and a crow on your shoulder.
Leather jackets and face paint will be provided. No crop tops.