I was definitely too young to fully understand The Crow when I first saw it at the tender age of five. Because of my mom’s rather laissez faire system of parenting, I used to just help myself to whatever VHS caught my fancy on her shelf of movies. I usually stuck to just one or two of her selection and filled out the rest of my time with Disney movies and YTV. There was one day though when instead of Jurassic Park or Beauty and the Beast, my little hands grabbed The Crow.
Like I said, I was too young to pick out some of the subtler moments, but there were three things I knew right of the bat: Eric Draven was unlike any hero I’d ever seen before, the melodramatic, gritty, alternative music featured in the film was exciting to my five year old ears, and real love is forever.
The first Crow movie is based on James O’Barr’s comic book of the same name. O’Barr wrote The Crow to cope with the loss of his fiancée, who was killed by a drunk driver when he was eighteen years old. The story follows Eric Draven, a man come back from the dead. He witnessed the brutal gang rape of his fiancée Shelly before being murdered in cold blood. One year later, Eric returns under the guidance of a crow to seek vengeance on those responsible for his pain. It’s a sad story that had tragic on-set issues. The biggest being Brandon Lee’s accidental death when a real bullet was substituted for a blank in a prop gun. Lee’s untimely death has added to The Crow’s mythos and pain and misery and ended up making the movie a success when it came out a year after his death.
After my first viewing of The Crow at five, there were years in between the next time I saw it. I think about twelve. I’m reasonably certain I was seventeen and caught it on Teletoon back when they used to show R-rated movies on weekends after 10pm. Do they still do that? And, a more important question, is it still completely uncensored? Hearing the c-word unbleeped in V for Vendetta on Teletoon was a turning point in my life. Anyways, I digress. The point is that it was more or less a new movie when I saw it again and it’s since found its spot in my top five favourite films of all time.
In this, my newest retrospective series, I’m going to explore all four Crow movies and the television series Stairway to Heaven. If you’re familiar with my Fatal Frame retrospectives, you know how salty this series is bound to get. Not yet though. I have nothing but nice things to say about the first movie in the series, aptly titled: The Crow.
There’s a reason The Crow makes my top five movies: it’s pretty much perfect. The story is a simple one of vicious revenge. Having such a straight forward motive helps the story flow. It doesn’t get muddled down in extra plot lines or character contrivances. Quite a bit of the movie was actually reworked after Lee’s death and some of the heavier straight-from-the-comic-book sequences were cut. Anyone familiar with The Crow will know I’m talking about the skull cowboy specifically. Without throwing in unnecessary metaphors like that, the plot is kept crisp and on-point. If the story doesn’t wander, neither will the audience.
The Crow pulls its visual style from its graphic novel source material. It’s dark, grungy, foreboding, and as close to black and white as you can get without purposefully making it that way. It’s very film noir. The dramatic sweeping over the tops of buildings is achieved with miniature sets and a host of visual tricks. The miniatures were such a good idea. The architectural details can be exaggerated and shot in dynamic ways. The cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, obviously cared about the source material of the story and studied up to create something visually striking and memorable.
Every little detail adds to Eric’s plight. Whenever he relives a violent memory, it’s done in quick, jumpy cuts and lit all in red. Even when he relives pleasant memories, loving memories with Shelly, they’re all quick, jumpy, and in red. It implies that now all of Eric’s memories are painful, that he finds no sanctuary anywhere at any time. The little details like that, that you pick up over multiple viewings, is what make The Crow.
Action scenes come straight from the comic with quick cuts and active, very thought out angles. The shoot out scene at Top Dollar’s club is masterful in its quick cuts done through blinking strobe lights. It makes everything seem like panels in a comic, how they have to show us something distinctly important each panel to keep us engrossed in the moment.
O’Barr also wrote his comic to be incredibly poetic and even that is seen in the movie with lines like ‘victim aren’t we all?’ and ‘it can’t rain all the time’. There’s even direct quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost thrown throughout. There’s not many action movies that are beautiful right down to the lines that the characters are speaking.
The character’s visual designs are built atop the comic book look as well. Each character’s motivations are more or less immediately laid out by their distinct look. Top Dollar’s perfectly symmetrical hair or Eric’s perfectly applied mask make-up looks intentional: like it’s not controlled by the unpredictability of real life but inked by an artists’ pen.
Speaking of Eric’s make-up, does anyone else ever notice how it gets thinner and thinner as the movie goes on? It rubs off as more of his task gets completed. It’s as if his existence in the living plane is being measured in how much of his own face you can see through the make-up. What an absolutely brilliant little detail!
Of course none of this would mean anything unless the actors gave it their all. Thankfully, performances in The Crow are incredible across the board. Lee steals the show as Eric, bringing pain and anger and sadness to the role. He conveys everything so naturally and portrays Eric with a confidence that speaks volumes to his talent. There’s such complexity in Eric’s character. He needs to be a ruthless killer but he needs to retain his humanity for us to sympathize with him. The Crow wears a tragedy/comedy mask but he has to personify them physically as well. I think this is shown beautifully in the scene in the church where Eric has lost his invincibility. After being shot in the shoulder, he delivers the line ‘aw fuck’ in what might be the best line delivery of all time (right up there with Bill Paxton’s ‘fucking A’ from Aliens). There’s disbelief, shock, and a sort of sarcastic apathy to it that brings a sad irony to the fact that he did not survive this film.
Michael Wincott as Top Dollar and David Patrick Kelly as T-Bird are also showstealers. Top Dollar is the ganglord that rules over the urban wasteland of Detroit, T-Bird is one of his lieutenants. Top Dollar is one of my favourite villains of all time. Wincott’s deep, gravelly voice does things to me. And if you claim it doesn’t do things to you, you’re lying. Stop lying to the world and yourself! Besides that though, his delivery is as cool, calm, and imperious as you’d expect from a ganglord. His dynamic of not caring about money is a trait you don’t often see in crime movies. He wants glory. He wants a legacy. He’s a complex character, often citing conversations he had with his father as a child. Does he do what he does for his father? It’s left ambiguous. His incestuous relationship with his witchy sister (played by Bai Ling) is not left ambiguous though and is played up to great effect.
David Patrick Kelly’s big moment comes with his death scene. It’s one of the best moments in the film. Watching the realization that he’s getting his retribution is such an intense moment; how he goes from trying to talk his way out of the situation to sobbing out what he’d said the fateful night he killed Eric: “Abashed the Devil stood and felt how awful goodness is”. His eyes tear up as he stares unblinkingly ahead and he repeats that over and over. Here’s a character that was steadfast in his belief that he would never be punished. He was wrong and it’s a religious experience.
Ernie Hudson as Sergeant Albrecht and Rochelle Davis as Sarah are there to keep Eric human through lighter and touching moments. Hudson is shown more comedically while Davis’ role as Sarah shows us how loving Eric can be. As much as I understand Sarah’s role within the story, her presence, come the end of the movie, is the one thing I would change. She’s there to show that even powerless and hurt, Eric will fight for her but I don’t think she should be the reason that Top Dollar and Eric have their final confrontation. Especially when revealed that it was Top Dollar’s whims that killed him and Shelly. Her part there feels tacked on. We already know that Eric loves her, his final fight with Top Dollar should have come down to just the two of them.
Jon Polito, who plays the pawn shop owner Gideon, perfectly plays a different type of evil from Top Dollar or T-Bird. He plays a character whose apathy finances the evil by buying stolen goods from the gang (TinTin specifically). While the character doesn’t perpetuate any crimes himself and spends the movie as nothing more than a middle man transferring information from one person to another, he’s the perfect way to show everyday evils like greed and apathy. What better way to show how complicity evil he is then having him own a pawn shop? These objects were other peoples’ lives and now they’re collecting dust, being forgotten about. The box full of wedding rings is especially devastating. How many were pried off the fingers of the dead?
The soundtrack for The Crow is more or less what has defined my musical tastes through the years. The Cure’s contribution Burn plays over the montage where we watch Eric take on the aesthetics so associated with The Crow. It’s iconic. Then just a few scenes later while Nine Inch Nail’s cover of Joy Divison’s Dead Souls drones on while he recklessly traverses the city via rooftop is iconic. Then the concert in Top Dollar’s club where we hear the thumping, screeching, industrial metal of After the Flesh. Need I even say it? And this is just the soundtrack, not the original score which Graeme Revell just fucking nailed. It’s tribal and noir and hymnal and just so beautiful. I tear up whenever I hear the gentle string piece Believe in Angels that plays at the end when Shelly’s spirit returns to reunite with Eric.
It’s been twenty two years since The Crow was first released and it completely holds up all this time later. It’s a perfect movie and probably the best comic-to-movie adaption ever. It’s a story of love and revenge given life by some of the best performances, a haunting musical score, and beautiful sets and camera tricks that I’ve ever seen. It’s a movie about coming back from the dead and, while Lee’s death was truly tragic, I can’t think of a more fitting epitaph for him.
If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever. The Crow: City of Angles is next.