The Crow (1994): Vengeance From The Grave…

The Crow (1994): Vengeance From The Grave…

When God, disgusted with man, 
Turned towards heaven. 
And man, disgusted with God, 
Turned towards Eve, 
Things looked like falling apart. 
But Crow … Crow 
Crow nailed them together, 
Nailing Heaven and earth together
[…]

Ted Hughes, Crow blacker than ever (1970)

Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994)is a film more 90’s than the 90’s… It has the solitary vibe of the decade that followed the 80’s “all together now” spirit. It has its moodiness, ambivalence and speed; the 90’s wondering around and its identity crisis is everywhere. A teenager’s favorite, The Crow, was the film of my youth’s heavy metal soundtrack. And because of my biased memory that categorizes the film among the greatest action movies ever made, I put my middle-aged butt on the couch and gave it a screening almost 25 years after its release. So, has it aged well?

The plot

The storyline (and the tragic events that led to Brandon Lee’s unfortunate death) I remembered well. Opening on Devil’s Night in Detroit, with a wide view of decrepit rooftops and blazing fires, The Crow offers us a summary of what’s to come with Sarah’s (Rochelle Davis) opening narration:

“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.
And sometimes,
just sometimes,
The crow can bring that soul back
to put the wrong things right.”

The Devil’s Night is actually a real thing, it’s roots going back to the 40’s, it really picked up steam during the 70’s and run rampant all the way into the 90’s where criminal acts of vandalism were happening around the U.S. Devils Night, the night before Halloween, is generally associated more with Detroit where hundreds of acts of arson have been resolving in massive fires all around the town. After one particularly awful Devil’s Night back in 1994, the city came up with a new, official event, named Angel’s Night where the community was committed to prevent violence. Since then, Devil’s Night violence has totally declined until nowadays is nothing more than an average night for firefighters…

So, back in the “good old Devil’s Night days” and after young Sara’s poetic narration, we are brought to the scene of a crime. Disgraced former Detective, now Sergeant Albright (Ernie Hudson) is on the scene, where the young ShellyWebster (Sofia Shinas) is fighting for her life following a violent home invasion. Six stories below the broken window, her boyfriend Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) lies dead. The movie cuts to one year later, where Sarah is paying respects to her deceased friends, Eric and Shelly. As she is about to leave the cemetery, she notices a crow atop Eric’s gravestone. Following her departure, Eric is resurrected and thrown back into the world to avenge his and Shelly’s death (The Corvid review).

And that’s about it. You don’t get a surprising plot; there is neither any in-depth character analysis nor great acting. There’s a basic plot pattern beginning with the exposition of a conflict, moving through rising action, coming to a climax, and then offering a resolution in the falling action and concluding with a dénouement. And yet the adult me enjoyed the film almost as much as my adolescent former self, so what’s the hook? Why is The Crow still considered from critics and audience “a classic”?

Let’s start by the form. Everything in the film refers to two aesthetic sources: The comics and the film noir. As for the first one, there should be no surprise there; The Crow was first published as a comic book series back in 1989. The creator, James O’Barr had a tough childhood as an orphan raised in the foster care system. After the unfortunate death of his fiancé Beverly, he joined the army in 1978 and moved to Berlin. There, in 1981, further inspired by a newspaper account of a couple being murdered over a 20$ engagement ring, he started working on the comic book The Crow to cope with his loss.

There’s a lot of O’Barr’s personal truth within The Crow and very little of his pain finally soothed by his art. After all the success that followed the comic, an experimental metal act named Trust Obey released Fear and Bullets: Music to Accompany The Crow (1993) and the film we’re discussing followed in 1994. But even then O’Barr answering an interview he states: “As I drew each page, it made me more self-destructive, if anything… There is pure anger on each page”.

Regarding the influence of film noir, The Crow revisits noir generic signifiers within the context of cyberpunk and gothic cultural influences. It crosses genre boundaries as noir has done since its establishment, containing elements of several of popular culture’s most prominent genres, such as the action film and the superhero film based on a comic strip. But below the veneer of contemporary generic signifiers, which obviously help to make the film more marketable to its youth-culture target audience, it is possible to identify distinctly noir characterisations, themes, motifs and narrative constructs (A. Macpherson, Neo-noir for the ‘90s: Alex Proyas’ The Crow). The film noir motive of mirroring a world of darkness literally and metaphorically is ever present to The Crow and as Telotte says – “So long as we gaze steadily at these dark images, the individual and cultural forces stand at bay, their chaotic potential halted by our narrative’s ordering force” (J.P. Telotte, Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns in Film Noir Chicago).

The Crow’s lost character

The comic book features a character called the Scull Cowboy who was originally intended to be in the film as well. The Scull Cowboy served as an otherworldly guide for our resurrected avenger, cast with much of the story’s exposition. Actor Michael Berryman [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Penny Dreadful (2006) etc.] was casted for the role. Unfortunately, after Brandon Lee’s tragic death during the film’s making, a new cut was made completing Lee’s scenes with CGI and Proyas decided that he should not include Scull Cowboy in The Crow’s final cut.

Scull Cowboy (normally) follows Eric throughout his mission constantly reminding him that he’s back from the dead to take out his murderers and that he shouldn’t meddle with the living, or he would suffer the consequences. The missing character fills many holes that are awfully present to the attentive viewer in the theatrical version of the film. During the fight with Funboy, Eric was slashed with a razor and bled. Scull Cowboy explained that this was because he had strayed from his mission and he had helped Darla by squeezing the morphine out of her body. The “black glove” or “bandage” we see Eric wearing since after the fight with Funboy and until the end of the film is electrical tape, which he put on to cover the aforementioned wounds.

Before the film’s climax, Scull Cowboy would have warned Eric that saving the young Sara he would have been cursed to walk the earth forever rather than be able to return to the afterlife to be with his beloved Shelly. Therefore, before the cut, we had a totally different ending, much grimmer, with the main character tragically facing the consequences of his actions and being punished cruelly for his caring for others.

The real superhero: the crow and the man

In the film it’s Eric Draven who is portrayed as the “super-hero”. Especially after the elimination of the Scull Cowboy character, Eric’s “super human” abilities seem more pronounced by the plot and his weaknesses are left to be almost insinuated. I’d say though, that we should search our super hero in the combination of the human protagonist and the crow. The bird (the only continual character throughout the comic books, the films and the TV series), portrays the bearer of the otherworldly force that brings the dead back to life and acts to Eric as both guide and fellow warrior.

The crow as a symbol of death and destruction appears in several literary texts of the West, as far back as Beowulf (the oldest manuscript dating between 975 and 1025 a.d.). A line from this ancient poem reads, “…but the black raven, eager for the doomed ones, as he shall say much to the eagle of what success he had at feeding, when he, with the wolf, plundered the corpses.”

But it’s Jung’s approach and his theory of the shadow that is very useful in explaining why the crow relates so well with our main character and his most negative inner propulsions, in a way that actually completes him.

Jung refers to the dark unconscious in every person that is ruled by primal desires as the shadow, the part of human nature that most people turn away from and pretend not to recognize even though it is an integral part of the human psyche. Every human is responsible for this to some extent, and because of this the shadow has become part of the collective unconscious. Once a part of the collective unconscious, the shadow is eligible to become symbolized through mythology, and it has been. In the western tradition the crow symbolizes revenge, death, destruction but also dark enlightenment, power and divination (K.E. Bukowick, Truth and Symbolism: Mythological Perspectives of the Wolf and Crow).

But it’s the human condition, that Eric as a character represents, that contradicts to the otherworldly and at the same time connects with it as its counterpart. And at its core, we find the battle against finite time. Unlike the bird, which appears as a timeless, eternal force of justice and revenge, our human protagonist is driven by memory. And as Aristotle writes on Remembering and Reminiscence (350 b.C) there is no memory disconnected from time:

“[…], there is no such thing as memory of the present while present, for the present is object only of perception, and the future, of expectation, but the object of memory is the past. All memory, therefore, implies a time elapsed.”

The subject of finite time relates with Eric’s and Shelly’s premature death, the finite time of the criminal invasion that with every flashback is like a film within the film and the short life span of the “undead” Eric being as long as the fulfillment of his desire for revenge.

Eric is driven by his past memories with total awareness of his present situation and his finite future. He is not omnipotent nor immortal. He seems a tragic hero with the ancient Greek sense. We see him often in the movie recollecting and that’s the most tragic thing that happens to him. He doesn’t simply remember the events that led to his and Shelly’s death, he draws from everything that he felt as he re-composes himself from the pain each and every time. In a way, he relives the past and not being able to connect with the real Shelly, he constantly reconnects with an imprint that exists in his memory.  

He experiences his present, as a double edge blade: cutting dynamically every moment towards the past and the future. And accepting the fact that only the present fuses with real life, we acknowledge that every memory helps the present and can never be its usurper (K. Papagiorgis, Peri mnimis). Moreover, every action in the present defines our future and that’s why Eric’s decision to save Sara and accept his punishment to never rejoin Shelly would be a finale more suitable to the character, instead Proyas gives us the more teenager-friendly version of a happy ending. And that’s a pity…

The soundtrack

The soundtrack to The Crow, released in March 1994 by Atlantic Records, included in its 14 tracks some of the greatest acts in the music industry: The Cure, who composed the song Burn especially for the movie, Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails (covering Joy Division), Pantera, Violent Femmes and more.

The inclusion of songs written by The Cure and Joy Division are notable because the influences of both bands are present in the original comic book. O’Barr being a big fan of both bands when he was creating the coming, reprinted the lyrics to the song The Hanging Garden by The Cure on an entire page, and some chapters of the comic book are named after Joy Division songs (Atmosphere and Atrocity Exhibition, for example).

Peaking at the top of the Billboard Top 200 Albums Chart, the album has sold 3,8 million copies in the US and has been certified three times platinum by RIAA.

The other music in the film which is not included in the soundtrack is instead on The Crow: Original Motion Picture Score of original, mostly orchestral music, with some electronic and guitar elements, written for the film by Graeme Revell (Wikipedia, The Crow: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).

To sum it up…

The Crow (1994) is a classic action film, gathering elements from the Cyberpunk genre but having also its unique dark aesthetic and gothic romanticism. It’s well made, it has a “cursed background” following it and a soundtrack that has set an era. The comic is a powerful work of art based on a real-life tragedy and its plot brings up interesting themes to ponder as one passes from the comic book to the film and back. I guess it has aged well and even if some of its CGI is totally outdated, its atmosphere manages still to capture the viewer. Verdict: absolutely a “must see”.

Yiannis Tziallas
Related Link: Yiannis Tziallas – Official Page

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