The Crow Review

The Crow is a 1994 gothic fantasy action film written by David J. Schow/John Shirley and directed by Alex Proyas. Based on the James O'Barr comic book of the same name, the film has grown a cult following due to its dark, emotional themes, excessive violence and the on-set death of the film's star Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee.

The night before Halloween, a group of psychotic thugs breaking into the house of musician Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) and his fiancee Shelly. They beat and rape her to death and toss him out of a window. One year later, a magic crow brings Draven back from the dead to exact his revenge, giving him supernatural powers to aid him in his quest.

The setup for the film is a pretty unique on its own, but it probably wouldn't have been able to carry the whole movie. What makes the film work is the execution of the concept, which is balls to the wall gothic in every frame. When I say gothic, I'm not just talking about the superficial subcultural that the movie is obviously catering to; I'm talking about gothic literature. This feels like a story Edgar Allen Poe would've written if he'd lived in modern day. The atmosphere is heavy and thick with sadness, anger, injustice, religious imagery and even a bit of horror. However, much of what makes the atmosphere so effective is due to technical aspects, so I'll go into more detail in that section.

The entire feel of the film spawns from its heavy themes and not just of tragic death and undead lust for revenge. Soaked into the identity of the film is the idea that the world is broken and in need of somebody to come in and fix it. The city the story takes place in is corrupt, crime ridden and drowning in every kind of drug under the non-existent sun. The people who are big fans of this film that I've known in my life seem like the kind of people who would relate to this message; they would love for somebody to come in and fix what they see as wrong with the world. However, that might be the first problem with the movie. The themes are so depressing that unless your life is really screwed up, or have depression so you think your life is screwed up, you won't really relate to this film. Sure, you can relate to Eric's desire for revenge, but unless you see the world as one giant cesspool, full of constant misery and strife, you won't really be able to relate with this theme.

The problem is that the film isn't deep enough to fully explore any of these themes. They're more part of the subtext than a main point of the film and in a way, that's disappointing. I like it when films give me something deeper to think about, symbolism to dissect. With this, what you see is what you get, like when Eric is using the cross on top of a church as a weapon to fight the main villain. That's pretty basic symbolism and doesn't really take a lot of brain power to unpack. Like the comic book, it's more an exercise in catharsis and tone building and while that works for a comic because comic books are free to get away from the traditional structure of a story, it doesn't work for a film, especially when you're trying to stick to the traditional three-act structure.

The film is pretty well paced, going along at a quick pace so that you're never bored. It gets the establishing of the plot out of the way in the first few minutes and then gets right into the slaughter of the murderers. However, it's never so kinetic that it can't stop to have some emotional moments. For example, there's a scene where Eric talks to the cop who investigated his murder case (Ernie Hudson) and while it should feel like such a long, boring distraction, it feels more like a well-deserved breather. We've had non-stop violence, drug use and suffocating sadness the whole way through and it feels nice to sit down and just watch these two have a nice conversation. Besides, we know that we're going to get back to the slaughter eventually.

However, this slaughter would be for naught if we didn't hate the villains and sympathize with Eric's bloodlust. The thugs are probably the scummiest collection of big screen idiots ever assembled, spouting obnoxious catchphrases that they think are clever, doping up on all sorts of drugs and killing just because they think it's fun. Knowing what they've done to Eric and Shelley just makes you want to see them die all the more. So, the villains are good and despicable. Great. How's our hero? Well, sadly, there's not much too him. Sure, he's engagingly crazy in a Joker kind of way and brooding like you'd expect, but that's kind of it. There's not much to his character except his tragic backstory which defines his actions. He has a few good one-liners, but that's pretty much all the dimension we get. He's more of an audience surrogate than a character, letting us revel in justified bloodshed through him.

The screenplay is actually pretty good. It excels in two areas that any screenplay should have down pat: the dialogue and the visual storytelling. There are so many times where what you need to know is shown entirely through visuals. For example, in the scene where Eric is remembering what happened to him and Shelley, it's shown entirely through flashbacks. And when he's discovering his regenerative powers in the same scene, it's shown through him observing what's happening. You could put the film on mute and still follow the plot fine. The dialogue is almost scarily impressive because it manages to balance gothic poetry with natural sounding dialogue. Where most of the cast has very real-sounding dialogue, Eric has a lot of tragic, poetic lines, making him stand out from the rest of the cast. The problem is that at some point the purple prose started to irritate me. Every once and awhile a dramatic line is fine, but when it's every other bit of dialogue spoken you start wishing that Top Dollar would just kill him already.

Another problem I kind of have with the story is that the relationship between Eric and Shelley before their deaths is shown as almost unbearably sweet and saccharin, being shown as perfect. However, I think that was intentional. If your last memory of the woman you loved was of them being murdered, wouldn't you only want to remember the good times?

The overall style of the film is over the top gothic, like I said, but I mean that in the best way. The sets are dark, dirty and decaying, painting a picture of a world that's falling apart, slowly dying under the pressure of crime and other societal illnesses. It's like a modern gothic novel and is the main driving force behind the tone.

The lighting is used as a unique storytelling mechanic. In the flashbacks of Eric and Shelley's life together, they're drenched in bright, oversaturated orange lighting, showing the presence of life and happiness. In the scenes of Eric in the hospital, everything is covered in blue, showing the fading of life as Eric dies. In the rest of the film, as Eric hunts down the killers as the crow, every single shot is in darkness and whatever lighting there is flat and drab, showing the absence of love and life, replaced by death and hatred. I also like how they use the lighting to build up the first appearance of Eric as the crow. In the scene, he's putting on the now iconic black and white makeup (which also looks fantastic), but we never see his face while he's doing it since it's kept in shadows. When we finally do see his painted face, illuminated by a flash of lightning, it feels like a big deal because we weren't allowed to see him up to this point.

The acting is really good from Brandon Lee, who is the only reason Eric is likable at all. He brings a unique energy to the role and perfectly portrays Eric's tragic sadness, lust for blood and slightly unhinged mind. Ernie Hudson does really well at portraying the cop's wide variety of emotions, giving a subdued performance that stands out from the over the top angsty ones in the film. The actors who play the scumbags are all good too, giving 100% in portraying their stupidity and evil. The weak link in the cast is the little girl who does the narrations. She's fine sometimes, but a lot of the time she has this distracting monotone that makes for awful line delivery.

The editing for the movie is pretty dodgy. On one hand, it can be very effective. The scene where Eric remembers what happened is edited very well, with choppy cuts that flash in and out as if he can't really remember everything that happened. Other times, however, the editing can be distracting and borderline annoying. There are times when it feels like there was a frame or two missing from the scene, when Eric breaks into a pawn shop and you never see him step through the door, he's just on the other side in the next shot. There are also a lot of times when they use a freeze frame to end a scene, which is really odd and doesn't seem to have any purpose. I know it wasn't just my DVD freezing up because I wasn't watching this on DVD. The movie also uses a lot post production slow-mo, which not only looks awful, but seems out of place. I get that they're trying to make the scenes more dramatic, but it just comes off as distracting. There's also a couple of times where they splice a few scenes together that I feel should've remained separate, which kind of screws with the pacing.

The other problem with the film is the CGI effects. When they have a close up of Eric's body healing itself or a shot of the crow flying through the air, it looks pretty fake. The flight scenes look especially bad because it looks like they just photoshopped a flying crow onto a shot of the camera going over a city. It's pretty terrible.

The music, like everything else on the technical level is appropriately over the top. The soundtrack comprised of a bunch of 90's emo tracks, but, again, it's appropriate for the tone of the film. The score is filled with haunting female vocals, sad cellos and uplifting violins where appropriate.

Summary: I'm genuinely split on The Crow. On the one hand, it has some genuine merits as a movie, with great visual storytelling trying to explore themes of death, catharsis and sorrow. On the other hand, there are some serious technical problems, some of the dialogue can get annoying, they don't explore those themes as much as I'd like or really make a statement about them and the gothic atmosphere starts to get really depressing, like a sleeping bag made of self-hatred and Evanescence music. I guess I'm glad I saw it for the great performances and solid set design, but I can't say I'd ever watch it again without a bottle of Prozac.


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