The greatest overall Halloween movie is John Carpenter’s 1978 HALLOWEEN. Of course the topic is always open to debate, but probably not really though. To take the name of the holiday itself, a horror movie’d have to be pretty definitive, and what HALLOWEEN managed to accomplish went as close as possible to the perfect spirit of the occasion.
Many of us have forgotten, so let’s get refreshed: Halloween hasn’t ever been about cartoons or drugged-up parades or naughty nurse costumes. It’s about things that go bump in the night, that feeling you get up and down your back when you’re walking up to your front door at 3am and it’s dark and quiet and you wonder who might be out there.
John Carpenter’s original HALLOWEEN has survived countless sequels and holiday-themed knock-offs and a couple remakes and it is still as creepily effective as ever. People always talk about the Steadicam scene that opens the film, and that’s cool and all, but that’s not how the movie starts. It starts with that slow zoom, and that score, and that eerie pumpkin in a sea of black, against the title. And that sums it all up. That is the essence of Halloween.
But what about the night before Halloween? What about Mischief Night, also and most notoriously known as Devil’s Night? As a very much unofficial holiday, Devil’s Night doesn’t have nearly as many films to represent it. Of those contenders, the current edge probably still goes to THE CROW. Here’s another movie of humble origins, like HALLOWEEN, that looms large in the consciousness and also led to its share of atrocious sequels and thematic imitators.
I’m not going to make a case for THE CROW being some under-heralded paragon of genre cinema. It’s still interesting to me as a melange of subcultures, and as a dust-up between duelling strains of horror, action, and romance. It’s a well-loved film, if not too frequently cited, by a significant population of admirers, and anyone who feels otherwise generally isn’t inclined to talk disparagingly about it either, for well-documented reasons.
My affection for the movie persists because, to my eye, it has an emotional rawness to it that most other artifacts of the 1990s never achieved or failed to retain. This film feels honestly felt, and in my book, that counts for plenty. I see the medium of film as a valuable means of expression and for me, sincerity is a princely virtue, and prestige can generally go get bent.
Based on the comic book by James O’Barr, adapted to screen by splatterpunk novelists John Shirley and David Schow, and directed by Alex Proyas, THE CROW stars Bruce Lee’s only son, Brandon Lee, as Eric Draven, a rock musician who is killed along with his fiancée on Devil’s Night by a gang of low-lifes, and who is brought back for vengeance by a crow that serves as his guide.
It’s pop art. It’s all broad strokes. It’s the perfect movie for a moody, smart, stupid teenager who sees the world as all doom and romance – which I entirely was. [Still am?] Every character speaks in song lyrics, which isn’t exactly the same thing as poetry. Characters say things that you feel like you’ve heard before, even if maybe you haven’t. They sound like they’re speaking in quotes, even at times clichés, but it plays as a piece. “It can’t rain all the time.” Again, I have an affection for the dialogue of this movie, even as I recognize that it’ll never be taught alongside that of Wilder, Brackett, and Diamond. Plenty of it orginated with O’Barr’s comic, although admirers of Shirley and of Schow (of which I am one) can surely recognize their voices here as well. On top of all that verbal musicianship, the film is coated in wall-to-wall music, both by Graeme Revell’s orchestral score and by the [at the time, current] industrial/alternative soundtrack featuring bands like The Cure and Nine Inch Nails.
Sound is important to discuss, because the movie is dark. Literally. It’s as if someone in the editing room spilled ink all over the negative. I still remember a kid I knew in high school complaining to me about not being able to see what was going on in the movie because it was so dark. That guy was an idiot, but it’s a dumb comment that inadvertently speaks to form and function. The cinematography, by world-class DoP Dariusz Wolski, is absolutely defined by blackness, with occasional bursts of red. I wouldn’t want to see many more movies like this one, but the look absolutely works for me in this case. It honors the black-and-white origins of James O’Barr’s dark drawings.
On account of all the low light, it seems that the movie was cast for voices as much as faces. The villains include such richly vocal character actors as Michael Wincott (“Caw caw, bang, fuck, I’m dead!”), Michael Massee (“Look what you’ve done, to my sheets…”), and legendary WARRIORS-taunter and 48 HRS. henchman David Patrick Kelly (“You know Lake Erie caught on fire once, from all the crap floating around in it. I would’ve liked to have seen that.”) The memorable voices of Tony Todd, the erstwhile CANDYMAN, and Jon Polito, a Coen Brothers semi-regular, also make appearances.
Also giving a mournful, typically grounding performance is Ernie Hudson. As usual, he does plenty to sell the more ludicrous elements of an out-there movie, playing a good-hearted guy you feel like you recognize and wish you’d recognize more often in the world. Cops generally aren’t like this in real life, you know.
I really like what Brandon Lee does in the movie, what can be seen or heard of the performance — it was several steps beyond his charming star turn in 1991’s under-seen SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO — and I wish we could’ve seen more work from him. And that’s the thing – an overall pall of sadness hangs over THE CROW, which makes it hard to watch as a guilty pleasure, a proud pleasure, or any much kind of pleasure.
Now twenty years later, THE CROW still feels more like pain than catharsis. We can’t watch this movie without knowing that the universe sadly doesn’t work this way, that there is no spectral crow to help us right the grievous wrongs of the real world, and it hurts to think about. That’s why people like James O’Barr have to dream up stories like this, because all those cosmic frustrations need to go somewhere. Better for them to end up on the page and on the screen, where small legions of weirdos can find a deeper meaning in them.
My favorite pop-cultural acknowledgement of THE CROW came on the American version of The Office. Standing outside the office building, the workers are talking about their picks for desert-island movies, naming titles like LEGALLY BLONDE for their sentence. Dwight, however, just has one movie on his list: THE CROW. That’s just so perfect, tells you everything you need to know about that character. And to some viewers, those who get the reference, it probably made this ridiculous caricature just a little bit more sympathetic for a moment. Maybe it takes a cartoon to truly get the meaning of a fellow cartoon.
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THE CROW is playing at midnight this weekend at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn.
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