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Though it was his first studio picture, Darkman is at least as pure a Raimi product as Army of Darkness, especially since both were slightly defanged by Universal. While Raimi kept his distance from this Blu-ray, famed cinematographer Bill Pope — who got his first feature gig on Darkman — talks on his commentary track about the care and effort Raimi put into every aspect of the film, every camera angle, every everything. Raimi's visual trademark is how he moves the camera, his love of skewed angles and close-ups and tracking shots; Pope describes cataloging 26 of them, assigning each a letter: A snap zoom with a Dutch angle was one letter, a snap zoom with a double Dutch was another letter, and so forth. The only one Pope remembers for sure is "B," the quick push in on a dolly. Sadly, he gave the only copy of the catalog to Raimi, and Pope is sure Raimi promptly disposed of it — a loss to cinema up there with Irving Thalberg destroying the majority of von Stroheim's Greed.
Not that Darkman doesn't have its own heartbreaking, Greed–like story of lost footage. According to Pope, there was no second unit on this or other Raimi film. Now, the second unit typically does all the shots that don't involve the principal actors: establishing shots, close-ups of inanimate objects, 'splosions, that kind of thing, and they're usually working while the director is elsewhere with the first unit, working with the actors on the dialog scenes and primary action. Instead, the second half of Darkman's 119-day, 19-shots-per-day schedule was Raimi directing what would otherwise be second-unit material, including all the shock effects and zoom-pans involving the actors. Pope says Raimi did it all himself because, really, how the hell are you going to explain to someone else what a Sam Raimi shot is supposed to look like? Not even an A-to-Z catalog can get something so abstract across. And it was especially important for Darkman, since so many of those insert shots were supposed to take place in the hero's head.
When he gets all super-ragey in the final cut of the film, the camera often zooms through Peyton's eye and into his head as the world cracks and breaks apart around him via an overtaxed optical printer, red jagged lines appearing in his real world as though hell itself is breaking through. The first time we go into his head, we see a brief shot of Neeson wearing a jester's hat, but inevitably the camera zooms right back out. It's neat the way it is, but perhaps the single most painful revelation on the Shout! Factory release is that there was supposed to be much, much more of that. According to Pope, they "built whole worlds inside Liam's head," what he tantalizingly refers to as "intuitional dreamscapes." But that's not what Universal wanted for their big post-Batman superhero movie — lest we forget, they were also competing against Disney's Dick Tracy that summer, so they weren't going to take any chances — and they ultimately cut 10 minutes of that footage from the film.
It hurts just to think about. Ten minutes of hardcore Raimi expressionism, about a reel's worth, all shot and edited, and then scrapped by the studio. Whether the footage even still exists is left unclear; it doesn't appear among the extras, and all those decades after Thalberg's death, studios still had a tendency to "lose" deleted scenes that bore too much of a director's personal touch. Morgan Creek did the same thing with William Peter Blatty's underrated The Exorcist III, released a week before Darkman.
But what remains is still a lot of fun. It was hoped that Darkman would become its own franchise, with Raimi-directed theatrical sequels featuring fanboy-bait Campbell in the lead. The underwhelming box office performance resulted instead in straight-to-video sequels directed by Bradford May and starring Arnold Vosloo in the lead, and they still occasionally pop up on cable. But be sure to start with Sam Raimi's original fever dream, and imagine what might have been.
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