[Nostalgia Week] The Everlasting Love and Pain of ‘The Crow’ (1994)

The Crow is a film that pours with emotion, both on and off screen. Starring the late Brandon Lee in his last and most defining film, it is a time capsule of adrenaline-pumped 90s vigilantism and one of the most inherently tragic films ever made. It will be forever locked behind rose-tinted glasses: a distillation of what comic book films used to be and the story of a talented actor taken before anybody had a chance to say goodbye.

Released almost thirty years ago, The Crow is very much a superhero relic and cult classic from director Alex Proyas. Several times Hollywood has tried to stoke this property back to life, and several times they have failed. Fitting for a Gothic tragedy – and franchise – that seems eternally tethered to the past like a ghost.

Lee plays Eric Draven, a raven-haired rock star who is murdered on the eve of his wedding, and then returned to life by a supernatural crow so that he can take vengeance on the criminals that killed his fiancée, Shelly (Sofia Shinas). You may be wondering how such a grim story could evoke such fondness, but sadness is inherent to the nature of nostalgia – about what has been lost and a desire to return to a moment in time – much in the same way that Eric has an overwhelming need to return to life and avenge the memory of the woman he loves. After all, nostalgia is the soul searching for a way to relive the past.

The film was adapted from original creator James O’Barr’s comic book series of the same name: a vengeful dark fantasy fuelled by the harrowing death of the writer’s own fiancée. But the heartache doesn’t stop there. Near the end of production on The Crow – in a cruel twist of fate that had Lee portraying his own character’s death scene – a prop malfunction resulted in Lee suffering from a fatal gunshot wound. Not only a singular, shattering tragedy, but one made all the more heartrending by the news that Lee’s death arrived a month before his wedding to fiancée, Eliza Hutton. And so, you have an impossibly tragic link between fact and fiction; three marriages cut short – two of them were real.

Yet for all its anguish, it is a film that still manages to make me smile. Lee’s imposing performance is unforgettable, the cast all light up the screen, and the rain-drenched set pieces are wonderfully theatrical. But mostly – despite the rip-roaring 90s soundtrack of The Cure and Nine Inch Nails – it makes me quiet. You can’t view Eric and Shelly’s mournful romance without seeing Lee’s own real love story echoing in the background. It drapes the film in permanent gloom, one that is deeply nostalgic and unbearably sad. Maturing out of his expected action-hero bravado, Lee’s final, full-forced performance seeps straight to the soul, in a romanticised film that visibly aches.

Even without Lee as its star, The Crow is a film rooted in 90s action cinema. Its warts protrude as unflatteringly as the Gothic spires that backdrop the thunder and lightning climax. The Crow maintains the hammy spirit of 80s fantasy, with Michael Wincott engulfing the scenery as a sword wielding, prophetic villain, channelling Clancy Brown’s iconic role in Highlander (1986). It’s all fire and gun-smoke and rain-drenched speeches. And then you have the expensive reshoots and wonky digital effects that make its rough edges stick out in an era where Marvel films are clean and crisp to squeaky perfection. It’s all part of the charm. In the decaying streets of a crime-ridden Detroit, the perpetual downpour is handily enhanced by the distinct grainy texture of 90s filmmaking. It’s ugly and beautiful, where murky shadows and muddy edges bleed into an astonishing sense of place and style. Part gritty urban, part unconvincing supernatural effects, the two contrasting methods make up the best and worst parts of The Crow, and ultimately, the awkward collision is what gives the film its timeless quality.

The titular character of the Crow sits in a metal throne, looking at the camera. He is wearing torn leather clothing and white face paint.
Image courtesy of Mirimax Films

The charm continues in the film’s quieter moments, too. Bringing warmth and light, Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) is a welcome respite as the divorced cop that helps Eric with his retribution. There’s a particular moment I love where he’s basically just ordering a hot dog, stuffing it with onions. With all the dreariness, it’s a minuscule window of warmth and calm enclosed within the steam of a hot dog stand. Small things like this are what draws you into fictional worlds. And then there’s Sarah, the skater girl – skating was everywhere in the 90s – who bookends the film with a romanticised narration. This, along with the never-ending rain and gloom, marks the film as a sort of Blade Runner dystopia, as directed by Edgar Allan Poe and starring the Raven.

Like Eric Draven’s resurrection, Hollywood has been trying to breathe new life into the franchise for over a decade. In 2008, director Stephen Norrington (Blade) started working on a remake, only to abandon it in 2011. It was picked up again by 28 Weeks Later director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Among the stars in-line for Lee’s ethereal role were the bizarrely-cast Bradly Cooper, Mark Wahlberg and Luke Evans, none of whom would have been any good. After Fresnadillo left the project, director Corin Hardy offered the franchise a lifeline in 2015 and a new return for The Crow was set. Hardy even got far enough into development to get his own blank rotten tomatoes page for the film. Jason Momoa was nailed on, and, of the dozen actors considered or the role, I think he would have done the best job. But fate struck for the umpteenth time in 2018 when Hardy and Momoa walked away, leaving the franchise once again in the dark.

For all the attempts, it’s a blessing there has never been a true remake of Proyas’ 1994 original film. The irreplaceable spirit of The Crow is alive and gone with Lee’s iconic central performance. Not only the awakening of a major movie star, it was also an actor unknowingly immortalising his own legacy. Nobody could come along and make The Crow resonate in the way that Lee’s tragic death does. Many actors have made roles their own, but Lee quite literally gave everything to The Crow. Lose this and you lose the emotional truth of the story. It’s why none of the sequels worked, and why a remake is doomed to fail.

Simply, it is a film that belongs in the past; an experience that works best as a beloved memory, of a point in time and the actor that was there and is now nowhere else.

This eerie cycle of rebirth and death – both in the film and out of it – have helped to immortalise The Crow. For a film so steeped in tragedy, it’s quite poignant that nobody can get the fire started again. Smoke and darkness creep in from the edges of the screen, enclosing its actors and set in ruin. I don’t need another version of this film. Lee feels alive every time I go back and watch The Crow. And this is what special films do – they stay with you, and sometimes they change, but rarely, as is the heady intoxication of nostalgia, do they ever truly fade away.

As one of the most achingly beautiful films ever made, The Crow, along with Lee’s immortal performance, should be left in the past, where we can visit it whenever darkness calls. It is extravagant, Gothic romanticism, pumped with the rage of a revenge fantasy, where, despite a world of pain, love triumphs above all. As Eric and Shelly fade away into the light, Sarah, the symbol of innocence and memory, ends the film with a moving tribute to the characters and the stars that played them: ‘Real love is forever.’ And so is Brandon Lee as The Crow.

Featured image courtesy of Miramax Films