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In 1994, I sat in a movie theater to see a movie I was probably not supposed to be watching. I think I’d leaned on the idea that I was going with friends from church and left out the title of the film to get permission in the first place.
We were there to see "The Crow," which is now a 20-year-old time capsule of what we then considered to be both romance and graphic violence -- it’s a love story and it’s a revenge story and both of those things seemed incredibly appealing to the theater full of teenaged hearts who were there that night.
Brandon Lee -- already a tragedy -- wasn’t a bad draw either.
After that first time in the theater, I watched it on VHS all throughout high school. I think the tape eventually broke. I never replaced it, but I never entirely forgot it either.
"The Crow" -- and all of the other parts of the franchise that grew out of the success of the first film -- is available to watch on Netflix. And, in the interest of a bit of nostalgia induced by that Nine Inch Nails song from the soundtrack (which is still incredibly good), I sat down to watch. And then rewatch it. And then rewatch it because, whoa, teenaged feelings.
First, a note on the Netflix version: The movie is filmed to be very cinematic; it wasn’t intended for a small screen. I remember how great and super dramatic it was on the big screen. But on my little television, it’s actually dark enough that I wondered how bad a copy of the movie they were working with. That’s an issue at various dark points throughout, which is definitely a disappointment. The sound isn’t the cleanest -- but I think that’s also a price of moving from large screen to small. The extremes of volume are when things get a little muddy.
The movie is based on a comic book from the late ’80s -- the movie takes fairly significant liberties but manages to keep the emotion of it the comic book fairly well intact: the horror that can come of being powerless to protect those you love.
But let me sum up: Detroit residents Eric Draven (aspiring rock star) and his fiancé Shelly Webster (social justice crusader) are brutally murdered (Shelly is also raped) in their (shockingly cool even though it’s supposed to be in a slum) apartment by minions of the local crime boss on Devil’s Night. A year later, Draven returns from the dead, led by the spirit of a crow, to take out the bad guys and avenge the love he and Shelly lost.
I know, that’s a lot to take in. It’s conveyed really clearly though and without a whole lot of dialogue, which is actually a strength.
The movie starts in the middle of the crime scene, where we meet Sergeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) and Sarah and Shelly, who is only going to be alive for a few more minutes.
Look, we’re supposed to really care about Sarah. I knew that as soon as she came onscreen, looking all lost and vulnerable, even going into it in the mid-’90s. The problem is that even then almost everything to do with her felt heavy handed. Twenty years has just magnified how seriously we were supposed to be taking ourselves and made it harder to swallow the symbolic meaning of the little blonde girl who still believes in love and friendship despite her jaded exterior.
Those same 20 years have also magnified my sympathy for Ernie Hudson’s beleaguered cop -- a man who keeps getting demoted for actually working hard and caring about people. He refuses to give in and bow and scrape to the detective who doesn’t deserve his respect. Ernie Hudson -- Sergeant Albrecht, I should say -- is caught in his own downward career spiral because the system that is supposed to be “the good guys” is just as corrupt and ineffectual as anything else.
But I digress. The crow flies. Sarah visits the graves of her dead friends, Eric and Shelly. And once she has gone, the crow begins to tap on Eric’s grave.
It’s very much a “While I nodded nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping” situation as long as “nearly napping” refers to Eric’s dirt nap. The chamber door is his headstone. Which he then answers by upheaving all of the earth above his casket in the middle of a midnight rainstorm.
Thus begins the meat of the plot -- which isn’t really a plot so much as it is a whole lot of violent revenge fantasy. Can ultraviolence be implied and then tastefully done through scene cuts? I feel fine watching "The Crow" and I can’t handle modern tortureporn horror violence at all (the "Saw" franchise is literally out of my nightmares). There’s a certain righteousness to the beginning of Eric’s vengeance -- he has four targets and he takes them out in ways that are suited to each target’s particular perversions. He kills Tin-Tin with his own knives. Funboy winds up stabbed in the chest with all of his own syringes. He blows T-Bird up in his own precious car -- but only after T-Bird, who seems the smartest of the four crime boss minions, realizes the enormity of what is happening.
The occasion is marked by him quoting Paradise Lost, a reference back to the start of the movie, when he’d taunted Eric and Shelly with the same passage while they were being murdered. The heavy literary reference, in hindsight, also feels very ’90s but Milton can be hard to resist.
The whole passage is actually: “Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely: and pined his loss.” It doesn’t quite fit the interpretation that Eric is the Devil though -- because Eric isn’t the Devil even if Shelly is his lost Virtue.
Eric Draven -- the Crow -- is how awful goodness is.
Just writing that felt like the late ’90s all over again. And it felt good.
Here’s the thing: Eric is concerned with simple revenge. But his needs aren’t being considered by others. The three men he’s killed and the fourth he’s after (charmingly named Skank) have a boss. And the boss’s name is Top Dollar.
Top Dollar is skeevy and has the most beautiful hair in all of 1994. He runs Detroit’s underbelly -- with his “sister” Myca at his side. Who is also his lover. Who is also a witch. He doesn’t take kindly to Eric picking off his enforcers and, in fact, seems to object entirely on the principle that this is a power move he can’t allow. It’s not like he’s got any affection or attachment to his gang. In fact, he seems to be suffering a certain ennui; he’s bored with setting Detroit on fire. He wants to elevate Devil’s Night to a new and artistically destructive level.
I had completely and entirely forgotten about this whole part before I rewatched the movie. In the back of my mind, he was yet another unnamed villain I was supposed to feel bad about finding attractive.
But this subplot is where things get problematic even if you don’t feel guilty about thinking the bad guy is the prettiest -- because now, in his sister/lover, we’ve got this total racist stereotype of an Asian woman who steals the eyes of pretty white girls to better see the future.
If Sarah wasn't the precious white girl protagonist, I don’t think this would have felt like such a tremendously sour note -- but Sarah and Myca are set up as opposite forces and that’s just gross.
There are shoot outs and there’s a bit of swordplay. There’s some martial arts on a church roof. It’s very action movie-ish at the climax. And of course true love wins out, and of course Shelly’s spirit comes for Eric’s spirit when his task is complete. This has led a ton of people to think the movie is very depressing -- the main character goes back to being dead! But the living continue to live. And Sarah, even though we don’t care as much about her as we should, is probably going to be treated better by her mom (who is actually more interesting in some ways). Ernie Hudson survives -- and is probably going to get his job back. And the sun comes out.
The romance of "The Crow" appealed to the 15-year-old girls in that theater -- the idea that someone would love us so much that they would come back from the dead to seek revenge for our pain, that’s heady stuff. I’m not even a romantic person, really, and I can see the appeal in the certainty of being loved.
But I think the unsustainable nature of that kind of thing is also important -- there is no happily ever after for Shelly and Eric, not really. They don’t get a second chance. They’re dead. Maybe there’s an afterlife of some sort that they get to spend together but nothing they went through is erased. I said "The Crow" is a love story and a revenge story but it’s also a ghost story, one that reminds us to love while we are living.
Verdict: 20 years on, The Crow is still worth watching. It's brutal and thoughtful when it isn't a little too earnest. It's flawed but it's aged surprisingly well. Would -- and will -- watch again.