Crow, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits the movie that inspired a million teenagers to dye their hair black...
In Detroit, the day before Halloween is known as Devil's Night – a night of arson, looting, rape, and murder. One Devil’s Night local crime lord Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) sent his thugs out to silence outspoken tenets Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas) and Eric Draven (Brandon Lee). Eric is stabbed, shot, and defenestrated, and Shelly is beaten, raped, and left for dead. Sergeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) is sent to the scene, where he gathers evidence, then spends the night at Shelly’s side as she dies. One year later Eric rises from the grave with supernatural powers, and is given a chance to brutally avenge Shelly’s death.
When James O'Barr’s The Crow was first released it was popular among my friend group mostly due to its forbidden nature. It was a vicious, violent comic, and genuinely shocked kids more accustomed to the rather innocuous early ‘90s adventures of the X-Men and Spider-Man. Looking back with adult eyes I see the book for what it is – a flawed, angst-ridden adolescent nightmare that only continues to capture audiences due to the power of its violent imagery. Roughly the same thing goes for Alex Proyas’ film version of The Crow. The film sat for over a decade in the shadow star Brandon Lee’s on-set death, but enough time has passed that we can look back on it outside of its cause célèbre, which certainly coloured the experience in a melancholy that ended up working in the film’s favour upon release. The prevailing problem here isn’t the straightforward narrative, or that Lee’s performance is anything but impressive, but instead it’s the hackneyed elements that gum-up the otherwise efficient works. The story is ridiculously melodramatic, it takes itself too seriously (though Lee and Hudson both manage to eek out several laugh between them), and is about as emotionally complex as a Sesame Street skit (which is unfortunate considering co-writer David Schow is one of my favourite writers on the subject of horror films). This is a revenge fantasy with horror trimmings set to a video game rhythm, it’s just gussied up with goofy stabs at morality, poetry and spirituality that tricked most of us youngsters into thinking it was something more. But that’s okay. Aside from some of the more unlovable clichés, and lingering memories of every guy in my graduating class and their terrible Eric Draven impressions, I still find The Crow an entertaining and stylish diversion.
Proyas isn’t the world’s greatest filmmaker (in fact he’s made some terrible films in his career), but he’s aesthetically talented, and always brings something interesting to the imagery of even his weakest motion pictures. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that he doesn’t rest on his creative laurels, and finds new visual themes for most of his films. Here he creates a dark, gothic-noir look true to the film’s black and white comic roots, then heightens it with really graphic colour use. These images, which are an effective enough mix of Sam Raimi and Ridley Scott, with a heavy Noir edge, are the film’s lasting legacy. Upon release, Tim Burton’s Batman films were still firmly implanted in critics’ minds, and The Crow was often written off as Burton-lite, but I tend to see a lot more energy, and less beauty in the film’s imagery, which marks it as almost a satire of Burton’s work. Though the film itself wasn’t all that huge of a hit in theaters, Proyas’ stylistic choices (along with Burton and Henry Selick’s Nightmare Before Christmas) helped established the Hot Topic brand of ‘Goth-lite’ that continues to plague American youth to this day. It’s a bummer of a legacy, but it’s more than you can say for 98% of movies. Proyas would come closer to perfecting his Raimi/Scott noir look for his next film, Dark City, but this is a strong Hollywood debut. The John Woo inspired action scenes have also somewhat surprisingly stood the test of time. Stephen Norrington’s similarly comic-based Blade actually managed to change the movie action landscape, but The Crow was certainly an important step on the road to The Matrix.
I was expecting very little from this new 1080p transfer. The Crow is a dark and grainy movie. This normally leads to one of two outcomes – either Lionsgate and Miramax don’t even try to clean-up the transfer since it will be dirty looking anyway, or they DNR it all to hell. I expected a up-converted DVD transfer, or a smoothed over, waxy looking mess. Surprisingly enough this Blu-ray disc’s producers have found a nice middle ground. This transfer is mostly sharp, an features satisfying detail levels, but hasn’t been digitally flattened, and a whole lot of film grain still covers the overall print. Grain and details aren’t entirely consistent, but line up pretty well based on shot width and special effects use. The largely analogue special effects, which I’ve always found charming, don’t look any more convincing in HD than they did on VHS or DVD (my mom wouldn’t let me see the movie in theaters), but you can certainly see a lot more spittle shooting out of Lee’s mouth, and notice weird burn scars on David Patrick Kelly’s cheeks. The film’s rabid colour scheme has been slightly re-tooled in some cases, at least in comparison to the DVD release. Generally this is a warmer image, and features stronger red levels. The bulk of the film is still desaturated and nearly black and white, but flashbacks to Eric and Sarah’s home life and murder are much more vibrant than those of the DVD release. These more colourful elements are clean outside the ever-present film grain, and don’t feature the same blocking and low-level noise found on the DVD transfer. The blacks are rich, deep and mostly pure, though there are some increases in grain frequency over the darkest backgrounds. The scenes featuring the crow soaring over the city are a big improvement over SD releases, where the contrast levels were much muddier.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack isn’t a huge upgrade over the DVD’s compressed DTS track, but gets a nice volume and clarity boost from its uncompressed status. There aren’t many aggressive directional cues outside of basic ambience, and a couple of crow flyover scenes, but there’s plenty of multi-channel action, and heavy stylization in the sound design. Its biggest strengths are in music and explosions. The music plays a massive part in the film’s legend. I’m not sure I can overstate the impact The Crow original motion picture soundtrack had on teenagers in the early/mid ‘90s. I think every one of my friends owned a copy (the fact that local Tucson, AZ band Machines of Loving Grace made the cut certainly helped). The 5.1 mix plays with this mix of alternative rock, heavy metal and industrial music in different ways. At times it’s clearly presented as score, and fills the front channels. Other times it’s source music within a scene, and moves with the camera’s point of view. The brief pieces of live performances are the most impressive, recreating the feel of concert experience with effective rear channel support. The LFE channel is the mix’s heftiest element, throbbing with Graeme Revell’s mostly ambient-based score, and lurching with heavy gunshots and blow-ups. Occasionally the whispered dialogue is a bit too quiet for its own good, but is always well centered, and mixed effectively even during the loud moments.
Besides the audio/video upgrades, the main reason for fans to upgrade to this Blu-ray edition is the new commentary with director Alex Proyas. Proyas originally refused to record a commentary for the DVD release, and was replaced by producer Jeff Most and screenwriter John Shirley, who did their best, but spent most of their time tip-toeing around the Brandon Lee issue. Proyas also devotes a lot of time to Lee’s memory, but also offers insight into the production, most valuable of which are his goals for the film as an ‘anti-comic book’ movie. He’s quite aware of the film’s place in Goth culture (he takes appropriate credit for the leather-clad hero bit), and also discusses the film’s impact on Dark City (which he had been developing), putting together such an extreme palette pre-digital grading and bleach bypass, the fact that he probably would’ve made Crow II if Lee would’ve lived, the differences between rooks, ravens and crows, and the manner the film’s story changed throughout production. This track is pretty consistent, and a tasteful mix of modesty and autocratic. At one point a moderator can be heard, revealing that Proyas was likely being interviewed for most of the track.
The rest of the extras are more familiar, starting with a behind the scenes EPK (16:30, SD) that covers the original comic, the comic’s effect on the film, the film’s look, the themes, the characters, and features interviews with actors Brandon Lee, David Patrick Kelly, Ernie Hudson, Tony Todd and Bai Ling, original comic creator James O’Barr, producers Jeff Most and Edward R. Pressman, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, along with other various crew members. Next up is a profile of James O’Barr (33:30, SD), which features the incredibly melodramatic creator in his basement discussing his art, writing and life. The disc also features three extended scenes (11:30, SD), a deleted footage montage (5:20, SD), a poster concept gallery, a production design gallery, five storyboard galleries, a trailer, and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
The Crow is among the most era defining films of the ‘90s. For better or worse it belongs in a time capsule, where it can be used to explain the period’s pop culture tastes. Above all its obvious script-based shortcomings, this is what the film has to offer, and I think it’s enough in the long run. I’m not sure I can forgive the film for a progressively terrible series of sequels, but I no longer hold its exhausting fans against it. This Blu-ray’s transfer is a pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t expecting the best from the dark, grainy photography, and the DTS-HD uncompressed soundtrack is as perfect as I’d expect. The extras aren’t incredible, but do feature a great audio commentary with director Alex Proyas that isn’t available on any DVD releases of the film I am aware of.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 18th October 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Behind the Scenes Featurette, A Profile of James O'Barr, Extended Scenes. Deleted Footage Montage, Original Poster Concepts. Storyboards, Trailers, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Alex Proyas
Cast: Brandon Lee, Michael Wincott, Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson, Bai Ling, Tony Todd
Genre: Action, Drama, Film-Noir, Horror, Romance and Thriller
Length: 101 minutes
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