The film adaptation of James O’ Barr’s graphic novel The Crow is remembered primarily for its tragedy. From the onset, the tale is cemented in loss. Eric Draven is a man who was murdered among with his fiancée, Shelley Webster, and returns a year later to exact revenge on her killers. It’s a story with a profound sense of sadness to it. And all of this was before the tragic accident when a prop gun mishap resulted in the death of star Brandon Lee. To this day his absence is felt in Hollywood and the movie has become a cautionary tale about onset safety.
It may be in some small part because of the tragedy surrounding the film that it works so well. Other than setting the look and tone of Hot Topic for the next decade, The Crow is an incredibly powerful and influential feature. O’Barr wrote the original graphic novel after the tragic, unforeseen death of his girlfriend. The freshness of that pain is on every page of the graphic novel and is translated expertly to the screen. Yet it also expands on its narrative to create something that is much more appropriately paced for a feature. It may have the distinction of being the only goth action movie, which is actually kind of a fascinating blending of genres.
Part of the reason it’s such a shame that Brandon Lee died (other than the obvious reasons) is that his performance is so good. He not only pulls off all the action required, but that’s actually a distant second to his emotional performance. The tragedy of Eric Draven echoes classical portrayals of Dracula and Phantom of the Opera in which you could sympathize with the monster. Here, it’s completely inverted. This walking dead man is a hero surrounded by monsters in a decaying city that would make Gotham look like a welcome summer home.
In some ways it’s an inverted rape/revenge movie. Eric is killing the people that murdered him, yes, but they also raped and murdered Shelley. It’s very clear that Shelley is the one he is doing this for. Everything that was done to him seems almost inconsequential, an afterthought compared to what they did to her. It would naturally make sense for Shelley to come back to avenge her own murder, and that’s the direction I really wish the remake would take, but it still works very well despite that. It’s a deeply sad, deeply poetic feature. Most importantly, it’s not shallow. There’s nothing about it that suggests the primary function is to sell more T-shirts and CD’s. The filmmakers took great care to treat the source material with as much respect as possible.
It’s an incredibly different type of revenge movie than something like Death Wish, which is basically the face of revenge thrillers. The two titles really could not be more different. There’s a sense of cosmic justice to The Crow and even a slight twist on the slasher formula as the resurrected Eric Draven begins picking people off one by one. Still, that sadness is carried with him. It’s usually twisted when these things are committed out of love, but in the case of The Crow it’s hard not to feel that Eric is justified.
The things that separate this from other revenge movies of its type (despite being firmly, supernaturally rooted in the genre) are the deep emotional moments, and maybe even emotional connections, that happen when Eric takes out the gang members who killed him. Some of them don’t feel guilty at all. They take absolute pride in the rape and still remember it fondly. But some of them feel absolutely sick about what they’ve done to the point where they either go spastic or simply lose their minds. The ringleader here, Top Dollar, is depicted as just about the most remorseless man you can imagine. He’s a lot of fun to watch, sure, but there’s no sympathy for him. Eric doesn’t simply beat him, at the end, he defeats him by channeling the pain Shelley suffered in the ER into Top Dollar’s mind. He makes him feel everything she felt.
The violence is almost an afterthought to such a powerful victory. That’s all people want, when discussing rape cases and victim blaming, is to make people understand what they’ve done so that it stops happening.
Shelley appears only in flashbacks and yet she is the most important character in the film. In some ways she might even be the main character. Yes, The Crow is an intense blend of horror and action, but even still it is one of the most sincerely romantic genre movies ever made.