The Crow (1994) – Masterpiece or 90s Nostalgia?

Is all this outrage over the modern adaptation of The Crow justified?

The Crow (1994)
The Crow (1994)

It’s been a long time since I watched Alex Proyas’ The Crow. Since there’s a new version of The Crow set to be released this year, I thought it fitting to rewatch the original again, to evaluate how it holds up against the ravages of time. And you know what – there’s quite a bit to love about the film, so the latest version has big shoes to fill come June.

The movie begins with tragedy. We see Shelly (Sofia Shinas) being loaded into an ambulance, suffering from extensive injuries. She asks about her fiancé Eric (Brandon Lee) but Detective Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) doesn’t tell her the horrific truth: Eric is dead, thrown to his death from their window. Shelly dies too after suffering for 30 hours, succumbing to her injuries. One year later, on the anniversary of their deaths, Eric rises from the dead, due to some mysterious, mythical force, with only one thing driving him: vengeance. Eric’s resurrection feels sanctioned by God; after all, he didn’t bring himself back from the dead. This adds a sense of nobility to his path and purpose, despite his agenda being a murderous rampage.

One of the most powerful aspects of the film is that Eric and Shelly’s love story is told with very brief flashbacks to the past. We get a sense of their life together in bits and pieces, which makes his loss feel all the more palpable. They were engaged and happy when their lives were cruelly taken from them. Lee’s fantastic performance allows us to feel Eric’s immense and insurmountable pain. At one point he says: “Little things used to mean so much to Shelly – I used to think they were kind of trivial. Believe me, nothing is trivial.” There is such a sadness here in the way he delivers these lines, and they also lead us to ponder on the fragility of life. What he wouldn’t give to earn back any scrap of moment he could have with Shelly again. But she’s gone now, and all he can do is pine for her and weep for what has been lost.

Despite his despair and grief, he does at one point say to Sarah (Rochelle Davis) that it “can’t rain all the time”. It is at this point that Sarah recognises Eric, which indicates that this might have been something he said all the time. This gives us a sense of the kind of person Eric might have been when he was alive. If the rain symbolizes sorrow, then his words reflect a kind of hopefulness, that despite his own pain, he still encourages Sarah to look at the world with an optimistic lens. Even though he is focused on his vengeance, he also takes the time to speak to Sarah’s mother and convinces her to be a proper mother to the daughter who needs her.

He hunts down the goons that are responsible for their deaths, one by one, either directly or indirectly. These goons don’t have much characterisation, but I don’t think that really matters. They are hired criminals that don’t feel any sense of remorse over the horrific things they’ve done, the only thing that frightens them is their own mortality. Eric deals with each of them with a certain macabre glee, playing with them like a predator plays with its prey before it reaches out and snatches their life away.

These interactions give us lots of memorable bits of dialogue, like Eric’s joke about Jesus walking into a hotel as he disposes of Funboy, or T-bird’s panic-stricken monologue about it being “the really real world, there ain’t no coming back”. T-bird also gets the terrific quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is …” It is the first moment in his life when he truly realises how depraved he is because he is met with pure goodness.

The soundtrack is exceptional and contributes greatly to the dark, gothic atmosphere of the film, like The Cure’s “Burn” as Eric transforms into the Crow, or his guitar solo on the rooftop of his building. So many movies now don’t really utilise its soundtrack in the way that we used to get in the 90s, which makes The Crow one of the examples of how a good soundtrack can enhance a film.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Michael Wincott’s performance as Top Dollar. The villain’s only interest in Eric is his power – he doesn’t care that he disposes of his goons – he worries that Eric will replace him as top dog in the city. He casually informs Eric that he is the reason both Eric and Shelly lost their lives, due to her fruitless protest against something that he wanted. He shows absolutely no remorse for any of his actions, so it feels absolutely fitting that Eric uses his pain to defeat him, pressing into his head the images of Shelly’s last moments of suffering.

I think what makes The Crow such a powerful watch all these years later – despite the dated effects and at times cringey 90s stylised action scenes – is the layers of loss tied to it. Its source material was produced from tragedy (writer James O’Barr started working on the story after he lost his fiancé due to a drunk driver), and the film’s star died in an on-set accident with 3 days left to film. It’s difficult to watch this and not think about the star Brandon Lee would have become after. He had such a commanding screen presence, and The Crow holds up so much still today because of his magnetic performance as Eric Draven. When the ending lines of the movie hit – “If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever” – it is a testament to all that came before that these lines don’t feel sappy or saccharine, just wholeheartedly true.

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