When comic book creator James O’Barr licensed The Crow to a movie studio for $1,500, he never expected it to get made, let alone become an enduring gothic touchstone.
Written gradually over nine years, starting in 1980, the original comic book story follows a young man named Eric Draven who returns from the dead to avenge the murder of his fiancée, Shelley Webster, at the hands of a gang. The black-and-white panels drip with anguish, as Eric, face painted in a sinister scowl, stalks the rainy streets of a retro-noir city.
The film version, released in 1994, took this vision to the masses and became a cult classic. Under the eye of Australian director Alex Proyas, and starring Brandon Lee – son of 70s Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee – as bloodthirsty antihero Eric, it plugged into the zeitgeist, riding on the coattails of the emerging wave of industrial bands and playing a part in a 90s goth revival.
But The Crow also became infamous for a tragic event: Brandon Lee was killed during filming, due to an improperly loaded stunt gun, two weeks before he was due to get married.
The original comic book itself was born out of tragedy. James wrote it to help him get to grips with his own grief; his fiancée was killed by a drunk driver while they were still in high school.
“She was the polar opposite of me. I was dark and moody and sullen and hostile and prone to aggressiveness, and she was pure sunshine and happiness,” he recalls today. “My life was changed irrevocably, in one instant, for no real good reason. All those negative traits in me were amplified after that.”
Following the loss of his fiancée, James enlisted in the military and was posted to Berlin. It was 1978, when the wall still divided the city, at the height of the Cold War. He yearned for a routine to block out his misery: to be told when to get up, when to dress, when to march. Yet the monotony and isolation of life in the Marines only drove him further into his own head.
“I became big and strong and physically imposing, but the desired effect was not reached,” he remembers. “In fact, it was probably amplified a little more because I internalised it rather than speak out about it. Luckily, I had art as therapy.”
He began creating The Crow in 1980, at the same time as he discovered the downbeat post-punk and goth bands coming out of England – Joy Division, The Cure, The Comsat Angels and Bauhaus. He drew Eric Draven as that band’s singer, Peter Murphy, with a touch of Iggy Pop. The dank streets of Berlin also fed into his work.
“The populace was either angry about the outcome of World War II, or they were ashamed,” he says. “It was on everyone’s face, but it was not spoken of. In six years, I don’t have any recollections of the sun ever shining. It was a good visual analogy to the post-punk and darkwave stuff that I was listening to.”
After six years in Berlin’s darkness, James’s dad passed away, and he was reassigned to Michigan in 1984 to take care of his mother. Three years later, he got a job at the Ford dealership in Detroit, working on cars by day and drawing until two in the morning. The Crow was picked up by a local publisher and enjoyed a small run.
The Crow comic book came out in 1989 and became a cult success, though not enough for James to give up his day job. He was still working at Ford in 1992 when Hollywood showed interest in turning it into a film, and welcomed the idea of extra money. He thought the hyper-violence and intense romance would put people off adapting it, but Tim Burton’s Batman had found enormous worldwide success, and studios were hoping to cash in with similar projects.
Brandon Lee was a rising star in Hollywood. Good-looking and charismatic, he had enjoyed moderate success with 1992 action film Rapid Fire, but was keen to step out of his father’s shadow and prove he could do more than fight scenes. At 28 years old, he had a bright future in front of him, and he was due to be married a few weeks after filming.
The cameras began rolling in early 1993. James had initially been sceptical of Brandon as Eric, thinking the actor “too sweet” to play the vengeful role, but was won over when he saw him in the distinctive make-up and leather pants. James, who was on set most of the time, was struck by Brandon’s humility.
“The whole film was shot at night in miserable conditions, in freezing rain,” he explains. “So in between takes, everyone would go huddle around a 50-gallon oil drum that was filled with wood, and start a fire to get warm, like vagrants do. A lot of the crew had brought their kids with them, and instead of going back to his trailer, Brandon would go over and spend time with them. He was personable, charming and genuine.”
On March 31, 1993, tragedy struck. Brandon was filming a scene where Eric is shot and killed in his apartment, but when the take ended, the actor didn’t get up. The tip of a dummy .44 slug had become jammed in the barrel of the gun, and the force of the blank had sent it into his abdomen. He was rushed to hospital, but surgery could not save him from the injuries.
Alex Proyas, traumatised, flew home to Australia for a month. James was on a promo trip in Detroit when he heard the news. He couldn’t bring himself to return.
“It felt amazing to be on the set and seeing the things I had drawn come to life,” James recalls. “But with Brandon’s death, it was kind of like I fell back into that place I was when I initially began it. It’s a love story, but it’s couched in pain.”
Rumours began to fly; Brandon had been killed on the lot, in a mysterious circumstances, echoing his father’s passing. Bruce had died of a brain swelling shortly before the release of 1973 breakthrough Enter The Dragon, though the coroner had declared it ‘death by misadventure’, fuelling theories that he was the victim of the mob or a demonic curse.
With permission from Brandon’s fiancée and family, the crew returned to work two months later and finished the film in his memory. Aside from some script changes, they leaned on effects company Dream Quest to bring their vision to life, adding $8million to the $15million budget. Dream Quest used then-cutting-edge techniques to create seven new scenes, comprising 52 shots. In two cases, they digitally superimposed Lee’s face onto a body double. The footage of Brandon’s death was destroyed.
When The Crow was released in May 1994, it was a surprise hit, becoming the Number One film at the box office on its week of release, and grossing more than $50million domestically. Critics praised its dark visuals, although some felt it borrowed too heavily from existing films and wouldn’t have amounted to anything if it weren’t for fate’s cruel hand. ‘Were it not for Brandon Lee’s death… the movie itself would be little more than your basic heavy-metal occult revenge thriller, complete with rain-swept futuristic dreamscapes right out of Blade Runner and Batman,’ read one review in Entertainment Weekly.
Despite the ghoulish intrigue surrounding its conception (there had been a string of minor accidents on set even before Brandon’s death), much of its success was down to timing – alternative culture was bubbling below the surface, and it exploded with the movie, which was accompanied by a zeitgeist-capturing soundtrack featuring the likes of The Cure, Nine Inch Nails and Stone Temple Pilots.
“It hit the American market just at the right time, where people were discovering post-punk – or what was called industrial in America,” says James. “Things were happening with the music and the dark fashion, and then The Crow came out and pushed it into the mainstream. So now you were cool to be wearing eyeliner, whereas you were a freak two years earlier.”
The cultural climate may have shifted during the last 23 years, but The Crow’s legacy has endured in everything from the appearance of pro-wrestler Sting, to Rammstein’s painted faces in the Mein Land video, to the clothing on the shelves of Hot Topic, to the imagery of bands such as Motionless In White. Singer Chris Motionless saw the film in 2001, when he was 15, and beginning to immerse himself in goth and metal. His band have a song called Devil’s Night, and Eric’s look has long influenced his style.
“I think the aesthetic has loomed over my presence as a person for a long time,” he says. “I’ve circulated between four tried-and-true looks I’ve always loved, but the 90s one always seems to pull me back, because it’s the earliest influence. I think the strong, passionate love story is what really attracts people to The Crow. People were OK with him killing these people because it was out of love and revenge.”
The Crow spawned a series of forgettable sequels, but an upcoming remake from British director Corin Hardy, with Jason Momoa rumoured to be playing Eric, is set to revive it for a new era. Yet the legacy of the original film – and the comic book – lives on.
Everything else that happened in 1994…
Headlines: Sony launch the groundbreaking PlayStation games console… The Channel Tunnel opens between Dover and Calais… Metallica, Nine Inch Nails and Green Day play to 350,000 at Woodstock ’94 on the 25th anniversary of the original hippie festival… Aerosmith become the first band to give away a song free on the internet with Head First…
Movie: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction becomes one of the greatest films of the decade… Kevin Smith’s no-budget comedy, Clerks, introduces the world to stoned duo Jay & Silent Bob…
TV: Comedy legend Chris Morris’s genius TV news spoof The Day Today introduces the world to a sports reporter by the name of Alan Partridge… Lightning-paced sketch show The Fast Show launches a thousand catchphrases… Cult US cartoon The Tick corners the market in brilliantly surreal weirdness…
Charts: Sweaty stadium rockers Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams dominate the charts, but hats off to Rednex, whose techno-bluegrass single Cotton Eye Joe remains one of the worst novelty hits of the decade, if not all time. (It’s stuck in your head now, isn’t it? Sorry.)
Hero: Comedian Bill Hicks. His life is cut short by pancreatic cancer, though his genius remains in his recordings.
Villain: OJ Simpson, the former American Football star-turned-comedy actor, is accused of killing his ex-wife and a friend. He is later found not guilty.
RIP: Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain (suicide)… Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff (heroin overdose)…
WTF?: Self-proclaimed King Of Pop Michael Jackson marries Lisa Marie Presley in one of the decade’s weirdest weddings. Unsurprisingly, they divorced two years later.