Exploring the ever-diminishing returns of the Crow franchise – The Spool

While the first movie in the series was stylish & unexpectedly moving, it was tainted by cheap, empty sequels that forgot what made it special.

You dont have to have seen The Crow to know the story behind it. Its one of the great Hollywood tragedies, like the Twilight Zone crash, or the Poltergeist curse, where watching them feels a little forbidden and eerie. Thats particularly true for The Crow, because the scene in which star Brandon Lee was accidentally killed with a prop gun was left more or less intact. Granted, theres some clever editing and use of a body double, but its close enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

I shant spend too much time recounting The Crow, because, again, even if you havent seen it, youve sort of seen it (and also its already been written about at length on this very website). I will say that I rewatched it for this project, and was surprised to see how well it holds up. It might be perhaps the most early 90s movie ever made, but unlike, say, Reality Bites, its in a way thats still cool and stylish. The swooping urban landscape shots, created almost entirely with miniatures, are still a feast for the eyes, and would be put to even greater use four years later by director Alex Proyas, in his masterpiece Dark City. Sure, the villains, who have names like Tin Tin and Funboy, are laughably over the top, but theyre balanced by Lee, undoubtedly a rising star, who plays doomed hero Eric Draven with subtlety and genuine human emotion.

Mostly, its surprisingly moving, in a way you dont often find graphic novel adaptations to be. Its perhaps the most romantic take on the avenging angel trope, and whomst among us wouldnt do the same if the love of our life was so cruelly snatched away from us? Sure, most of us wouldnt look as cool in Erics goth clown get-up as he does, but who doesnt melt a little bit at the idea of love lasting even beyond death?

Because a completed version of The Crow didnt exist while Brandon Lee was alive, its impossible to determine if it would have been as highly received were things different. It seems unlikely there were few name actors in the cast, and Alex Proyas would, even a decade after The Crows release, remain a director whose films were more admired than profitable. Its morbid to say that people went to see it only because of the tragedy surrounding it, so lets soften the edges on that and just say it was a large part of what piqued audience interest. It certainly makes watching it a more emotional experience, which one doesnt usually expect from a movie based in some nonsense folklore about undead vengeance and spirit animals.

In a perfect world, particularly considering the events connected to it, The Crow should have been a one and done, as a tribute both to the memory of Brandon Lee, and to the short-lived grunge era overall. Nevertheless, Miramax noted the doubling of its budget at the box office, decided Yes, we must make more of these, even if the leading man is dead, and proceeded to churn out one of the most atrocious film franchises of all time. If youre reading this and thinking I didnt know The Crow had sequels, stop here and go on with your blessed life, blissfully unaware that these movies exist. If youre like me, and insist on treating bad movies like delicious, irresistible candy, proceed.

Though it often takes three or even four movies into a franchise before they start getting tiresome and unwatchable, The Crows swift descent began just two years later, with the release of The Crow: City of Angels. The most important thing you need to know about City of Angels is that its the exact same movie as The Crow. It has the same Graeme Revell score, the same shots of a decaying city thats occasionally on fire. Theres even a white cat named Gabriel. The primary difference is that, rather than the murder of a couple, its the murder of a father and his young son that sets off the events. Yet, it feels every bit the cheap, hollow cash-in it was intended to be, with not so much as a fraction of the humanity that went into the making of its predecessor.

Erics adolescent street urchin friend Sarah is now sexy goth chick Mia Kirshner, all grown up and working as a tattoo artist in Los Angeles, which somehow looks even worse than the Detroit of the first movie. She sort of dreams the Crow, now an auto mechanic played by French hunk Vincent Perez, into existence so that he can avenge his and his little boys deaths at the hands of yet another group of thugs with silly nicknames, one of which is played by Iggy Pop (for some reason), and another by Thomas Jane, wearing your grandmas wig and eyeliner.

Though in The Crow the Alice Cooper-esque mime makeup Eric wears is explicitly chosen by him, in the other movies in the series, that, along with floppy hair and roadie-for-Bauhaus clothes, is now the uniform of choice for undead avenging angels. Perez in makeup looks almost exactly like Brandon Lee, enough that you get the impression that the filmmakers were hoping audiences wouldnt notice the difference. Then he opens his mouth, and its all over. With Perez such a personality void, everything else is done bigger. Los Angeles is a nightmare hellscape, where its citizens impassively look on while a man is hanged and whipped. Its more violent, more unnecessarily sexual (including a full minute of Thomas Jane masturbating in front of a sex worker), even the soundtrack is louder and more aggressive.

Not to be outdone is the acting, which is cranked up so high on the dial that you can almost smell wires burning. Much of the dialogue is shouted, and no one walks through a door whey they could kick it in instead. The farthest out of orbit is Iggy Pop, who recites all of his dialogue with his eyes bugging out, like someone is constantly stepping on his balls. The sole exception is Kirshner, who underacts to the point of unconsciousness. None of this distracts from the fact that its a pale copy of the original, one that tries desperately to play the same notes without bothering to read the music. It should have stood as proof that absolutely no more movies in this series should have been made. Its not even anything to do with a curse or anything like that, unless youre counting the curse of incompetence.

The best you can say about 2000s The Crow: Salvation is that its not a shameless rehash of the first movie. Oh sure, its still unwatchable in every possible way, but at least its working with a new and original plot. Were back to murdered lovers, but here their deaths are related to an extremely complicated (and completely moronic) police corruption ring that also involves underground sex clubs, drug smuggling and secret taxidermy/torture rooms. With much of the plot hinging on a mysterious man with a scarred arm, its more of a limp spin on The Fugitive than a Crow movie.

Like City of Angels, an absolute blank of a leading man (Eric Mabius) is surrounded by a bafflingly random collection of co-stars, including Ghostbusters villain William Atherton, Murphy Browns Grant Shaud, Walton Goggins, Fred Ward and Kirsten Dunst, in between star-making performances in The Virgin Suicides and Bring it On. Shes not very good here, but to be fair no one else is either. Ward at least seems to understand what kind of nonsense hes in, while everyone else plays it very laughably straight.

Because the mythos changes a little bit in each movie, in this one its a magical locket that gives our hero his powers and invincibility. Oh, and he can fly, because, you know, whatever.

Salvation is probably the least bad of the sequels, which is an extremely low bar to meet, and absolutely should not be interpreted to mean its good. With its youthful lead (Mabius co-starred in Cruel Intentions just a year before) it seems like it might have been marketed towards a younger audience, as if the earlier movies were big with the Matlock and Metamucil crowd. As with City of Angels, the audience is told that its supposed to care about this couple and whats happened to them, when all we get is a handful of grainy flashbacks, and no sense of who they are as people. It omits any sense of heart or soul, coming off like an extended music video, one in which the audio is regrettably provided by Static-X and Kid Rock.

2005s The Crow: Wicked Prayer dared to ask what if The Crow, but with some made-up-by-whitey Native American bullshit, and Satan? I dont even know where to start with this, except to say that if you can buy bland TV stalwart David Boreanaz as a Charles Manson-esque cult leader who can single-handedly overcome four prison guards, then youll probably be okay with it.

Rather than an urban hellhole, Wicked Prayer takes place on a reservation in the Southwest, though considering there are no actual Native American actors in the cast, the only way you would know that its Native is that the soundtrack consists mostly of mournful Spanish guitar and panflute (with some occasional mystical ah ya ya vocalizing). As opposed to the other three movies, the villains get as much, if not more screen time than the hero. Luc Crash (Boreanaz) and his girlfriend Lola Byrne (Tara Reid) yes, thats Crash and Byrne, like a bad cop show along with their henchmen Pestilence, War and Famine (I continue to not kid you) are hoping to partake in a ritual that will allow the Devil to be reborn in Luc. This very small cult lives on the reservation terrorizing its citizens unchecked, while Jimmy Cuervo (Edward Furlong), a young ex-con who committed a fairly noble crime (killing a rapist), is harassed and spat upon by the local constabulary.

Part of Luc and Lolas extremely complicated ritual involves murdering Jimmy and his girlfriend, sacrificing a virgin, and then murdering a whole bunch of other people on the way to getting married before cult elder El Nino (Dennis Hopper! Dennis Hopper!!!!!) and consummating their marriage in a cemetery. Jimmy returning from the dead to seek vengeance for his and his girlfriends murders seems secondary to all this nonsense, which includes Luc wisecracking How about a little sympathy for the Devil?.

Though Furlong does try, God bless him, the problem is that he looks like hes about fifteen here, and thus not terribly convincing as a super-strong undead avenging angel. Nor is David Boreanaz as a mesh shirt wearing devil worshipper with 666 carved on his chest, or Tara Reid, dressed like she came to the set directly from Coachella, as the Devils concubine. The miscasting is across the board astonishing, but none so much as Dennis Hopper, who uses phrases like mack daddy and original gangsta like he knows what hes saying. Macy Gray, after being called in for a favor presumably, shows up too, for approximately two minutes before shes killed off.

In a series that plays fast and loose with logic (even the first one suffered from vague and inconsistent folklore), Wicked Prayer is the most incoherent of all. Its a borderline offensive mish-mosh of Native American mythology, Christianity, and Satanism, making a fairly simple storyline unnecessarily complicated. It doesnt help that all the primary actors think theyre in different movies: Furlong is in a high school production of The Crow, Boreanaz and Reid are in an Asylum version of Natural Born Killers, and Dennis Hopper is just launched into space, floating among the stars in a different plane of existence from the rest of us. Once again, like its two predecessors, its so eager to get into the violence and mayhem that Jimmys relationship with his girlfriend barely gets more than five minutes of screen time before shes brutally murdered. For all we know, they could have met yesterday, and as far as the filmmakers are concerned, it doesnt matter.

Wicked Prayer, which earned a one week theatrical release in Seattle before disappearing into direct to DVD obscurity, remains the last sequel to The Crow. A reboot, starring everyone from Bradley Cooper to Luke Evans to Jason Momoa, has been threatened for years, but so far all attempts have stalled out, largely due to financial and creative differences (youll note that lack of audience interest is never given as a reason). Theres a certain sort of only in Hollywood arrogance that allows one to keep trying to restart a series in which the best part of it died 28 years ago, but just as love never dies, neither does hubris.

*Yes, I am aware that a short-lived TV show based on The Crow exists, but I can only punish myself so much.

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

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