The Crow: a Dark 90s Fairy Tale of Love and Revenge

For anyone who came of age in the 1990s, The Crow is an instantly recognizable movie. Based on James O’Barr’s graphic novel of the same name, The Crow was a surprise critical and box office success. Its dark visuals and sullen atmosphere distinguished it from the action movies of the 80s. And the tragic death of its young star, Brandon Lee, left the movie with a sad legacy. Following its success, Hollywood tried to catch lightning in a bottle with three increasingly inferior sequels and a forgettable television series. A rumoured remake has stalled at numerous stages of production. Arguably, the remake’s failure to launch is for the best – The Crow is a one-of-a-kind 90s cult classic best left untouched.

The Crow an Audio and Visual Testament to the Mid-1990s

Some movies transcend time while others, for better or worse, mirror the eras in which they were released. Without a doubt, The Crow is very much inseparable from the mid-1990s. By 1994, the glitter and glam of all things 80s was a distant memory. When Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit hit airwaves, it signalled the death knell for hair metal bands. Plaid flannel shirts supplanted the Miami Vice-inspired neon t-shirts and white blazers. And trimmed down, dialogue-heavy indie films rose in place of the excess of 80s big budget spectacles. In short, gritty was the new aesthetic. Director Alex Proyas would soak The Crow, his directorial debut, with this 90s grunge. Nearly the entire movie unfolds at night in rain-soaked alleys and streets. Proyas mixes neo-noir backdrop with plenty of Gothic iconography. From cathedral rooftops and dark cemeteries, Proyas’ imagery perfectly captures tragic romance at The Crow’s core.

Proyas mixes neo-noir backdrop with plenty of Gothic iconography.

All of this downbeat, rain-drenched imagery is set to what’s arguably the most mid-90s soundtrack one could imagine. It’s one of the most definitive 1990’s movie soundtracks, capturing the music scene from a year widely regarded as the best from the decade. Several musical styles converge. Grunge-rock (Stone Temple Pilots), Industrial rock (Nine Inch Nails, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult), Thrash metal (Pantera), Shoegaze (The Jesus and Mary Chain), New Wave (The Cure) – it’s an eclectic collection. Yet in spite of the soundtrack’s diversity, all the tracks hang together. Nothing sounds out of place. Everything here fits the morose atmosphere of the movie and James O’Barr’s graphic novel.

The Crow a Dark, Fairytale Update on the Revenge Movie

Consider The Crow as something of a dark fairytale spin on the popular Hollywood revenge narrative. Americans have a long history of mythologizing vigilantism, from the “Wild West” to Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. We even see it in legal doctrines – so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws – found in different states. Though James O’Barr wrote his graphic novel as a means of coping with his girlfriend’s death, both the source material and movie share several themes with other revenge movies. In particular, The Crow literally embraces ideas of natural law often referenced in the vigilante narrative. Both Death Wish and The Boondock Saints draw on the Kitty Genovese case, with the latter explicitly naming it. The murder of the Queens, New York woman has often been cited alongside philosopher Edmund Burke’s famous quote concerning the “triumph of evil” when “good men do nothing”.

Consider The Crow as something of a dark fairytale spin on the popular Hollywood revenge narrative.

Natural law asserts that there are certain fundamental rights that are inalienable, or above man-made laws, that take precedence. Specifically, revenge movies have often co-opted the loose idea of natural law as a means to frame their protagonist’s vengeance as justice and worthy of audience identification. For instance, The Boondock Saints contains numerous references to religion – both explicit and implicit – to justify its characters vigilante spree. Comparatively, in The Crow, Eric Draven literally rises form the dead to “right wrongs”, executing the worst of his villains atop a cathedral. Top Dollar’s demise is almost a literal “eye for an eye” as the suffering of his victim marks his own downfall.

Brandon Lee Left a Tragic Legacy Behind for Fans

During the filming of The Crow, Brandon Lee died as a result of an on-set accident involving an improperly handled firearm. Like his father’s death, Lee’s passing was inexplicable tragic. Prior to The Crow, Lee had slowly staked out a reputation for himself in smaller action movies like Rapid Fire and Showdown in Little Tokyo. His natural charisma was abundantly clear even in movies that fared poorly with critics. And The Crow represented a massive departure for the young actor. At the time of its release, comic book movies were still uncommon. Moreover, “graphic novels” were unfamiliar to average filmgoers. Despite its themes of revenge and brutal violence, The Crow had little in common with 80s action movies. But its surprising success should have launched Lee to a whole new level.

Even amidst the supernatural narrative, Draven is empathetic – a sad, tragic figure.

Much of The Crow’s success can be attributed to Brandon Lee’s performance. After a decade of bombastic, over-the-top action movies, Lee and his portrayal of Eric Draven feels far removed from the likes of a Stallone or Schwarzenegger. He brings a pathos to his character that works alongside the movie’s more visceral revenge story. Even amidst the supernatural narrative, Draven is empathetic – a sad, tragic figure. Without Lee’s performance, The Crow’s ending would feel more hollow and leaden than heartfelt.

The Crow Remains a Dark Classic of the 1990s

While some elements of The Crow haven’t aged well, the movie overall remains a dark classic from the 1990s. It’s a visually stylish movie backed by one of the best movie soundtracks produced. Despite its roots in a graphic novel, the action is brutal and far-removed from the cartoonish antics of its 80s predecessors. Most importantly, The Crow anchors itself to a tragic story and a star-making performance from the late Brandon Lee. In addition to re-visiting this 90s cult classic, fans should check out Shudder’s Cursed Films episode that examines the movie and Lee’s tragic death.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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