The Crow (1994)
Directed by Alex Proyas
Written by David J. Schow and John Shirley
Starring Brandon Lee, Rochelle Davis, Ernie Hudson, Michael Wincott, Bai Ling, David Patrick Kelly, Michael Massee, and Laurence Mason
102 minutes, Rated R
October 10, 2006.
I was at The Esquire Lounge, a personal favorite watering hole back in the days when I used to just sit in bars and write, with my friends Martha and Lisa. It was a Tuesday night, so I don’t quite remember why we were all out, but we were. It is, admittedly, very strange that this particular combination of people would be out and about so late without anyone else in attendance. At any rate, approximately forty-five minutes after October 10 had become October 11, my cell phone rang. The caller ID said “Stephen.”
I ignored it the first time, figuring that he would leave a message were it important. It was awfully late in the day (early in the morning?) for Stephen. Calls at this hour had been, historically, inadvertent. But his name appeared on my display screen again almost immediately. This gave me pause. It must be important if he was calling twice.
It is loud in bars, however, so I texted him (“give me a sec”) and excused myself. I headed out to the side patio, where I figured I would have more privacy and could speak to him without yelling. I could also smoke a cigarette while I was out there. By the time I had gotten my lighter out, his name was appearing on my display screen again. For the third time. After I had texted. This time, I answered.
It was not Stephen. It was a state police officer, at the scene of a horrendous traffic accident just north of Kankakee. Stephen had been on his motorcycle on a county road that passed over the interstate. It was raining lightly; the ground was wet. The motorcycle flipped. It appeared to them that Stephen had hit the ground and slid under the guardrail. This was the only logical explanation for how Stephen could be dead and broken on the interstate below, hit and mangled by a pick-up truck in the wrong place at the wrong time, with his motorcycle wedged under the guardrail above. The police were calling me because I was one of two numbers listed in his cellphone as emergency contacts and the other number was going directly to voice mail.
The other phone number was his wife, Elizabeth. They had only been married for about six months, but had been dating since 1995, one year after we had graduated high school. They had been fighting on the night of the accident. She was tired of him continually calling to scream at her, so she had turned her phone off completely. She would spend the next several years regretting that her final words to him were a text message that said “Then don’t come home at all.”
Immediately, I tried to call her, but her phone was indeed turned off, so I called Stephen’s phone back to let the officers know that I couldn’t reach her either. I told them that I was on my way. I would drive to Elgin and let Elizabeth know what happened while they did their jobs, getting witness statements and coordinating the clean up of the, undoubtedly, horrifying mess. It occurred to me during this conversation, not for the only time over the next couple of days, that Elgin was just about ninety minutes from where the accident had happened. Stephen died– in a very gruesome manner– a very long way from home.
It was a difficult drive to Elgin. I had been drinking. I was exhausted from a long day and neck-breaking grief. Every single radio station that I could tune into adequately was playing something that would have been dear to Stephen. There was Cracker on one station, Soul Asylum on another. Classic rock was playing Cheap Trick. Country stations played Johnny Cash. I spent most of the trip in silence, trying every ten minutes or so to get Elizabeth to answer her phone. By the time I had finally gotten to their spacious apartment on Watermark Terrace it was just after 5:00 am. There were three plainclothes officers there to meet me.
I could not go inside the apartment yet. Protocol dictated that the authorities had to be the ones that broke news of this manner. They were trained for this likelihood, qualified to provide emergency mental health intervention should Elizabeth need it. She also needed to be alerted that it had been decided that there was something very sinister and suspicious about this death and that the state of Illinois would be investigating it as such. I waited in my car until they left, knowing that I would be most useful to Elizabeth as a shoulder to cry on for as long as she needed. I turned the radio back on. I began, at that point, to repeatedly punch the radio and dashboard with my closed fist until I had cracked it and my hands were bloody. They were playing “Big Empty.” By Stone Temple Pilots. The lead single from the soundtrack to The Crow. The Crow was Stephen’s favorite film.
I had known Stephen for almost the entirety of my life, although we were only really close for part of it. We were born exactly one day apart (I was thirteen hours older), but did not meet until grade school. We were both enrolled in the same elementary school for first and second grade. At that point, my family moved away from Sidney, IL and we lost track of one another. We met again randomly while in high school at Camp Napowan in Wild Rose, WI– a Boy Scout summer camp that both of our respective troops were attending. We kept in touch after that– letters and such, afternoons at comic shops when his father had business at the University of Illinois. We took our ACTs together and had both decided that we wanted to go to Columbia College for a degree in Film Studies/Screenwriting. He came with my mother and I on one of the many tours we took of the campus.
Stephen ended up at Columbia College, but I did not. A very complicated financial aid snafu left me unable to afford the cost of living in Chicago, so I stayed downstate while he remained in school to pursue his degree. At some point, he changed his focus from screenwriting to playwrighting, and it was through this that Stephen and I became very close. We wrote plays together, collaborated on many ideas. It was Stephen who was my biggest support when Michelle and I divorced. It was Stephen who held me together when Sara and I called it quits for good. It was Stephen who would eventually use his own power and clout as a student writer-in-residence at University of Tampa to get my work into a playwrighting festival, a festival that I remained in for five years and would eventually lead to a chance to create my own television series. Stephen was my biggest fan, my closest friend, and my only trusted collaborator. The things this man did for me over our time together cannot be quantified.
The thing that is most striking to me now about our compatibility as friends was how different we actually were. To others, it seemed that Stephen and I shared the same brain. It could appear during conversations that Stephen and I could complete each others thoughts. We could effectively communicate in inside jokes that no one else understood. We appeared to have the same hobbies and interests– and we did– but a deeper look below the surface of our mutual fondness for comic books, movies, and music revealed that our tastes in those things never aligned. Stephen loved science-fiction, but didn’t like Star Trek (its optimistic vision of the future didn’t sit well with him). He couldn’t have cared less about The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, or any of the myriad other comics I was devouring because his love for Green Lantern– an admiration that he had fostered since grade school– consumed him and didn’t allow room for anything printed by Marvel. Even when our tastes were the same, it always turned out that we were both appreciating the subject matter for different reasons.
The Crow is a great example of this. Remember that when this film was released movies based on comic books were few and far between. The best movies we had gotten in my lifetime were Superman in 1978 and a duo of Batman films directed by Tim Burton. Comic book movies were rare, and I loved how this particular film felt like the source material. Yes, the original comics were somewhat obscure and underground, but Proyas and his team had perfectly captured what reading the comics for the first time might have felt like. The movie is shot in quick edits like panels on a page. The scenes are brief, probably no more than a page of storyboard, similar to the short quick scenes in a well-done comic. Dialogue from the script was culled straight from the source, even if they had made drastic changes to the plot and content. I loved this movie for its technical achievement. Stephen’s attraction was far more romantic. Stephen loved the fact that this saga of a man who rises from the dead to murder street thugs and kingpins was, ultimately, a love story. Eric Draven only does what he does in this film so that he can finally be with his fiancee forever. The film itself disguises itself as both a classic slasher film (Michael Meyers wanders through the city picking off his victims one by one) and vintage John Woo (guns, kicking, guns, punching, guns, guns, guns). Stephen was always very attracted to effective mixing of genres. Blade Runner was easily his favorite movie before he saw The Crow.
After we had both seen this film a couple of times a piece, Stephen pronounced that The Crow was “the greatest movie ever” and could defend that position readily if anyone ever had a negative word to say about the movie. He became obsessed with it, and I don’t think “obsessed” is too strong a word. He paid more money than I ever paid for any one thing in my entire life at an auction to win props from the film, including a copy of the screenplay that had been used on set and was signed by editors Dov Hoenig and M. Scott Smith. He went backstage at concerts and got the soundtrack signed by almost every band that contributed a song (he never got Tom Morello or anyone from The Cure). He had three different tattoos inspired by The Crow: the iconic burning raven on his right forearm, “nothing is trivial” on his left forearm, and “it can’t rain all the time” etched on a beating heart on his left shoulder. He used “Eric Draven” as a pen name for his online column about horror films, and referenced Elizabeth as “Shelley” when he wanted to protect her identity in true-life anecdotes. The programs at their wedding had “But now I know, that sometimes if love proves real, two people who are meant to be together, nothing can keep them apart” emblazoned on the front. There was literally no separating this film from Stephen. He had found something in it that he had never been able to adequately express, and he used to quip often that when he finally died, he was going to wait a year and then rise from the dead to seek vengeance on anyone that has wronged us.
In a way, I suppose he did eventually rise from the dead. Only it wasn’t for vengeance. And he waited four years. I’ll come back to that.
I watched this movie for the first time in a long time while I was holed up in a hotel room in the state of Washington. COVID-19 somewhat prevented any of us that had traveled for work to do much besides putter around our hotel rooms after we had clocked out. The thought of getting sick more than halfway across the continent was not a pleasant one, so we played it safe. I was tired enough most of the time that I didn’t watch much on television besides reruns of old sit-coms. I streamed a movie through HBOGo once (Ford v Ferrari) and watched The Crow because it happened to be on. I almost didn’t watch it, knowing that I was inclined to bouts of depression being so lonely and far away of home, but I got caught up in it. For a 26-year-old movie, it holds up really well.
Yes, the special effects could use an update. This movie was, however, filmed before the advent of CGI, so we have to ignore that the actual crow itself never actually looks real. Some of the acting is a bit hammy and over the top, but the spirit of the comic book carries over effectively and no comic book, at the time, would have survived on the shelf very long without an exaggerated villain. The action scenes– especially an extended sequence in a board room where our hero confronts the patriarchs of every mob family in town– are superb. I’m sure that everyone knows the tragic story about Brandon Lee’s untimely death during the making of this film (his face was effectively superimposed on the body of a stunt double for scenes that hadn’t been taped yet– so let’s give the special effects a little more credit, okay?), and, I suppose, that puts a pall of sorts over the final product, but I found myself riveted by his performance on this viewing. Brandon Lee could have been a formidable action hero had he been given the chance. The soundtrack was– and is– glorious, very close to possibly being the greatest motion picture soundtrack ever compiled.
All of these things were, of course, things I already knew about the film. Most of them were reasons that I had been so enamored of the film back in 1994 in the first place. But I needed them for this viewing, needed something besides Stephen to focus on. I hadn’t thought about Stephen in a long time.
In the spring of 2010, three and a half years after Stephen’s as-yet unexplained death, Elizabeth discovered a bookmarked account on her web browser. It was for a Livejournal account registered under the name “stephensthename”. Elizabeth was in the process of settling his estate– getting royalty rights for his work directed to the right charities, people, and trust funds– and wasn’t sure what to do with this account. She had been, it seems, unaware of it. I was not unaware of it. At the time, I was active with my own Livejournal account and Stephen had started his so that he could friend me and have access to make comment on my entries– I posted a lot of works in progress. I was never really aware of Stephen using the account, though, for any other purpose. I told Elizabeth what I remembered, what I knew, and told her that it was probably nothing. I knew that Livejournal would eventually delete the account for inactivity, so it was best to ignore it and just let it fade away.
But I got curious about this forgotten account.
And I was fairly certain that I knew the password.
After a couple of days of sitting on my knowledge of this online blog, I decided that I needed to know what it contained. I had a large debate with myself over the invasion of privacy snooping around would entail, but I finally gave in. I went to LiveJournal and typed in “hAngmAnsJoke#” into the password bar. I was right. Hangman’s Joke was the band that Eric Draven played in when he was murdered. Stephen had been using this password for more than a decade, sometimes changing the letters that he capitalized from platform to platform.
There wasn’t much in the journal. Only three entries and all of them locked as private. The first was a short story that he had started and never answered. I remembered him mentioning its general thesis and that he was having trouble with it. The second appeared to be song lyrics. The third was utterly confounding.
One of my favorite screenplays that Stephen had started and never finished concerned a man who had recently discovered that he had a daughter. Naturally, he wants to meet her, but he doesn’t know which of his many conquests could be the possible mother. Seems that there are many that he has lost track of over the years. He makes a list of all the women he ever slept with, crosses off the ones that he can currently account for, and then embarks around the country to track down these missing women to discover which one might possibly be the mother of his rumored offspring. The protagonist jokingly refers to this list throughout the script as his list of “playmates”.
“Playmates” was the title of the third, confounding entry. It had been first composed back when the account was started, but had been last edited five or six days before he died. The content of the entry was just a list of names. All of them women. I recognized some of the names. The first name was the name of the girl that Stephen had lost his virginity to. I had heard the story numerous times. Am I correct in assuming that this list is the names of all the women that Stephen had ever had sex with? Third on the list was Elizabeth. Seven or eight names later, Elizabeth’s name appears again. I’m not sure why he included her twice, but I could vouch for the fact that Stephen and Elizabeth had broken up for a short while right before Sara and I had officially started dating. I recognized one or two of the names in the interim as people he was seeing at the time. I noticed–readily– that the list continued after Elizabeth’s second mentioning. There was, in fact, twenty names. If this list is what I was beginning to believe it was, it would imply that he had cheated on Elizabeth since they reunited. Even worse, it implies that he had continued cheating on her throughout the entirety of their relationship. My heart sank.
I sat, looking at the screen of my laptop, looking at this lengthy list of names, feeling very sick to my stomach. Should I tell Elizabeth what I have found? Should I tell her what I think it means? Maybe she already knows. Is that why they were fighting on the night he died ninety minutes away from home? I did not have any idea what I should do. I hated myself for hacking into this blog. Mostly, I hated him, though because the list of names after Elizabeth’s second entry was not the only troubling thing in this locked journal entry. Right after Veronica (whom I recalled) and right before Elizabeth’s second appearance, was the name Michelle. No last name. Just the first. Michelle. As in, possibly my ex-wife. I don’t even know for sure that this list is what I am assuming it is, but her name on that list would coincide right around the time we were divorcing. Michelle.
I have never told Elizabeth what I found in that locked and abandoned Livejournal account. I suspect, because of things she’s said over the years, that she was well aware that Stephen might have been less than faithful. For all I know, she might have been okay with it. She is happily married now. Interestingly, she is married to a woman.
I watched The Crow for a second time in as many weeks when I returned home from Washington. I was in a work-enforced quarantine awaiting COVID test results and wanted to watch a movie. I knew that I wanted to write about this film, but I felt that everything that came forth the last time I watched it a couple weeks prior, the things that I had been actively and intentionally avoiding for years (I don’t want to know, I tell myself. I really, really don’t.), might have clouded my ability to see the film as anything other than a distraction from thinking about what had occurred to me during the lonely hotel-room screening. I repeat what I said before: this film holds up well.
The Crow is a gothic fantasy about a man who rises from the dead to avenge the murder of his girlfriend. The movie never explains why he comes back. It never even explains how. I suppose that’s appropriate because it is the favorite film of a man who died mysteriously. We never learned why, and we only have the vaguest idea of how. There’s a lot of things about him that we may never understand. There’s a hypocrisy that makes me angry in such a man loving a movie about true love, a movie about the impossible things we might do for love, as much as he did. Circumstantial evidence would lead one to believe that he didn’t really love anyone as much as he loved himself. I considered him my best friend, and I do believe, as much as I hate to think it, that he betrayed me.
When I think of Stephen now, I try to not dwell on that. I have to concede that I don’t know. Instead I remember him dressing up as Eric Draven for Halloween parties. I remember him smacking my hands out of the way if I dared attempt to change the station when Cracker was on the radio. I imagine that now he would insist on my own children calling him Uncle Stephen and that they would want to go to his place and play with his dogs. I would have allowed that. Because he earned it. Because no matter what he did, or who he did it with, once upon a time, he held my shattered heart in his hands and mended it back together just by being my friend. Of all the people he might have actually been, he was right then the one I needed him to be. Nothing is trivial, indeed.