Sam Raimi's 1990 film Darkman, a movie that owed equally to the recent film success of Batman and the filmmaker's love of pulp characters like The Shadow, wasn't originally thought of as a potential box office leader. In fact, the weird, grim, arty superhero flick had terrible previews with test audiences — so bad that the studio was trying to keep Raimi away from the edit. That's a far cry from Raimi's later comic efforts with the Spider-Man trilogy, and its smash success (Darkman opened at #1 and made almost $50M off a $16M budget) might be due to some very tricky editing subterfuge.
This intel comes from The Hollywood Reporter's 30th anniversary oral history of the film, which not only reunites cast members Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand, but tells the story of how a last-minute edit — secret from even Universal — changed Darkman days before it went out to audiences.
The film wasn't really what any audience was prepared for. That was reflected early in the testing process. "When Universal brought in their own editor [Bud S. Smith], they really did not want Sam in the process," remembered producer Robert Tapert. "Before that, we started on the preview process, scoring maybe 65 and we were down to maybe a 26. They felt that he had his opportunity with the original editor [David Stiven], who was so befuddled that he wanted to cut it into a romance movie. He had a breakdown and one day said, 'I can’t do this,' and left."
So that's one editor down already and the testing scores are low. What's next? See what Smith comes up with and test again. "We came back, and the editor had cut it down from two hours to 85 minutes," Tapert said. "We tested that, and it did not test as well as the longer version, which was Sam’s cut. I think we went through four or five more test screenings, and each time the score got lower and lower, and we got more depressed." It got so bad composer Danny Elfman was ready to throw his weight around for Raimi.
"When I saw Sam taking this beating, I really got pissed," Elfman said. "There was even a point when I threatened to take my name off the film and return my fee, telling Sam, 'Whatever I can do to support you on this.'" It didn't quite come to that, but only because of what former Universal production president Sean Daniel calls "an Ocean’s Eleven maneuver" pulled by one of Sam's other editors, Bob Murawski.
"I don’t mind saying this now, and Sam will probably be unhappy, but the studio said, 'There is nothing we can do to save this picture. Let’s lock it'," Tapert said. "So we locked the picture on Friday night at 5pm. We were incredibly disheartened and dispirited. And Sam’s present editor, a guy by the name of Bob Murawski, said, 'There is a much better movie than what we are locking right now.' So, the decision was made that we would re-edit the movie. We spent 48 hours basically recutting the entire movie, restoring things we thought were important. We added nine minutes back in, things we really liked that the preview audiences would recoil from, but that was what it was meant to do. We locked it — and didn’t tell anybody."
Universal didn't find out until after. And there was a "giant outcry," according to Tapert. Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock "was seriously f***ing furious," said Daniel. "Is it as big a breach of every conceivable protocol of delivering a movie in postproduction? Yes. Totally." And there was no going back. Critics were set to see the film in 48 hours — and the negative had been cut.
But Darkman opened at the top of the box office, made serious bank, won over critics, and helped solidify the superhero film as something that could make money even if it wasn't a traditional or big-name vehicle. The future of the industry was changed by a last-minute edit of a movie the studio thought too weird to save.