Crow, The (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: May 20, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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Crow, The (4K UHD Review)


Alex Proyas

Release Date(s)

1994 (May 7, 2024)


Miramax Films (Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: B+

The Crow (4K UHD)

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Don’t make it sound like that. Like some ordinary sort of grief. It’s not like that. They say time heals all wounds, but that presumes the source of the grief is finite. Over. This is a fresh wound every day.”

–Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince

Time may not heal all wounds, but it does allow some of them to fade away. There have been many notoriously troubled productions throughout cinematic history where the behind-the-scenes issues have begun to diminish over time, while the film itself remains. The creative disarray and massive cost overruns that occurred on the set of Titanic haven’t exactly been forgotten, but they’ve still been overshadowed by its unprecedented box office success and eventual Oscar glory. (Time may not heal all wounds, but success never hurts.) Even Waterworld has been re-assessed outside of the negative context that surrounded its production, and virtually no one today remembers the chaos behind the scenes of Michael Mann’s version of The Last of the Mohicans. The source of grief for all of these films has proven to be finite, and the wounds have begun to fade.

That’s not true of the Alex Proyas adaptation of James O’Barr’s comic book The Crow. The tragedy that marred its production was a fresh wound in 1994, and it remains an open wound today—one that can never truly heal. That’s because it deprived the world of a rising star in the form of Brandon Lee, whose untimely death paralleled that of his father two decades previously. The circumstances were different, but the results were the same: a young, charismatic actor was taken away from us in the prime of life. Yet the real reason why the wounds of The Crow are so incurable is due to a genuinely eerie parallel of a different sort: the fact that Lee was playing Eric Draven, a man who returns from the grave after his own death in order to seek vengeance for the murder of his fiancée. As a result, the tragic circumstances during the making of The Crow became inextricably intertwined with the film itself, and the two can never be separated.

In a grim irony, that’s part of what makes the film so compelling, and no sequel or remake will ever be able to duplicate that effect. When Eric’s fiancée Shelly (Sofia Shinas) welcomes him back to the grave during the finale, it was an unparalleled gut punch back when The Crow was first released, and it’s no less of a gut punch now. Eric’s quest for revenge is ultimately a hollow one, since it can’t bring Shelly back. His return to her at the end is the one true moment of catharsis in the entire film, and it’s an effect that even the underappreciated sequel The Crow: City of Angels was unable to resurrect. The story of The Crow died along with Eric Draven and Brandon Lee back in 1994, and everything else can be nothing more than a pale echo of the way that reality and fantasy merged in the original film.

O’Barr started publishing The Crow in 1989, but he first began writing it years earlier as a way of processing the death of his own fiancée back in 1978. The series drew immediate interest from Hollywood, but it took a few more years for the development process to run its course, and the script passed through many hands before it finally reached the screen. The final draft was credited to David J. Schow and John Shirley, though it still contained material from other drafts and other writers. The broad arc of O’Barr’s story remained, although many of the details and characters were changed. Of course, reality ended up being even more complicated than when Lee was fatally wounded while filming the scene where Draven was murdered. While he only had a few more days left on the original shooting schedule, his death forced further rewrites and reshaping of the final product. That almost didn’t even happen, since there was fair reason to question releasing The Crow under the circumstances. Fortunately, Miramax picked it up after the original distributor Paramount dropped out, and they ponied up the extra money to finish the film. While it may not have been quite so obvious at the time, the only proper way to honor Lee’s legacy was to ensure that his final work was seen by the public.

Still, there’s no denying the fact that The Crow is a disturbing kind of legacy. That was especially true back in 1994, when the memories of his passing were still fresh. The passage of time may have blunted those memories somewhat, but this wound can never close because the source of grief is infinite. The film itself ensures that fact—had The Crow been shelved in 1994, then time would have provided the opportunity for healing. It wasn’t, though, so every viewing ends up reopening the old wound. That’s partly due to the intensity of Lee’s performance, but it’s also thanks in no small part to the power of the filmmaking on display. Australian director Alex Proyas was the perfect choice to helm the project, since his 1989 debut feature Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds had already proven that he could create distinctive visions of alternate worlds on an even more limited budget. The film version of The Crow is set in Detroit, but it’s a Gothic nightmare version of Detroit that makes the Gotham City of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns look like Emerald City in comparison. The darkness of O’Barr’s story is perfectly visualized by the darkness of the world that Proyas, cinematographer Darius Wolski, production designer Alex McDowell, and costume designer Arianne Phillips brought to vividly desaturated life.

Yet the Devil’s Night hellscape version of Detroit in The Crow is no mere empty setting, because Proyas assembled a fine cast to bring the otherwise thinly drawn inhabitants of this world to no less vivid life. The Crow is still undeniably Lee’s film, but his performance wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without Shinas, Rochelle Davis, and Ernie Hudson to embody the light side of Draven’s personality, while Michael Wincott, Bai Ling, Tony Todd, David Patrick Kelly, Angel David, Laurence Mason, and Michael Massee represent the darkness. (Anna Levine, Jon Polito, and Marco Rodríguez fall along various points of the spectrum in between those two extremes.) Wincott is as mesmerizing as ever, but it’s actually Kelly who’s the unsung hero of the film. His authentically terrified “There ain’t no coming back!” once he finally recognizes Draven is a crucial part of selling the reality behind the fantasy.

Of course, the other thing that helps to sell the brooding atmosphere of The Crow is the musical choices that were made behind the scenes. Graeme Revell supplied the score, which is superb, but it’s the diverse collection of Nineties alternative, grunge, and industrial songs that really propels the film. Rather than just being a way to create a marketable soundtrack album for the studio, the songs in The Crow are an active part of its texture. The Cure, Stone Temple Pilots, Violent Femmes, Rage Against the Machine, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Rollins Band, and more all contributed fine songs, but in a way, it’s the Nine Inch Nails cover of the 1981 Joy Division classic Dead Souls that provides the epitaph for The Crow, and by extension, for Brandon Lee as well:

“Someone take these dreams away
That point me to another day
A duel of personalities
That stretch all true realities”

The central irony of The Crow is that it’s both the film that took Brandon Lee away from us, and a worthy tribute to his legacy. It does that by reminding us that this source of grief is infinite, and that keeps the old wounds feeling fresh. As long as The Crow exists, Brandon Lee won’t be forgotten.

Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski shot The Crow on 35mm film using Arriflex 35 BL4 cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Proyas and Wolski would have preferred to shoot the main sequences in black-and-white with only the flashbacks in full color, but that option was never even on the table with the studio, so they opted to desaturate the image instead. The low budget for the film precluded the use of anything like the ENR bleach bypass process, so Wolski devised a bargain basement alternative by shooting the main sequences with a sepia filter on the camera, and then timing out the browns during the printing stages. That ended up desaturating the image and strengthening the contrast, although since blues would have been exaggerated at the same time, they had to be careful to avoid the color in any of the art direction and costume design. To achieve the reverse effect for the flashbacks, Wolski shot them on slow stock and then pushed the exposure two steps in order to increase the saturation. The look of The Crow has been much imitated but rarely equaled, and part of that comes down to the unique way that Proyas and Wolski created it.

All of that makes it a challenging film to reproduce accurately on home video, and while the original 2011 Blu-ray release from Lionsgate was fine, it still offered plenty of room for improvement. Paramount hasn’t provided any information about the work that was done to create this 4K master, describing it simply as a “New 4K restoration of the film,” one that’s been graded in High Dynamic Range for both Dolby Vision and HDR10. That leaves plenty of room for speculation, and we’ll get to that in a moment. In any event, it does seem to have been based on a 4K scan of the original camera negative, carefully color corrected to replicate Proyas and Wolski’s intended look. The contrast range has been enhanced, both in terms of the colors and the brightness. The bright reds and oranges of the explosions now really stand out against the black backgrounds, the reds and golden hues of the flashbacks are more vivid, and the strobe effects like the one during the shootout in Top Dollar’s conference room have been pushed so far that Brandon Lee’s face tends to blow out during the brightest moments—but that effect seems entirely appropriate in this instance. The blacks do tend to look a little flat during some of the darkest sequences where there was little inherent contrast in the first place, but that’s likely unavoidable due to the way that they were shot.

In terms of fine detail, the dupe footage for the optical and digital composite work throughout The Crow still looks as rough as it always has, and all the grain and grit from the original camera negative has been preserved. Or has it? Aye, there’s the rub. The textures are sometimes astonishingly sharp in this new version—Jon Polito’s ribbed sweater, Ernie Hudson’s white T-shirt, Tony Todd and Marco Rodríguez’s craggy skin, etc.—almost impossibly sharp at times. That means it’s possible that some AI sharpening has been applied here, and if so, it was done with a great deal of skill. The image would have likely been degrained first, sharpened, and then a had layer of artificial grain re-applied at the end. The clarity of the facial textures in particular is somewhat reminiscent of how they look on Paramount’s 4K release of Titanic, but it’s much improved in this case. If AI sharpening was used, it was only where the image stood to benefit the most. The rough-looking composite footage was left untouched, as were most of the medium or long shots. It’s just the closeups that might have been processed that way, and the results integrate with the surrounding footage just as well as they always have.

Now, it’s important to remember that this is only speculation based on how sharp that the textures do look at times. It’s also possible that the negative was that pristine, well-exposed, and detailed. Just because a film was produced on a limited budget doesn’t mean that it can’t be sharp as a tack; the common idea that low-budget films should look rougher than mainstream fare is pure myth. It all depends on how they were shot. Here’s the thing, though: like it or not, digital tools have been improving, and they continue to improve. We need to let go of outdated terminology like DNR, edge enhancement, and the like. They just don’t apply to what modern digital tools can do. We’re rapidly approaching the point where it’s going to be difficult or even impossible to determine which ones have been applied, and how much. The furor over the recent James Cameron remasters has clouded the demonstrable fact that the technologies that were used on them improved from film to film, and those improvements didn’t stop with Cameron’s films, either. Ultimately, what matters is the results. If AI sharpening was used on The Crow—and again, that’s just speculation—then all that matters is that the results look fantastic. It still looks like film, even if some of it has been manipulated to achieve that look, and it’s a massive upgrade over the previous Blu-ray versions. It’s a night-and-day improvement. Fans of The Crow, Alex Proyas, Darius Wolski, and film in general should all be equally pleased with the results, however they may have been achieved.

Primary audio is offered in English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. As an early digital 5.1 production, The Crow was originally released in both DTS and optical Dolby Stereo, but the latter hasn’t been included on any home video versions outside of the original VHS and LaserDisc releases, and it’s safe to consider 5.1 as the intended format for the film. Early DTS mixes tended to fall into two broad categories: either extremely aggressive ones like Jurassic Park or Hard Target, or else mild updates of the 4-channel Dolby Stereo matrix, and The Crow falls into the latter category. It’s still immersive, but the immersion is more in the form of general ambience than it is in terms of directionality. Environmental sounds like the constant rain, thunder, and dripping water form the bulk of the surround activity, with action sounds like the gunfire remaining anchored to the front of the soundstage. The ADR varies in quality, so the dialogue sometimes sounds inconsistent, but it’s still clear enough to be understood. Of course, it’s the music that matters the most in creating the world of The Crow, and both the score and the songs are well-supported in the mix. It’s the music that really rains all the time in The Crow.

Additional audio options include German, Spanish (Spain), and French 5.1 Dolby Digital, plus Italian 2.0 Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, Danish, German, Spanish (Spain), French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish.

Paramount’s 30th Anniversary Edition 4K Ultra HD release of The Crow is UHD only, with no Blu-ray copy included, although there is a Digital code on a paper insert tucked inside the case, as well as a slipcover. There are also multiple Limited Edition Steelbook versions available, including one from Amazon and a different exclusive version from Walmart, although the disc-based content is identical. The following extras are included:

  • Audio Commentary with Alex Proyas
  • Audio Commentary with Jeff Most and John Shirley
  • Shadows & Pain: Designing The Crow:
    • Angels All Fire: Birth of the Legend (HD – 7:07)
    • On Hallowed Ground: The Outer Realm (HD – 8:12)
    • Twisted Wreckage: The Inside Spaces (HD – 10:00)
  • Sideshow Collectibles: An Interview with Edward R. Pressman (HD – 13:24)
  • Behind the Scenes Featurette (Upscaled SD – 16:33)
  • A Profile on James O’Barr (Upscaled SD – 33:26)
  • Extended Scenes:
    • The Arcade Bombing (Upscaled SD – 4:09)
    • The Funboy Fight (Upscaled SD – 2:07)
    • The Shootout at Top Dollars (Upscaled SD – 5:14)
  • Deleted Footage Montage (Upscaled SD – 5:26)
  • Trailer (HD – 1:28)

There are two archival commentary tracks included here. The Alex Proyas commentary was originally recorded for the 2011 Lionsgate Blu-ray release, and he states up front that he wants to address some of the myths about the film that have developed over the years, and return to the reality of how it was actually made. Needless to say, he’s still quite circumspect regarding the details of Brandon Lee’s death, although he does say that he always wanted it to be Lee’s film as much as his own. Proyas explains how the low budget and lack of resources drove some of the stylistic choices that he made, and that the design of the film was deliberately anachronistic, subtly turning it into a period piece (although that’s less obvious watching it now than it was in 1994). He also discusses how the film was reshaped in the edit, and why characters like the Skull Cowboy were excised. Proyas gives full credit to Brandon Lee’s fiancé Eliza Hutton for the decision to complete the film after his death, and admits that they couldn’t have done it without her encouragement.

The commentary with producer Jeff Most and screenwriter John Shirley is actually the oldest of the two, originally recorded for the 2001 DVD release from Miramax. They provide much more detail about the development process and how the script changed from draft to draft, noting why they changed what they did, and why they kept what they did. It’s a deeper look at the themes and ideas that were incorporated into the final version of The Crow. For example, they’re the ones who added the Devil’s Night setting, since it fit perfectly with the fact that they were more interested in Top Dollar’s real estate scams than in the drug trade of O’Barr’s book. They also offer praise for all of the actors involved, especially Michael Wincott (who apparently improvised much of his own dialogue).

There are two new extras that have been added to this release. Shadows & Pain: Designing The Crow is a three-part interview with production designer Alex McDowell (although it does offer a “Play All” option). Angels All Fire covers the way that he translated O’Barr’s style into live action; On Hallowed Ground explores the theatricality of his design work, including the way that miniatures and backlot footage were incorporated together; and Twisted Wreckage narrows things down to the sets and the set decorations. Across all three segments, McDowell emphasizes how the music is really what drove everything else. Sideshow Collectibles is a conversation between Sideshow’s Paul Hernandez and producer Edward R. Pressman, with their new Premium Format figure of Eric Draven as its centerpiece. The two do briefly mention the figurine, but they mostly discuss Pressman’s life in film.

The rest of the extras were all originally produced for the 2001 Miramax DVD. The Behind the Scenes Featurette includes on-set interviews with Brandon Lee, Ernie Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, Tony Todd, Bai Ling, James O’Barr, Edward R. Pressman, Jeff Most, Alex McDowell, art director Simon Murton, and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. It’s divided into 6 sections: Inception, Eric Draven, Themes, Supporting Cast, Violence, and Catharsis. While it’s dedicated to Lee, it was a promotional featurette created during the production of the film, so it’s unavoidably incomplete. Still, the interviews with Lee are priceless. The Profile on James O’Barr is a monologue by the artist in his studio, showing how he works and explaining why he does what he does. He also provides some background information about himself and offers some unfiltered thoughts about Hollywood. That includes some of the bad ideas that were floated regarding an adaptation of his book, including turning it into a musical starring Micheal Jackson, directed by Julian Temple. O’Barr says that “It’s like there’s this beautiful tree and every dog that comes along has to piss on it.” On the positive side, he states firmly that Brandon Lee and Alex Proyas are what made the first film work, and that they’re both the real stars of it.

Finally, the Extended Scenes add some ancillary footage that wasn’t really necessary, although The Arcade Bombing does establish the idea that Eric Draven could absorb memories from anyone (or anything) that he touches. It’s still clear enough in the final cut, though. The Deleted Footage Montage includes some of the same extended footage as well as bit more, none of it particularly necessary, although there are some tantalizing glimpses of material that was shot for a car chase scene involving T-Bird. There are a handful of archival extras missing from the previous DVD and Blu-ray releases of The Crow, however: poster concepts, production design stills, and storyboards. That’s about all that’s missing here aside from the featurette Brandon Lee’s Last Interview that was included on the DVD and Blu-ray from Entertainment in Video in the U.K., although that appears to be nothing more than a reworking of the same interview footage that’s used in the Behind the Scenes Featurette.

Paramount has been a bit inconsistent with their 4K releases, and while it would be a gross exaggeration to call them hit-or-miss, there’s no denying that some of the results of their digital restoration efforts have been more satisfying than others. Thankfully, The Crow falls into the former category. It’s the best that the film has ever looked on home video—and by a wide margin, too. Highly recommended for existing fans, and if you’re not already one, this 4K version is the best place to start your journey into becoming one. Turn the lights down, the sound up, and prepare to be immersed in the tragic world of The Crow.

- Stephen Bjork

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