Who Is The Skull Cowboy And Why Was He Cut From The Crow?

It's hard to imagine, but there was a time when superhero movies were still relatively thin on the ground. Let's cast our minds back to the 1990s. What did we have? Christopher Reeve was still most people's Superman, although his tenure bottomed out several years earlier with the Cold War-themed "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace." That meant Batman was the king of the box office with Tim Burton's two highly successful movies starring Michael Keaton.

Other than that, it was the era of the freaks, with unlikely hit movies based on comic book material beyond the big two of DC Comics and Marvel, who were barely on the radar at that point. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" had gone from a limited run of 3,000 copies on cheap newsprint to becoming a pop-culture phenomenon with TV shows, video games, inescapable merch, chart-topping songs, and three live-action movies. 

In 1994, Dark Horse's "The Mask" morphed from a freewheeling psycho with cartoon powers to a zany box-office smash comedy starring Jim Carrey. Then there was "The Crow," which was a different proposition altogether. While "Turtles" and "The Mask" were bright, knockabout, family-oriented fun, "The Crow" was dark, violent, and haunted by a palpable sense of sadness and loss. 

The film was based on the underground graphic novel by James O'Barr, who created the character in the early '80s to help cope with the death of his fiancée. To make things even gloomier, the film's star, Brandon Lee was accidentally shot and fatally wounded on the set of Alex Proyas' moody, stylish film adaptation. His tragic death meant that one key character from O'Barr's graphic novel was dropped...

So what happens in The Crow again?

It is Devil's Night in Detroit, and the city is burning. Amid the mayhem, a young couple is attacked and murdered by a gang of thugs on the eve of their wedding. Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) lies dead while his fiancée Shelly (Sofia Shinas) fights for her life. She doesn't make it, leaving skateboarding street urchin Sarah (Rochelle Davis) alone in the world.

Skip forward to the anniversary of the couple's horrible demise, and Sarah's voiceover tells us that in the event of great sadness, a crow sometimes brings a soul back from the dead to right past wrongs. With the titular bird tapping on his headstone, Eric drags himself from his grave and sets about tracking down the punks who killed him and his beloved, working his way up to the gravelly-voiced kingpin, Top Dollar (Michael Wincott).

I've seen other articles describing "The Crow" as an artifact of its era, but on a rewatch I was delighted by how well it has held up. Naturally, for a film almost 30 years old, some elements root it deeply in the mid-'90s, but the powerful visual style is timeless. Sure, it's very, very goth, but then the goth look in movies has links to film noir and German expressionism before that, and those things never get old. Just take Cesare (Conrad Veidt) in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" with his pale face, greasepaint makeup, and black threads. He's one of cinema's original goths.

I also expected it to be more style over substance, so I was also surprised by the film's deep sense of melancholy, emphasized by the untimely death of its breakout star. Lee would have no doubt gone on to greater success if he'd survived the making of "The Crow." A rewatch also shows how influential the movie was, with a clear line to the sartorial style of "The Matrix" and "Blade" and prefiguring the look of both Heath Ledger's Joker and Robert Pattinson's Batman.

The untimely death of Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee was the son of screen legend Bruce Lee. Following in the footsteps of his father, he made his name in a series of action-packed martial arts movies like "Legacy of Rage" and "Showdown in Little Tokyo." The latter landed him the starring role in "The Crow." Uncannily like his dad, Brandon Lee also died long before his time. Bruce Lee died at the age of 32, prompting conspiracy theories ranging from ancient curses to assassination by the Chinese Triads. 

Brandon Lee was only 28 years old when a prop gun mishap resulted in a .44 magnum dummy cartridge being fired at a velocity close to that of the real thing, fatally wounding him. The story gained new relevance last year when a prop gun fired by Alec Baldwin on the set of "Rust" killed the film's cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and injured the director. The incident prompted Lee's fiancée, Eliza Hutton, to break her silence over the tragedy. She told People:

"Twenty eight years ago, I was shattered by the shock and grief of losing the love of my life, Brandon Lee, so senselessly. My heart aches again now for Halyna Hutchins' husband and son, and for all those left in the wake of this avoidable tragedy... I urge those in positions to make change to consider alternatives to real guns on sets."

With Lee's fatal accident occurring with the actor having just three days of shooting left, the film's producers made the unenviable decision to complete "The Crow" without him. The script was revised, and new scenes were filmed, using a combination of stunt doubles and CGI to graft Lee's face onto the body of his replacement. It was a bit ghoulish, but it was ultimately the right choice. It would have been even more of a tragedy if Lee's brilliant, star-making performance never saw the light of day.

Lee's death also meant one crucial character from the graphic novel would not make his way to the screen...

Who is the Skull Cowboy?

One of Brandon Lee's remaining scenes involved dialogue with the Skull Cowboy, an ominous supernatural mentor figure introduced by O'Barr in the graphic novel. Wearing a cowboy hat and a gruesome skull mask, the character was played in an excised scene by cult horror icon Michael Berryman, whose unusual physical appearance caused by hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia made him such a menacing figure in Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes."

The Skull Cowboy was to feature in several points throughout the story, offering Draven guidance on his quest for revenge. Fans of the original graphic novel may disagree, but I think cutting the character benefits the finished film. "The Crow" is such a beautifully streamlined revenge tale that stopping the narrative to have a chat with another supernatural figure may have caused the pace to lag, burdening it with unnecessary exposition. 

Draven's situation and otherworldly powers are explained well enough even without the benefit of Sarah's wistful voice-over, which at times has the effect of over-explaining things for us. It's pretty much all there on the screen in the final cut, and Draven's avian companion does a grand job of acting as a guide without uttering a single word of dialogue. The bird helps Draven find a killer pair of goth boots and leads him back home. Question marks about Draven's superhero weaknesses are later addressed by Grange, one of Top Dollar's henchmen, played by another horror icon, Tony Todd.

Alex Proyas had reservations about including the Skull Cowboy character, regarding him as a little cheesy. His presence might have expanded on the film's ghostly lore, but his absence makes the film tighter and more mysterious. Proyas wanted the film to stand as a tribute to the deceased star, and Lee's onscreen charisma shines even brighter without an undead guide to help his forlorn hero along the way.