The untold truth of The Crow

Alex Proyas' film adaptation of The Crow is one of the most beloved cult hits of all time. The film has become a legend—and not just because of the tragic death of star Brandon Lee during shooting.

The Crow was meant to be the breakout role for Lee, and would become the young actor's only mainstream hit following an on-set accidental shooting that cost him his life. The movie was a brave gothic tale unlike anything moviegoers had seen before, while also being one of the first serious adaptations of a comic book property. Though films like Blade and X-Men (deservedly) get a lot of credit for establishing the genre, The Crow started blazing those trails several years earlier. But for all its success, it very nearly turned out very different.

So what's the secret story behind the cult hit?

It was almost a musical starring Michael Jackson

There's a reason The Crow remains a cult hit all these years later: the movie is fantastic, telling a timeless story that's as relevant now as it was 20 years ago. But would it have had such a lasting impact if it'd been a straight-up musical starring the King of Pop? We almost found out, as Crow creator James O'Barr revealed in a DVD special feature for the film. O'Barr said a studio exec recommended signing Michael Jackson for the role while it was in development, and he literally laughed in his face at the idea.

Not surprisingly, that experience soured O'Barr on the entire Hollywood expereince. Here's what he said about the idea on DVD: "That's how it is in Hollywood. It's like there's a beautiful tree, and every dog that comes by has to piss on it." As O'Barr alludes, this sounds like a pretty terrible idea. But MJ did pull off "Thriller," so who knows? Nah, never mind—this was almost certainly a bad idea.

The studio was worried audiences wouldn't understand the story

A dark adaptation of an underground comic is a fairly hard sell these days, and nigh impossible in the early 1990s when The Crow was made. Not surprisingly, the studio got cold feet once they had a look at the finished product. While speaking on a DVD commentary for the film, director Alex Proyas recounted the studio's fear of actually releasing the film. "In the very first test screenings we had, two or three people out of 300 would ask, 'Why is it that Eric Draven is the guy that can come back with these powers? Why can he come back from the dead? I'm going, 'Who the hell cares,'" he recalled. "I remember this was a really big thing for everyone at that time, but now, see the movie, it's obviously ludicrous. It's a suspension of disbelief, and people go with it."

Thankfully Proyas stuck to his guns and didn't try to over explain things. The Crow is an epic poem, and the last thing it needed was for the entire subtext to be explained ad nauseam along the way.

The shot that tragically killed Brandon Lee was an absolute freak accident

Even if you're not a fan of The Crow, you almost certainly know the story of how Bruce Lee's son Brandon tragically lost his life while filming. With a low-ish budget and accelerated production schedule, the movie was already pushing the boundaries with risky stunts (which wasn't much of a problem for the 28-year-old martial arts guru).

Sadly a combination of those factors would cost Lee his life. The gun used in the fateful scene that killed Lee, where the character Funboy (Michael Massee) shoots him with a Magnum .44, had already been used on some second-unit filming. The blanks for the "shooting" were not made up to spec, and a lead tip from one of the bullets became lodged in the barrel during the second unit shoot. When they pulled the trigger for the scene, the pressure pushed out the lead and it hit Lee. The Telegraph reports it took a bevy of factors for this to happen, from the rushed schedule to the lack of safety oversight while the blanks were fabricated. It was a true freak accident.

No one realized Lee had actually been shot until they stopped filming

To make matters even worse, no one working the set even realized Lee had been shot until they stopped rolling. Entertainment Weekly reported at the time that the shot seemingly went off as planned, and a blood packet Lee was wearing detonated on cue and he fell to the ground. One eyewitness there for the shooting noted: "It didn't really appear to the people on the set like anything was wrong." Once the scene ended, the crew noticed Lee wasn't moving and was bleeding much more than the blood packet could have spilled. An ambulance was called, and the actor was rushed to the hospital. The bullet had left a "silver dollar-sized" entry wound in his stomach, and even after transfusing Lee with a mind-boggling 60 pints of blood (the equivalent of five men), doctors could not save his life.

The original Crow comic ran for just four issues, but Eric Draven has popped up a lot since then

It all started in the late 1980s, when creator James O'Barr launched his four-issue miniseries The Crow in 1989 (following some preview appearances in accompanying titles). The series was published by the small indie Caliber Press. After hitting store shelves, The Crow quickly became an underground success and the character returned in December 1980 and September 1990 in a few special stories compiled in publisher collections, before being fully revived in the late 1990s with some new sequel series. The series stayed quiet for about a decade after that, until IDW revived The Crow with some fresh runs in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

The Crow's creator donated most of his profits from the film to charity

James O'Barr was obviously excited to see his series brought to life on the big screen, but after the project claimed the life of Brandon Lee, he had trouble enjoying the proceeds. So after buying his mother a car and a new surround sound system for himself, O'Barr donated most of his proceeds to charity. Here's how he explained it at a comics convention in 2009: "I was really good friends with Brandon, so it just felt like blood money to me. So I didn't want to profit at his expense. And I kept that secret for as long as I could. It's not charity if you get credit for it."

Lee's death has spawned a whole lot of conspiracy theories

The death of Brandon Lee was a tragic accident caused by a combination of negligence and mistakes, but that didn't stop some from speculating there was a whole lot more to the story. Speculation around Lee's death has run rampant over the years, with some suggesting he was killed due to connections to organized crime in Hong Kong, to retaliation from the Chinese mafia because Lee's father (Bruce Lee) exposed ancient martial arts secrets in his film. Of course, none of these claims were ever proven to be remotely true. Authorities investigated Lee's shooting, and time and time again reached the conclusion that it was an accident.

The film was changed following Lee's death

Lee's death may have came at the tail end of shooting, but there were still more than a few scenes still unfinished. The production understandably took a break after the tragedy, with Proyas spending the time off to rework the script into what was described as an "emotionally softened" version of the story that paid respect to Lee's passing. According to Entertainment Weekly, some of the changes include reframing a few of Lee's incomplete scenes into silent montages and "deepening" the relationship between the young girl Sarah (Rochelle Davis) and Sergeant Albrecht (Ernie Hudson). Most interestingly, the new script replaced the taunts of the Skull Cowboy with a more "tender" narration from Sarah (Rochelle Davis). Her words obviously have a double meaning, considering the circumstances surrounding the production: "Sometimes, something so bad happens that the Crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right."

It was turned into a short-lived TV show in the late 1990s

Anyone who ever walked down the aisle of their local video store (back when you could still find one) has almost certainly seen one of the three sequels spawned from the original Crow. Not surprisingly, the quality dipped considerably when compared to the poignant original. But there was also a Crow television series, and believe it or not, it was actually pretty good. The Stairway to Heaven series aired one season from 1998-1999 and starred Mark Dacascos in the role of Eric Draven. The series did a solid job of adapting the saga into a longform story, but despite a positive reception, the project couldn't survive some corporate shake-ups that put it in on the chopping block. Sadly, plans for a TV movie follow-up never came to fruition. The first season (which premiered in syndication) did find some new fans via re-runs on the Sci-Fi Channel, but it couldn't generate enough interest for a revival.

The Crow TV show was also rocked by a tragic, accidental death

It seems tragedy follows the Crow franchise across formats. The film had Lee's accidental shooting, and the television adaptation had a stuntman killed during a freak accident during a planned explosion stunt during filming for the seventh episode. Stuntman Marc Akerstream, 44, suffered a severe head injury when he was hit by a piece of flying debris. The explosion was a controlled stunt involving a rowboat. Akerstream wasn't involved in the actual stunt, but was struck when the projectile cleared a small tree after being sent airborne. Production was briefly suspended, but filming eventually moved forward on schedule.

They used ultra-early VFX magic to finish the film following Lee's death

When star Brandon Lee was killed, much of the film was already in the can—but there were still a few scenes needed to make it a coherent narrative. Since modern-day CGI didn't exist (the film was shot in the early-to-mid 1990s, remember?), the production team had to get creative. They obviously used some body doubles for scenes where you wouldn't see Lee's face, but that wasn't enough. For one scene, they lifted footage of Lee walking through an alley and digitally altered it to make it appear he was walking into his apartment. One of the toughest scenes tasked the VFX team with grafting a reflection of Lee's face onto a broken mirror. A total of 52 shots were digitally composed to finish the film following Lee's passing.

It was critically acclaimed

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert reviewed The Crow upon its 1994 release, giving it three-and-a-half stars in his largely positive review. One point he made that many fans forget these days? The Crow was one of the first really good comic book movies ever made, proving the genre could work decades before The Avengers would team up, even though most theatre-goers probably didn't even realize there was an indie comic at the root of this dark action noir. Here's a choice excerpt from Ebert's original review: "It is a stunning work of visual style—the best version of a comic book universe I've seen—and Brandon Lee clearly demonstrates in it that he might have become an action star, had he lived."

Angel and Bones alum David Boreanaz starred as the bad guy in a truly awful Crow sequel

We'd already mentioned The Crow spawned three sequels, but one of the worst came at the end. The Crow: Wicked Prayer starred Edward Furlong in the title role, with TV star David Boreanaz (Angel, Bones) as the Satanist villain. The cast only got sillier from there: Tara Reid played Boreanaz's girlfriend, and Danny Trejo and Dennis Hopper popped up in supporting roles. The film was an absolute disaster, as you can probably imagine (it currently holds a 0 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes as a point of reference). Boreanaz isn't a bad actor, but he was pure cheese in this role. Not surprisingly, it was one of his last film roles before heading back to TV.

Rob Zombie almost made a future-set reboot called The Crow: 2037

Despite the struggles in the sequel department, Hollywood never gives up on a property with potential. With the franchise sidelined for a while following Wicked Prayer, the studio turned to Rob Zombie in the hopes that he could right the ship. Zombie's plan? Set it in the future. The Rob Zombie pitch would've moved the action to a dystopian future in which a young boy and his mother are murdered by an evil priest. The power of the Crow brings the young boy back to life, and as an adult, he becomes a "futuristic bounty hunter" out for vengeance. Sure, the premise might sound a little silly, but it couldn't be much worse than what came before, right?

The actor who shot Lee has never seen the film

Actor Michael Massee (Seven, FlashForward) played the character of Funboy in The Crow, and was sadly the man who pulled the trigger on the malfunctioning gun that killed Brandon Lee. Not surprisingly, the incident shook the veteran character actor to his core, and he took a few years off from acting in the wake of the accident. While speaking at a 2014 comic convention during a reunion panel, Massee revealed he's never actually watched The Crow because it's just too hard to relive the memories. Despite that decision, he made clear that he was proud of the film.

The film's soundtrack is absolutely amazing

Film soundtracks can be a mixed bag, but The Crow's collection of rock tunes is hard to argue with. MTV called it "quite possibly the greatest alt-rock compilation assembled in the '90s," and that's no exaggeration. The soundtrack featured a who's who of legendary alt-rockers, including the Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Violent Femmes, Stone Temple Pilots, and Rage Against the Machine. Does 1990s rock get any better?

The original film's director thinks the reboot is 'unnecessary'

Not surprisingly, The Crow holds a special place in director Alex Proyas' heart. So with Hollywood champing at the bit to get a successful remake off the ground, the man who brought the original story to life chimed in to Collider to express his disdain that the franchise won't just be left alone. "I personally feel like it's kind of unnecessary," he argued. "I've completed the original movie to honor Brandon and that's the sole reason I did it. I'm happy I did it for that reason. I sort of feel like it's his legacy and I personally don't have a lot of time for people trying to reignite that movie in other ways. So you know, to me, this is one situation where it would be nice if Hollywood kind of left it alone and let it remain Brandon Lee's legacy."

The long-gestating reboot might be cursed, too

Hollywood has been trying to reboot The Crow since the mid-to-late 2000s, but it still hasn't happened, even when it looked like it was a sure thing. Between 2008 and 2013, Mark Wahlberg, Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum, James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston and Alex Skarsgard were all rumored to be up for the gig. Then Luke Evans signed on (and left), followed by Jack Huston (who also left). Now Game of Thrones alum Jason Momoa is up for the gig. Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) has been attached since 2014, so at least there's currently a somewhat steady hand at the wheel.