Cult expands around 'Darko'

Somehow, the evil rabbit lived.

In 2001, "Donnie Darko" opened in theaters, flopped, closed and went almost directly to video -- destined, it seemed, to be a forgotten episode in the early careers of rising sibling stars Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Then film buffs in Lawrence and around the country started talking.

About time travel. About the 1980s New Wave soundtrack. About that 6-foot evil rabbit.

"The rabbit was freaky. I think I had a couple of dreams about it," says Levi Pierce, a Kansas University senior.

Like any good "Donnie Darko" fan, Pierce showed the cult movie to his younger brothers after being introduced to it by a friend.

"She said it was trippy, on the dark side of things," Pierce says.

Now fans also have a chance to see the film on the big screen. A director's cut -- with 20 minutes of new footage, as well as an altered soundtrack, but with all the confounding ambiguity of the original -- opens tonight in Kansas City at Cinemark Palace on the Plaza, 500 Nichols Road.

And it's got a ready-made fan base in Lawrence.

"People, are going to go see it," says Doug Redding, manager of Liberty Hall Video, 644 Mass., where the original version DVD is almost always checked out.

photo

Scott McClurg / lawrence.com

Doug Redding, manager of Liberty Hall Video, 644 Mass., is a major fan of "Donnie Darko," a movie that brought in only $515,000 in theaters but became a cult classic on video. The movie returns to screens this week in a reworked director's cut.

The movie may have been unpalatable to audiences when it was released a month after 9-11 -- it begins in 1988 with a jet engine falling through the roof of a suburban home into the bed where Donnie, a teenager played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is supposed to be sleeping.

Donnie, instead, is sleepwalking out to a golf course, where "Frank" the 6-foot rabbit tells him the world will end in less than a month. The rest of the movie explores questions of mental illness, predestination and time travel as Donnie tries to prevent disaster.

That thoughtful approach, however, might have been betrayed by action-horror marketing for the film that featured posters with Gyllenhaal carrying an ax on his shoulder and television commercials with the tagline, "Dark. Darker. Darko."

It made just $515,000 in theaters.

In New York, though, the movie began to generate buzz through midnight screenings. In Lawrence, people introduced the movie to their friends. Musician Danny Pound, for example, showed "Darko" to a buddy, who turned around and bought the DVD for repeat viewings.

"You wonder what the hell happened at the end -- you want to go watch it again," Pound says. "It's more satisfying, like any good piece of art, when you want to return to it again."

Soon, the movie was tough to keep in stock.

The video started moving off the shelf "almost immediately, very quickly," Redding says. "In fact, I need to get another copy on DVD, because ours is dying."

photo

Special to the Journal-World

Frank, a 6-foot talking rabbit, is one of the enigmatic figures in the rereleased cult flick, "Donnie Darko."

The movie ended up raking in more than $10 million on video, persuading filmmakers to try a second theatrical release with the extra footage added by young director Richard Kelly.

"Even though I am proud of the theatrical version of the film, I've always felt that the story was somewhat compromised in order to come in under two hours," Kelly claims in production notes released with the movie. "With this version I feel like I've finally been able to complete the film."

Kelly, though, would never have had the chance if it wasn't for the word-of-mouth success of the video.

"The phenomenon of the cult movie doesn't exist anymore as a theater phenomenon," Redding says. "You can point your finger at 'Donnie Darko' and see that as a phenomenon of the home theater era."

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