Cult film getting second lease on box-office life -- The twisted ''Donnie Darko,'' which featured a life-size rabbit, was a huge hit with fans and will be re-released in theatres this summer

By Karen Valby and Gillian Flynn
June 18, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

At the Oct. 22, 2001, Hollywood premiere of ”Donnie Darko,” paparazzi shooed the director off the red carpet. They couldn’t have cared less about Richard Kelly. Later that evening, bouncers strong-armed Kelly and his producer, Sean McKittrick, when they tried to get into their own party. Only after several angry cell phone calls were the velvet ropes unclipped for the star of the film, the then-anonymous Jake Gyllenhaal. The evening ended on an appropriately dismal note: The movie’s editor, after being turned away from the door in front of his parents, invited the crew to his Venice Beach third-floor apartment, where they sat around drinking beer in their socks.

The premiere’s humiliations were a fitting warm-up for ”Darko”’s demoralized limp into theaters four days later. The movie sunk quickly at the box office, earning a paltry $515,000. ”Darko” was dead.

But its fans, just a few rabid packs at first, weren’t ready to let this dreamy sci-fi fable — about a messed-up high schooler, a six-foot divine emissary in a freaky rabbit suit, and the end of the world — slip into the ether of forgotten flops. Not when they’d finally found a portrait of the teen experience that could stand proudly alongside ”Heathers” or ”The Breakfast Club.” At raucous midnight screenings and in online chat rooms kids breathed enough life into ”Darko” to persuade Newmarket Films to take the rarest of chances. The studio will rerelease the whopping failure with 21 additional minutes of footage on July 23 in New York and Los Angeles, expanding to 10 more cities if audiences show.

The May 29 world premiere of ”Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut” at the Seattle film festival had the feeling of a revival meeting. The screening sold out the day tickets went on sale. (A test release in seven Seattle theaters grossed $32,736 in five days.) A packed house of fans, several dressed up as characters from the film, leaped up out of their seats to give Kelly a standing ovation when he walked on stage. ”I’m a very lucky bastard,” the humbled director told the smitten crowd. And so, in a twist ending nobody could have predicted, ”Donnie Darko” will live to face another opening weekend.

Kelly and producing partner McKittrick work out of the director’s modest Venice Beach house. The place — a scattered mess of movie posters (”The Empire Strikes Back,” ”The Road Warrior”), ”Darko” memorabilia, NFL plastic cups, and a fantasy-football-league trophy by the 65-inch TV — is both a film geek’s lair and a Delta Chi’s dorm room. Most nights end up down the street at the Irish bar O’Brien’s. Kelly, whose friends in college nicknamed him Dawson after the square WB character, is a confounding mix of stereotypes. ”People expect Tim Burton,” shrugs the 29-year-old Virginia native, who admits he was — Goth ”Darko” fans, start stabbing pencils into your palms now — popular in high school. ”And what they get is this frat guy from hell.”

Kelly was only 23 years old, shaving once every three days, when he dashed out the ”Darko” script in six weeks. The comic-book-style story, about a young suburban hero whose schizophrenic visions may hold the key to the world’s salvation, was steeped in ’80s nostalgia and pop-culture winks. The script made long laps around Hollywood, leaving in its wake conference rooms full of mystified suits. Where was the sex? Who is this guy in a rabbit suit and why isn’t he killing off girls in tube tops one by one? Why doesn’t the ending — an elliptical puzzle without clear resolution — make any goddamn sense? Pitch meetings were a nightmare.