Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Candyman

1992
Dir. Bernard Rose

Whilst researching her thesis on urban legends, student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) becomes intrigued by the legend of the ‘Candyman’ (Tony Todd) – the son of a slave who was brutally tortured and killed because he fell in love with the daughter of a white plantation owner. He is said to appear when his name is spoken five times into a mirror and he has a hook for a hand. Whilst carrying out her investigation, the sceptical Helen repeats his name and is subsequently plunged into a nightmare world where reality and fevered dreams become meshed together as she is stalked by the spectre of the Candyman and held responsible for a series of grisly murders. Could the legend be true or is Helen simply losing her mind? Can she clear her name before it’s too late and she becomes the latest victim of the formidable legend that is the Candyman?

Beginning with our protagonists discussing the power of legends and the subtext of folklore, Candyman opens with a familiar scenario. Babysitter waits until kids are asleep. She and her boyfriend make out. They play a variation of Bloody Mary in which they say the name Candyman into a mirror five times. They get fucked up. While we don’t see what happens to them, the dialogue spoken by the teller of this ‘urban legend’ paints a pretty vivid picture of death and insanity. And so begins a slow burning and gripping story, made all the more compelling because of believable characters, credible performances and a well written script, which focuses as much on real, natural threat and danger as much as it does on supernatural.

Adapting Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden, writer/director Bernard Rose relocates the story from England to Chicago – specifically its rough ghetto Cabrini-Green. The location of the film is effectively utilised and exudes a menace all its own. As Helen and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) wander through the empty apartments in the upper floors of the housing projects, we are made all too aware of the very real threats that potentially lurk in the dank corners of this concrete hell – Cabrini-Green’s reputation precedes it and many of the derelict buildings are lairs occupied by gangs. We are able to perceive a very real and tangible threat to the women, which contrasts nicely to the fact that at the same time they are in search of what they believe is an imaginary threat.

Early on in the film we hear the distressing tale of a woman who calls the police claiming the Candyman is coming for her through her bathroom wall. Her story is not believed by the operator and not long after, she is found dead, her body savagely mutilated. It turns out that someone did come through a gap in the wall behind her medicine cabinet connecting her apartment to the empty one next door, but it wasn't the Candyman. This story creates a vivid and disturbing scenario which then becomes even more disturbing because its source turns out to be a true story that became entangled with the myth of the Candyman. It also adds an extra layer of ambiguity to the story. Director Rose opts for an almost dream logic as the story unfolds and Helen’s fate mirrors that of the woman in the story – as her situation goes from bad to worse no one believes her – she protests her innocence and sanity to deaf ears. Could her stories of the Candyman have a basis in reality - if only to highlight her fractured mind? Virginia Madsen delivers an impeccable performance. Her Helen is strong, determined, resourceful and intelligent. Yet despite all of these characteristics, she is still believably flawed and fully fleshed. She is sceptical, dismissive and snobby, and she is dominated by her philandering partner, the sleazy Trevor (Xander Berkeley). Unlike most female horror characters however, Rose does not run from the danger, she runs towards it – even embraces it in an attempt to save herself. Alas, by the end of the film, the lingering ambiguity leaves an element of doubt as to the Candyman’s actual existence. Was he real? Or just a figure of Rose’s warped psyche? Thankfully the afterthought of Helen returning from the grave as some kind of spectral avenger doesn't mar everything that came before it.

The imposing figure of the Candyman himself is one of the most unique and striking in horror cinema. Tony Todd’s baritone voice strikes nothing but dread and morbid intrigue into the hearts of the audience. He is desirable yet repellent, enigmatic and charming yet utterly dangerous – an interesting combination that is lent credence by Todd’s subtle performance and hollow-voiced sincerity. At times the character comes across as something akin to saint or a martyr. Some of his dialogue is utterly evocative too – ‘I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing. So now, I must shed innocent blood. Come with me. Be my victim.’

His backstory sets him up as a tragic and vengeful anti-hero – something that sets him apart from most horror villains. He was a slave who fell in love with the ‘wrong’ woman – the daughter of a white plantation owner. Something about Helen draws him to her and Rose frequently films Madsen’s eyes in ethereally lit close up shots to mirror a depiction of the Candyman’s lost love as represented in a striking mural that is revealed at the end of the film.

Interestingly, the Candyman is one of those figures from urban legends with a hook for a hand. This, as Julie James in I Know What You Did Last Summer so elegantly points out is a ‘phallic’ symbol (‘like, oh my god - total castration, you guys!’) embroiled in an old wives’ tale to deter young women from engaging in premarital sexual relations. The fact that the Candyman is also black isn’t lost on Rose either, and he deftly weaves wry social commentary into an already potent mix ensuring Candyman remains one of the most thoughtful and provocative horror flicks since its release way back in 1992. It unfolds as a meditation on race, racism, class, economic poverty and the power of storytelling. The hold the gangs have over Cabrini-Green is equalled only by the hold that the area’s legends and local stories have over it. At its heart, Candyman also features one of the ‘last great taboos’ of Hollywood cinema – an interracial relationship. The perceived stigma of interracial relationships in cinema is traceable to the Hays Code of the 30s. It out-rightly forbade any on-screen portrayal of ‘miscegenation’ (interracial sexual relationships). In fact, in some States in the US ‘miscegenation’ was actually illegal until the late Sixties. Obviously since then it has become quite common to see actors of all colour play characters involved in relationships of all kinds portrayed in film. However, for a low budget horror film in the early Nineties to attempt the same was actually quite daring. Big ideas aren’t supposed to be bandied about in horror cinema after all…

The film is full of arresting images including the shot of Helen climbing through a hole in the wall of a derelict apartment as the camera floats serenely back to reveal a huge mural of the Candyman; the hole in the wall, his screaming mouth.
A strange atmosphere presides over proceedings and entwines the gritty and destitute urban ghetto setting with a gorgeously dark and opulently gothic foreboding. This is elegantly enhanced by Philip Glass’s swirlingly hypnotic and hauntingly melancholy score that becomes slightly more frenzied during scenes of suspense - it is never anything short of dramatic, and always teeters on the right side of overwrought melodrama. Glass has ‘constructed’ one of his most underrated scores for Candyman, and one that captures and sustains the sumptuously morbid romance unfolding within the story.

Candyman remains as provocative, visceral, intellectual and darkly romantic a horror film as it did upon its initial release. It seems to improve with time. Its power can be accredited not only to Barker’s vivid source material, but to Bernard Rose’s thoughtful script and ability to conjure and sustain an air of menace and gloom throughout and his penchant for creating a slew of memorable imagery - something he also did to nightmarish effect in his prior film Paperhouse.

What’s more - I’ll bet you still wouldn’t stand in front of a mirror and say Candyman five times… I know I sure as hell wouldn’t!

11 comments:

The Vicar of VHS said...

Cool review! The Candyman is indeed a unique figure, and the staying power of this film is a testament both to the creepiness of the urban legends the writers/filmmakers utilize so deftly and Todd's career-making performance.

WRT the mirror game, I've never been a believer in the supernatural--however, to this day you could not pay me to sit in front of a mirror in the dark and do the old "Bloody Mary" thing. For some reason the idea of it just fills me with dread. Sure, I know objectively that nothing would happen...but why fuck around with it, all the same? :)

C.L. Hadden said...

Ooo, I love Candyman! It never seems dated - even after all these years it can still invoke a primal fear.
It scared the hell out of me the first time I saw it with all its creepy imagery. And I think Cabrini-Green scared me more than Tony Todd!

I own/love the Glass score, it's one of my favorites.

Carl (ILHM) said...

This is one of the few Modern Gothic masterpieces, it will easily stand the test of time in its powerful storytelling, visuals, and performances! Great review, James!

WriterME said...

I might be stealing some quotes from this, actually. Got a class on Monday on race, representation and identity (did it before), which involves a big chunk on blackness in horror (blaxploitation and, of course, Candyman).

James said...

Vicar - I agree with what you said about the staying power of this film and how it is rooted in the power of the urban legends utilized and the great performances. I also think Rose's restrained direction that lets the story speak for itself is important.

Chris - I adore Philip Glass's work, particularly his compositions for Koyanisqqatsi and Powaqqatsi. APPARENTLY when he saw the finished cut of Candyman, he was disappointed. He felt that what was initially presented to him as a 'low budget independent project with creative integrity' had become a 'low budget Hollywood slasher flick'. Ouch.

Carl - Yup, I agree - this has 'Modern Gothic Masterpiece' and 'underappreciated' written all over it.

WriterME - Sounds like an interesting class - you teaching or sitting in on it? Speaking of blaxploitation and horror - I keep hearing good things about Sugar Hill - must check it out!

Thanks for your comments guys. :o)

James said...

PS: Vicar - No. As open minded as I am I don't reckon I'd be up for a game of Bloody Mary/Candyman either... Well, I suppose to be honest it depends how many glasses of wine I've had beforehand. ;o)

Scream Queen said...

Great flick! I remember seeing this movie as a kid and daring each other to repeat Candyman five times in the mirror ;o)

WriterME said...

Hi James,


will be teaching. I got some hours at the drama department, but usually use the term to incorporate theatre, TV and movies, depending on the topics I need to cover. The kiddies know about my research and interests and they like the horror streak there. :)

christine said...

What a thought provoking post, James. As usual you paint a stunning world with your words.
I have only seen "Candyman" once and I was truly blown away by it. It was a more evocative and rich than I had ever expected. You really captured that in your review.
Lovely :)

James said...

Scream Queen - I remember I was 12 when this came out. Just seeing the poster in the local cinema was enough to terrify me! My cousins dared me to repeat the dreaded name - which of course, I did NOT. ;o)

WriterME - Good luck with the class!

Christine - Thanks for dropping by - always a pleasure. Do you think you might rewatch Candyman again soon? I assure you it will be as evocative and rich as you remember it. Would like to hear your take on it.

Shaun Anderson said...

I think there is a good argument in favour of "Candyman" being THE best American horror film of the 1990's. It manages to be both traditional in its scare tactics and in its creation of an iconic franchise figure and current in its absorption of the lessons offered by "Silence of the Lambs" - critically it avoids the post-modern known it all crap that was about to dominate 90's horror. It has both sociological and political concerns and a discussion of racial history. A film that single-handedly proves Robin Wood's thesis for horror in the 1970's - great review again James. You have inspired me to find my own review of Candyman, which I'll post soon.