Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Movie Report #81: Candyman

Our next entry straddles the line between a monster, a villain, and a supernatural force. I didn’t quite know what to expect from CANDYMAN, despite having already seen the wretched third entry in the series; written and directed by Bernard Rose, from a short story by Clive Barker, it’s an outright unique look at myths and legends, and how we give them power and use them to seek to explain things. It’s one of the breed of slick, classy horror films that started to arise in the late 80s and early 90s, after the slasher genre had burned out, and it has the skill and polish of the best of them, plus a lot of imagination and some really shocking plot developments. It’s going to be hard to describe this one now that I don’t have a cutter anymore.

The Candyman (played by Tony Todd) is a combination of the “hook-handed killer” and the Bloody Mary routine (not the drink)- the story goes, if you look into a mirror and say his name five times, he appears and guts you like a fish. Helen Riley (Virginia Madsen) is a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, doing a study on urban legends, and finds out that the Candyman is blamed for the brutal murder of a woman that took place years ago in Cabrini Green, a gang-dominated project where the police don’t go. Helen, with her partner Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons, who was apparently getting cast as the black best friend in horror movies a lot during this time), investigates, and uncovers some information which may indicate that the killer was just a flesh-and-blood human being. By doing this, however, she threatens the existence of the Candyman, who lives as a legend in the fears of the locals. He’s not happy about this, and sets out to make her pay.

It’s easy to imagine what most filmmakers would do with this premise; that is, turn it into a NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reprise with a large cast of young adults being killed off by the supernatural spectre. What happens is much more personal and brutal than that, and while Barker’s role as executive producer probably gave him some control over how his material was adapted, Bernard Rose’s approach is genuinely inspired. The Candyman is less a serial killer and more a master manipulator, the ruler of a realm of whispers and fears and mythology. He is given shape by belief, through a kind of consensus reality; early in the picture, both Helen and Bernadette do the “Candyman” routine at the bathroom mirror in the former’s apartment to no apparent effect, because the myth has no power over them yet; as he grows in Helen’s mind, however, it seems he can cross over into the physical world.

Along with the postmodernist take on the nature of reality, there’s also an interesting bit of racial politics involved in the story. The Candyman legend holds that he was originally the son of a freed slave in 1890s Chicago who had an affair with a white woman, and for that was hunted down by a white mob and brutally lynched. There’s an echo of that story in his newfound fascination with the white Helen, but what she’s done has its own connotations; there’s a sense that she’s not just debunking an urban legend but specifically trespassing on the narrative of Cabrini Green’s mostly black inhabitants, co-opting it as white journalists and academics have often done, and it’s this appropriation which is her real crime. Of course, that itself is given a wrinkle in that the Candyman seems to be grooming her for a similar position in local folklore. It’s not that Helen was wrong to investigate, really, but she is inevitably trespassing on unfamiliar territory, and goes much deeper than she expected. Any horror film with a black male killer and white female protagonist was probably going to bring up associations like this, and it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that rather than neuter those elements from the story or water it down, they instead explore the issues raised in a way that doesn’t offer pat answers but acknowledges that race is still an issue in America.

Helen remains surprisingly (but necessarily) sympathetic through all this, even though it seems at time the plot compels her not to take the wisest actions. At the risk of spoiling much, there does seem to be at least one point where she doesn’t share knowledge she seems to have that would be helpful, but I might be reading these scenes wrong. (At times the literal action is not 100% clear, though it doesn’t reach EXORCIST II levels.) A lot of this is down to Virginia Madsen being energetic and smart and frankly gorgeous, and the acting is at a pretty strong level throughout. Rose gives the $8 million production a fair amount of polish, and it has the classy atmosphere that pervaded a number of horror entries from around this time, when Hollywood took notice of the growing appeal of gothic horror literature. On top of it all there’s a truly gorgeous musical score by minimalist legend Philp Glass, which features as its centerpiece a simple, music-box theme that grows into something much more beautiful and tragic as the story unfolds.

Beauty and tragedy end up pervading the piece, which was a great surprise to me even though they’re not exactly unfamiliar themes to Barker. That a horror film can reach such a place is a sign of how the genre is really much more flexible than critics, filmmakers, and even fans can give it credit for; just because a movie’s about something supernatural and nasty does not mean that fear is the only emotion it can focus on. CANDYMAN is a minor classic, one that got me curious about Rose’s other work, and while it does have a few parts that keep it from being a genuine masterpiece (in particular the final scene is a bit cheap), the overall effect is stunning.

Based on the story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker
Written and Directed by Bernard Rose
Grade: A-

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