Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)
Name him seven times and he shall come, large and black and unforgettable, on a hellish wave of unjust colonialism wrapped in hooked-handed urban legend, bringing brutal violence and feverish romance in his stead…
Going back and reading “The Forbidden”, the novella from wild man Clive Barker’s ground breaking “Books of Blood”, that Candyman was based on, it was fascinating to see how much further writer/director Bernard Rose took the themes merely toyed with in the Barker short story. It reminded me, as much as I adore almost every story in that 6-volume collection, when you try and break any of them down (and, believe me, I’ve tried with more than a few) you find an author who, while riffing in barely contained, deeply inspired fashion, on images and ideas from the fantastic and grotesque, is disguising through his grand imagery the fact that his narratives were all over the place, themes willy-nilly dropping in and out, rarely carried through on (not that I mind all that much, because, man… that imagery!).
What Rose does with the story is take the underlying themes on monsters arising from repression and mankind’s determination to push off the ‘other’ onto urban legend as a way to separate it, and develop it into almost perfectly realized territory. Candyman is a masterclass; not only in elegant, truly romantic filmmaking (one with a strong bite, mind you – it’s not afraid to go for broke on the level of harrowing violence — cuz when it gets nasty, man, does it gets nasty, including children being castrated, dogs having their heads sliced off, Candyman’s hook doing its brutal work from stem to sternum, or whatever you call it, likeable characters shockingly being slaughtered, and our heroine ultimately rendered… well… let’s say physically beyond repair), but in showing how well resonant themes like racism, the marginalization created out of colonialism and sexism can empower the underlying motivations and narrative of a horror film (as well as inform the powerfully grotesque imagery) in profound and complex ways (without needing to be overtly didactic, or, God forbid, safely cater to a faux liberal, identity politics crowd, the favorite pastime of many of today’s horror films).
Shifting the film to Chicago, a city shown through its architectural and city-planning landscape, to have been constructed to divide along lines of race and subjugation is just one of the masterstrokes, allowing those helicopter-style city shots that open the film and are returned to throughout, accompanied with that great repeating motif Phillip Glass score, to be more than just cool shots but actual statements, and providing powerful moments such as our graduate student heroines, Helen (Virginian Madsen) and Bernie (Kasi Lemmons), looking out from the privileged perch of the high-rise apartment Helen shares with her pompous professor lover (who naturally she met and fell in love with him while he was her teacher), Trevor (the amusingly smarmy Xander Berkeley) to describe the unjust layout of the city before them (even the practical throw away idea of Helen realizing that the apartment they pay so much money for was likely once a low-rent project itself before gentrification re-branded it is a nice layer).
There are so many wonderfully thoughtful, subtle moments in the film, ones in which if you’re not paying attention you might not even notice (as many of the insanely idiotic cackling hyenas on this night surely didn’t, as they barely noticed the overt ones, too busy laughing and rejecting anything and everything not immediately familiar to them – but enough of those vapid mindless ones, other than to say, as much as I enjoy sipping an alcoholic beverage in my seat, the price of having to be surrounded by so many limited Mile End trolls is starting to become no longer worth it – it might be time to soon say goodbye to Cinema Moderne screenings), such as the quiet hurtful reality check that Lemmon’s Kasi, a young black woman on the successful side of the tracks, feels when she realizes that the Cabrini Green’s Anne-Marie – a small part unforgettably played by Vanessa A. Williams, an actress I don’t have any idea of other than this film – instinctively looks warily at her and Helen as interchangeable ‘white people’.
While Barker hinted at class and architecture containing and creating myth, Rose explodes the idea. His creation of a link between two ‘others’ – Helen, as a woman in insufferable male-dominated academia, and the Candyman, a once-privileged slave lynched for daring to sleep with a white woman — is almost purely from Rose. Madsen, sporting 80’s dress and hairstyle, yet radiating a classic sensibility, is great. I’ve seen her in a ton of other films but none anywhere near as memorable as she is here.
Rose’s adding of the ‘saying the name seven times’ to summon the Candyman ended up being another masterstroke, as it’s one of the recognizable now-classic aspects remembered about the film (and while, by the end of the film, as darkly amusing as the moment is, with our believability really stretching for the final twist summoning, its very awkward handling only adds to the idea that these are legends, beyond reality, more ‘stories being told’).
And, at the center of it all, standing upon the mountain of fire at Cabrini Green, swarmed by buzzing bees, is the indelible and imposing Candyman, that figure of sweaty romance, a creation from violent sin, turned into myth as a way to tolerate painful truth, brought to life with deep intensity and elegance by Tony Todd, using that unforgettable deep growling voice to great effect (I should know a bit about it – momentary proud bragging moment! – he allowed me access to it, voicing a tortured blind piano blues player in my “Hidden Records” radio play episode from Season Four of Glass Eye Pix’s “Tales from Beyond the Pale”, recorded live at the Montreal Fantasia Film Festival in 2015).
After reading the story I realize while it was Barker who provided much of the fodder (including, no surprise, some of the unforgettable imagery, such as the impressive graffiti of the Candyman’s face that Helen discovers by entering the hidden room through its mouth, the ‘Sweets to the sweet’ line, and the hook-handed figure himself, if not his racially charged backstory), but not all of it. It was Rose who catapulted the figure of the Candyman, with all his circling lore and attending underlying themes that buzz about him like the bees swarming from his mouth and bloody exposed chest, into that of worthy modern cinematic horror icon status. And its richly deserved.
If I have any reservations on the film, they’re slight (such as Candyman’s stated reasons for needing to ‘convince Helen of his existence’ revolving around keeping the legend alive a bit gobbledegook and ultimately unnecessary – hell, the traditional ‘she looks just like the white lover he died for’ was working fine on its own and some of the attempted fortunately relatively benign jump scares, which are never really my bag) and are far outweighed by all that works so well; so brilliantly in fact. It’s a film that far transcends its 80’s trappings and achieves a kind of timelessness (if you let it, that is, as the hipsters proved they couldn’t).
It’s just too bad most of that cackling hipster Mile End crowd is too up their own prejudiced, self-important asses to realize it. They might have learned something.