Candyman (1992, directed by Bernard Rose) is the best film adaptation of Clive Barker. It's a film that fulfills the promise those blurbs on the original Books of Blood trumpeted ("I have seen the future of horror..."). It's one of the most profoundly frightening films of the 1990s, a decade short on really effective fright films. Oh, it plunges off a cliff in the end, as most films based on Barker do, but before then? Oh, it's the primo stuff.
The story finds graduate student Helen Lyle researching urban legends, particularly a variant on the "Bloody Mary" story, in which the subject says "Candyman" five times in front of a mirror and summons the ghost of a hook-handed murderer. The story, it turns out, has taken deep root in the Cabrini Green housing project in the north side of Chicago, where Helen and her research partner, Bernie Walsh, head to investigate. It turns out that there are very real deaths going on there, beyond the usual gang murders and drug casualties, deaths unexplained and uninvestigated by the police. Meanwhile, Helen casually says "Candyman" into a mirror five times, though Bernie stops short. Helen's second trip to the project finds her encountering a man posing as the Candyman as a gang enforcer, who lands Helen in a police station with a battered left eye. Helen presses charges, which no one heretofore has done, but her grasp on reality starts to slip. She begins to see the Candyman, who begs her to become his victim. She awakes from a swoon in the apartment of one of the women whose story she is collecting, covered in blood. She finds herself accused of murdering the woman's baby, then framed for the murder of Bernadette, then institutionalized as a dangerously insane. And always in the margins is the Candyman, whose existence depends on the credulity of his community. Helen's skepticism is a threat to him, so he intends to convince her...
This has a lot of ideas and tropes circling around each other, not least of which is an overt self-knowledge of the roots of the horror film in urban legends. The tale of the hook is mixed in with Bloody Mary, then given a new shot of urban menace and mixed with some more cinematic horrors. The film noir trope of being suspected of a murder while you're blacked out is here. So is the commitment in a mental hospital where no one believes you. Hitchcock's wrong man, falsely accused. Also in the mix is the movie version of academic politics, with its infighting and middle-aged professors screwing their students. It's a bitches brew and it turns the screws tight. The fact that it all coheres for as long as it does is a testament to the skill of director Bernard Rose, whose acquaintance with horror movies falls on the more poetic end of the genre.
This is an unusually good-looking movie; it's more attractive than the American genre usually provided. Its Chicago locations, often filmed in sinister aerial shots, its academic chic, its throbbing Gothic Philip Glass score, all of these provide it with a texture uniquely its own. Rose deploys his leitmotifs subtly. A Guy Fawkes mask prefigures the film's final act. Creative uses of graffiti. The easy way it suggests that everything in the film is real even though it has ample opportunity to paint it all as the result of Helen's blow to the head. The idea that gods thrive on the belief of the congregation. It's a film rich with avenues to explore, though in truth, some of them are blind alleys. The "visionary" elements of Barker's story tend to remove the film from what's really effective in favor of ideas that aren't particularly scary. It saves most of these ideas for the end of the film, which is ultimately disappointing. This is a film that gets a good deal of its best effects from racial unease, and racism is a subtle continuing thread throughout the film, from the back story of the Candyman himself through the poverty and crime in the projects to the depiction of a solitary white woman being menaced by a quartet of young black men. This pushes buttons in a way that almost makes me wish that Kasi Lemmons rather than Virginia Madsen had been cast in the lead instead of as the sidekick. Still, this has an effect.
For her part, Madsen acquits herself admirably as Helen, a role that's equal parts Final Girl, Savant, and film noir hero. Rose obliges her with good scenes to play. Indeed, it gives her the opportunity to absolutely devour the scenery, if she had so desired. It's surprising that she underplays so effectively. In the early parts of the film, Madsen's character is mostly reactive, but when everything heads down the rabbit hole about halfway in, she becomes a more ambivalent figure: not a victim, really, though the film makes a point of making her one. The more the events of the film constrain her agency, the more agency she asserts. The best scene in the film isn't even a horror scene: Helen escapes from the psych ward with the intervention of the Candyman and heads home, only to find her husband and his student redecorating. Madsen's performance in this scene is terrific. Tony Todd, by contrast, is done no favors by the role or by the film. He's mostly given dialogue that seems like catch phrases to be spoken by the Cenobites in the Hellraiser movies. He's not asked to emote, really, and his speaking voice is altered in post to make it sound supernatural. The guy who plays the gang leader pretending to be the Candyman is almost more frightening a figure, particularly in the scene in which he appears when Helen is on her own and out of her depth. Still, Todd doesn't really need to do much more than he does, either. It's not a complex character.
This film is fairly violent, though not nearly as violent as other Barker adaptations. It doesn't really need the violence. Importantly, it's aware of this and deploys what violence it chooses to use with deliberate care. This is a movie, rare for its time period, that understands the difference between terror and horror. Horror is mostly visceral. You feel it in your gut. Candyman doesn't shy away from this, but it's more interested in terror, which you feel in the back of your head. For most of its running time, it succeeds in evoking exactly that. And if it can't sustain it? Well, there are plenty of films that never get it off the ground in the first place.
Current Challenge tally:
Total Viewings: 8
First Time Viewings: 5
Around the Web:
Tim over at The Other Side continues to view his movies through a game filter, but The Blade Trilogy lends itself to that rather nicely.
Scott at Blasphemous Tomes surveys 100 Bloody Acres and finds them good.
Jose at Riding the Nightmare whistles along with the Devil in Blood on Satan's Claw.
Kevin over at For It Is Man's Number takes a ride in The Phantom Carriage.
Finally, Dr. AC over at Horror 101 is still recruiting pledges for charity, though he takes time to spin through the (excellent) 1990s Gamera trilogy.
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