Saturday 9 November 2013

Candyman [1992]

CANDYMAN is an American horror film that was written and directed by Bernard Rose and originally released in October 1992.  It stars Virginia Madsen, Xander Berkeley, Tony Todd, Kasi Lemmons and Vanessa Williams.  Adapted from Clive Barker's short story 'The Forbidden' it tells the story of a post-graduate student working on a thesis about modern urban folklore who investigates the legend of Candyman, a hook-handed killer who appears if you say his name five times in front of a mirror.

A decent sized hit in its day CANDYMAN is less impressive twenty years down the line.  First of all it suffers badly from an affliction that besets so many films from its period, namely fuzzy photography, of a sort that makes the image look less like a film and more like a TV episode.  Only a week before I saw this movie I watched John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN [1978] and marvelled at how crisp and precise the photography looks, even now; by contrast CANDYMAN looks badly dated.

A cinema release from a major studio looking more like an episode of Friends
Secondly, despite a laudable attempt at contemporary relevance in setting the action amid the housing projects of the late 20th century United States the film fails to foreground the black characters sufficiently to make them much more than necessary plot hinges.  It's the kind of film that pats itself on the back for featuring black characters in its script but then features them only in terms of how they affect the central character, who naturally enough (this being mainstream Hollywood) is beautiful, white, successful and middle-class.

Virginia Madsen as Helen Lyle.  I have read that director Bernard Rose persuaded Madsen to be hypnotised for certain sequences so that her pupils would be fully dilated.  I guess this is what he was after.
Thirdly, although that central character is a woman the film makes no effort to present her as anything other than a victim, pursued as she is throughout the film by predatory black men.  Even her final transformation into vengeful spirit suggests that women can either be victims or monsters, with nothing in between.  Indeed, the rest of the film's female characters tend to fall into one or other of these two classifications.

Two victims: Helen and friend Bernie Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) (R)...

... and a monster - the grotesque, impassive female police officer (Rusty Schwimmer)
It's a pity that the film doesn't follow through on the promise of its unusual set up.  There aren't enough films made in any genre, let alone horror, which deal with the problems of the dispossessed and disenfranchised without portraying them as monsters.  Similarly, the film skirts around the issue of racism in modern American society; it is content to use historical racism and slavery as part of Candyman's backstory but there is no discussion, however brief, of the pervasive present day racism which explains black characters exclusively inhabiting the film's ghetto location.  Almost without exception the black characters are associated with squalor, crime, unemployment, and various other negatives; the exception (Vanessa Williams' character Anne-Marie) genuinely is just that - the exception.  And even she is a single mother living in a ghetto shithole.

Vanessa Williams as Anne-Marie McCoy
Those technological and ideological objections aside, CANDYMAN is a decent enough horror movie although it errs in keeping its trump card - Tony Todd's mesmerising performance in the title role - off screen for almost half the running time.  I have to say I also found the film's set piece climax to be unintentionally hilarious as Virginia Madsen, hair ablaze, crawls out from under a raging bonfire to hand back to its mother a baby that had previously been abducted by Candyman.

Tony Todd as Candyman
As I said earlier, CANDYMAN did well enough at the box office to spawn two sequels although these provided the proverbial diminishing returns and the franchise ended there.  As a horror icon, Candyman is not quite up there with Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers and Leatherface.  To me, his USPs - a hook for a hand, and swarms of bees which, much like normal bees, don't do very much and certainly aren't frightening - seemed rather like a movie monster designed by committee.  His means of summoning is so straightforward and manifestly effective as to be patently absurd, particularly when you're trying to prove his existence or otherwise.

Virginia Madsen gives it her all (and sheds most of her dignity) as Helen Lyle while Xander Berkeley slimes it up as only he can as her husband Trevor.  Keep an eye out for director Bernard Rose, who has a small role, as does Sam EVIL DEAD Raimi's brother Ted, who you may remember from XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS.

Ted Raimi
Bernard Rose made a couple of low budget British films (including the interesting horror movie PAPERHOUSE) at the end of the 80s before moving to Hollywood, lured no doubt by its promise of bigger productions. Unfortunately he only made three pictures in 10 years there and, evidently somewhat bruised from his encounter with the studios, embraced the digital revolution of the 21st century thereby opting for a less lucrative but, one hopes, more fulfilling career.

One final point worth noting is the score, which is by Philip Glass and is excellent.


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