The early nineties wasn’t exactly a cornucopia of originality for we horror fans, was it? Oh, don’t look at me like that…ask yourself, what was lighting up the screens at your local multiplex back then? 1990 brought us flicks like Child’s Play 2, Basket Case 2, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3…1991 offered Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and The Howling VI: The Freaks…1992 hit the bricks with Maniac Cop III, Scanners III, and Stepfather III (do you see a trend, here?)…basically, we were treading water in a sea of sub-par sequels that were seeking to capitalize on the last desperate gasps of ’80s horror. Now before you get all upset with me, I’m not in any way saying that such flicks don’t have their merits; a copy of each and every film I’ve mentioned so far has a home on my shelves at this very moment…but as we all know, I’m a fan of bad films, and if we’re to be honest, we gotta admit that most of these aren’t exactly award winners. I also certainly don’t mean to imply that there weren’t some innovations made during those early years of the ’90s…The People Under The Stairs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Cat In The Brain, just to name a few…these were even more appreciated because of their creativity; truth be told, the flood of “quick buck” films kinda overshadowed the artisan strokes in that time period.
Artisan strokes there were, though, friends…and one of my favorites emerged out of this mix back in the latter part of 1992; from the mind of none other than horror genius Clive Barker came the dark fairy tale of Candyman. Though it was largely unheralded at the time, it was a serious treat for those of us that ventured to see what it was about.
Helen Lyle is a graduate student in Chicago, doing a dissertation on the prevalence of urban legends and modern mytholgy. Most fascinating to her is the story of Candyman, a localized tale of a mysterious boogeyman that will appear and brutally murder you with his hook-hand if you say his name five times in front of a mirror. Ambitious and motivated by the desire to overlook her deteriorating marriage, Helen investigates the epicenter of the local lore, the run-down and crime-ridden Cabrini Green housing projects where several recent brutal murders have been attributed to the “Candyman”. There, she finds a house of very earthly horrors, drugs and gang violence ruling with and iron fist; checking out the units where the murders occurred, she uncovers a labyrinthine expanse of graffiti-strewn, unused service tunnels, where the tale of the Candyman is illustrated in murals, cementing the strength of the tale and the inhabitants reverence and fear of it. Still, level-headed and scientific, she believes in a more corporeal cause of the crimes, and through her research uncovers a local gangbanger who’s using the myth and method of the legend to further his own ends. After his arrest, however, Helen begins having visions of a tall man with a hook for a hand, disdained that the faith of his flock has been tainted by her actions. Soon, circumstances begin to spiral around her, leaving her to question not only her sanity, but reality itself.
For a fairly-low budget and very under-marketed film, Candyman shines in many departments. Barker’s script (based on his short story, The Forbidden) is original, taut, and with it’s exploration of urban legends and local mythologies, relevant; his twists and turns are masterful, and really take the audience on a ride. Director Bernard Rose skillfully manipulates this script, along with his settings and actors, into becoming a tapestry of gritty realism injected with supernatural legend that becomes a puzzle, asking the question of what makes something real? The cinematography and lighting choices give certain sequences of the film a very dreamlike feel (very appropriately), yet the “real-world” moments are very crisp, interesting shot choices and framing creating a dynamic and attention-holding narrative flow. The pipe organ/choral score is suitably haunting and memorable, and (as with any good horror flick) really amps up the tension, aiding in the creation of a feeling of imposing dread. The actors in the film are impeccable; Tony Todd’s performance as the titular baddie evokes a inescapable menace whilst still being sympathetic and somehow, likeable.
Virginia Madsen, in what I think is her best performance, is not only a viable and believeable anchor for we the audience, but her multi-layered expressions of compassion and inner strength combine with the nuanced portrayal of a woman who knows her marriage is going to hell (and we see this in the performance, not via exposition) to create a character that is unshakably real; this, naturally, results in a stronger relationship with the audience, and makes the turn of events at the climax that much more powerful. The setting of the now-demolished Cabrini Green housing projects, complete with actual gang members, develops a suspenseful and foreboding environment even without the addition of a supernatural killer, and the delving into the dark bowels of such a place provides an atmosphere that is somehow Gothic despite the modern amenities. Finally, the effects: although it’s not a “gore-flick”, very atypcial of a film that many (who likely haven’t seen it) consider to be a “slasher”, the bloody effects that are used are horrific and very satisfying. They serve to accentuate the horror of the film rather than have the entire weight of the plot rest upon them; a pleasant rarity.
This movie is one of the precious few from that era that I actually found scary; it’s one of those that I appreciate more with subsequent viewings. The story goes far deeper than the original scares that it generated, and when one begins to peer deeper into the subtext of what’s going on, you begin to wonder just what the hell Candyman is. Ghostly revenant, as his legend suggests? Construct of myth, used by gangbangers to inspire fear in a population that already believes so strongly in the tale? A being of spiritual energy, composed solely of the power of belief, who finds his existence threatened and manifests himself for defense? Or, possibly worst of all, a figment of the imagination of a woman pressed to her breaking point by her own ambition, coupled with the strain of a failed, loveless marriage? Is Candyman a real thing, or has the legend given birth to a relentless psychosis in the mind of she who studies it?
You’ll have to make that determination for yourselves, folks.
I’ll never tell. 🙂
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