Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Candyman (1992)

The opening credits show aerial footage of Chicago accompanied by a hypnotic score by Philip Glass; once they are finished, the first thing we see in Candyman is bees. Lots of bees, in close up. Then we hear the Voice. Deep, dark and resonant, it whispers seductively.

"They say that I will shed innocent blood. What is blood for, if not for shedding? With my hook for a hand, I will split you from your groin to your gullet. I have come for you..."

Not exactly love poetry, but in the voice of Tony Todd that's exactly what it sounds like. Todd plays the title character in Candyman, and though he has very little screen time he dominates the entire movie. His physical presence is majestic, but it is that voice that you remember.

The story centres on Virginia Madsen as Helen, a graduate student studying urban legends. She hears about a particularly gruesome one centered in Cabrini Green, a notorious real-life housing project, involving a spirit who appears when you say his name into a mirror five times. She sets out to find the truth behind the legend, which leads to her running foul of a particularly brutal local gang. But an urban legend needs people to believe to give it power, and soon Helen finds that there are scarier things than tough kids wielding meathooks.

Candyman is often described as a slasher movie, and it certainly spills more blood than most Friday the 13th sequels, but to me it's a ghost story through and through. The Candyman is not out for revenge, although his backstory gives him plenty to be vengeful about. He is more of a romantic figure. "Be my victim," he says to Helen, but he says it seductively, hypnotically. (And in fact director Bernard Rose would hypnotise Virginia Madsen before playing each of these scenes, and she does appear to be in some kind of altered state in these moments.) Helen's investigation threatens his very existence, as it could take away his mystique, which is his very power. But he does not merely want to take her life - he wants her to surrender to him completely.

"Why do you want to live? If you would learn just a little from me, you would not beg to live. I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people's dreams, but not to have to be. Do you understand?"

This is an unusually intelligent and beautiful horror movie. The elegant cinematography by Anthony B Richmond and the score by Philip Glass blend perfectly with the combination of urban fairy tale and realistic horror put together by writer/director Bernard Rose. The movie is based on a short story by Clive Barker, called "The Forbidden", and in my opinion this is one of the rare examples of a film adaptation being superior to its literary source. Rose's decision to set the movie in Chicago (instead of Liverpool) and to add the socio-economic & racial/class elements was a master stroke, as was his interpolation of real urban legends. The method of summoning Candyman is borrowed from mythology put together by American street kids, in particular the legend of Bloody Mary; there's a brilliant account of these here.

There's also a strong element of ambiguity to the movie, and it's certainly possible to claim that the supernatural elements may all be in the main character's head. I counted exactly one instance where this interpretation does not quite work, and even that could be explained away without a lot of effort. Virginia Madsen has probably never been better than she is in this movie, which puts us in her head for almost the entire running time; she carries the movie, and as much as Tony Todd elevates things when he appears, the movie wouldn't work without her.

But all these elements of romance, social significance and aesthetic beauty do not stop Candyman from being a particularly savage and frightening horror movie. Many characters within the movie tell ghost stories of their own, some of which are dramatised, and most of them are extremely gruesome. The movie supposedly had to be heavily cut to avoid an NC-17 rating in the US; I don't know if we got the uncut version over here, because it's hard to imagine it being much bloodier. And of course for all that he is majestic, awe-inspiring and even sexy, Candyman himself is quite terrifying each time he appears.

I recommend Candyman without reservation to anyone who likes horror movies.

1 comment:

  1. Ditto -- on everything, yes including being better than its literary source. Barker's tale is a stub of the idea that Rose's film makes gloriously manifest. It's unfortunate that it kicked off the spawn of urban legend crap films, but inevitable perhaps too. As a sucker for the right kind of voice (oh, Michael Wincott, when will you come to your senses?!) I am right with you there that Todd's voice is half the seduction. I remember Clive talking about these tales and he said "from my grandmother's lips to the page." They have that power. From Clive's Italian grandmother to Rose's Chicago slums (exactly appropriate counterpoint to Liverpool in so many ways), it has that life, that resonance. Campfire tales told once we replaced the campfire with fluorescence. The fear remains.

    And Glass' soundtrack: sublime. So glad they were finally officially released.