Director: Bernard Rose
Cast: Virginia Madsen, Xander Berkeley, Tony Todd
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
You can't stop people from complaining. For many, it's what they do best. And I may not be excluded from that list. A quick comparison of my negative reviews and my positive reviews won't do much to dissuade that line of thinking.
It's easy to not like something. It's much more of a challenge to praise something in a humorous way than to put it down. So I understand the flak the horror genre in the 90's tends to get, especially considering that Leprechaun, Uncle Sam, and Jack Frost present themselves so prominently, low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking. But this is the decade of Scream, of Army of Darkness, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, and The Sixth Sense.
We may want to forget about the denim outfits, but it does us no good to ignore the vast array of important contributions to the genre that wedged themselves in among the muck. Just like any other decade of horror filmmaking (and popular culture in general), there will be good, there will be bad, there will be godawful. We're only humans.
I'm getting to a point here, I promise. What I'm saying, in a nutshell, is that any decade capable of producing a grim-faced and sophisticated psychological horror film like Candyman - our topic for today - can by no legitimate means be considered a bust.
Even if some of the more horrifying elements include how dated the technology is.
Candyman, adapted by Bernard Rose from a story by Clive Barker, is a tale about urban legends. Specifically, the story of Candyman - a hook-handed murderer that haunts the imaginations of the residents of Chicago's notorious failed urban housing project, Cabrini-Green. Rumor has it that if you say his name five times into a mirror, Candyman will appear and gut you like a fish. They say that he is the ghost of a slave's son, killed by a lynch mob after impregnating a white woman. Over the years, he has become a local boogeyman, a way to scare children away from the crime-filled outdoors.
He captivated the minds of many with his unique calling cards, as well as the fact that he died covered in a swarm of bees (bees - great for eerie effect, terrible for the bee-phobic blogger). For this reason he is the subject of grad student Helen's (Virginia Madsen) thesis. She and her partner Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) have decided to study the story of the Candyman and how it's connected to a recent hook-related murder in Cabrini-Green.
When her skepticism washes over the residents of the projects, including young mother Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) and helpful little boy Jake (DeJuan Guy), Helen is visited by Candyman (Tony Todd) himself and thus begins a dark seduction. You see, he needs her help. Without the belief of his "congregation" and his constant presence in their thoughts and nightmares, Candyman loses his power. He's like a homicidal Tinker Bell.
As Helen gets blamed for a string of murders that ensue, endangering her friends and her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley), she must fight the tantalizing call of becoming Candyman's next victim and living for eternity as the next great urban legend.
It's either that or lung cancer - I swear I got secondhand smoke from how often the characters lit up.
That's the magic of Clive Barker. No villain is a villain and no hero is a hero. Everyone is merely human - fueled by the battle between desire and morality, caught up in a sick, deadly, macabrely sexual game of cat and mouse, much like the writer's self-directed magnum opus, Hellraiser. Although his translation through director Bernard Rose makes the intimate details of the plot a little tough to follow the first time through, Candyman is so wholly and vividly experiential that is blares through you like a cannon blast just the same.
Among the many filmic elements battling for supremacy in the film, perhaps the most powerful is the setting itself - the projects are a bleak labyrinth of graffiti and exposed cinder block, virtually crushing the inhabitants with its sheer weight. Although it's so over-the-top it almost seems like the work of an overzealous production designer taking the idea of urban decay and running a marathon with it, Cabrini-Green is one hundred percent real. The tactile and bone-chilling awfulness of the projects seeps into your bones, providing a skin-crawling display of human degradation before the horror story even begins in earnest.
This is a location so dismal that the filmmakers had to get special permission from the gangleaders to shoot the movie there - in exchange for featuring them as extras, another alarming touch of realism. The building is far more wicked and soaked in bad energy than any mere film set could possibly achieve, and the fact that the people behind and in front of the camera barely made it out alive is palpable in the tension onscreen.
"The next film I do is taking place in a Marriott or I'm retiring." - Literally Everyone
So, besides the location, what else is good in the film? The answer: Pretty much everything. The score by Philip Glass is a gothic masterpiece of mood-setting (and knowing when to stop and let the imagery speak for itself). The acting (even from the children) is incomparably sophisticated for a film of this mint, and although I've never been a huge fan of Tony Todd as a physical performer, his voice can reverberate through your very soul. And the imagery evoked from nearly every frame is stunning.
Through the many aerial shots (intercut with Candyman's narration over a frame-filling swarm of bees), we can see that the city is laid out like a honeycomb, with the cars and people buzzing through it like drones.
No funny caption here. Just appreciate the majesty.
Compound this with the subtly hexagonal lighting and the constant presence of buzzing bees and Chicago becomes one massive hive of activity. Hives are what destroyed Candyman (the literal bees) and hives are what brought him back (the drones buzzing around Cabrini-Green). Their oppressive presence in the film's visual schema locks Helen into her place in society until she is given a chance to break free, mirroring Candyman's escape from the cruel bonds of a world that viewed him as a monster.
As the people around Helen slowly start to perceive her the same way, the imagery becomes more and more focused and relevant.
In addition to a heaping helping of actual symbolism, Candyman achieves the impossible - slasher death sequences that are actually scary. Because the focus is on the people being killed rather than how they are being killed, these scenes achieve a visceral impact largely with sound design and implication and approximately a cement mixer-full of Karo syrup. The deaths themselves aren't particularly gory but the aftermath will blow you away.
I'm getting close to signing off here, so I won't bore you with the (not so) gory details, but this is the one slasher movie in months that has made me and Sergio watch over our shoulders on the walk home. And that doesn't count for nothing.
I'm reluctant to give it as high a rating as this review would imply, if only because the intellectualism can get so dense at points that it obscures the movie (this renders the film not entirely scary in the moment - but after it's over the terror seeps down your spine like a sinister snake). But Candyman is a darn rewarding flick, straight from the supposed cinematic detritus of 1992. So there.
TL;DR: Candyman is a terrific, eerie, and intellectual slasher film.
Word Count: 1288
Reviews In This Series
Candyman (Rose, 1992)
Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh (Condon, 1995)
Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (Meyer, 1999)