Candyman (review)

Bernard Rose
17 August 2014

Even though now we’re used to thinking of it as “progression,” it still hasn’t matched real life. It’s really total dysfunction not to represent the population. I think it’s a crime, actually. — Kasi Lemmons, commentary track, Candyman: Special Edition

I had wanted to create this monster that was aware of itself as a monster: “I am a legend,” you know. It would be seductive because it would be this powerful thing that moved not only through the imagination of the lead character, but also through the imagination of the culture. — Clive Barker, commentary track, Candyman: Special Edition

I was the little boy who, around the campfire, was called upon to tell the scary story. That’s what I did. I wasn’t really good at putting up tents and I couldn’t cook bacon. But I could tell a scary story. — Clive Barker, “Sweets to the Sweet: The Candyman Mythos”

From its first images — an elegant helicopter shot over Chicago streets, a swarm of bees overpowering the skyline, and a dissolve to Helen’s (Virgina Madsen) rapt face — Candyman sets up its central themes. Namely, the ways that public space and personal desires come together. You might even consider, a dozen years after the film’s release, that the long shot of the assault on the city speaks to very real apocalyptic fears as well.

As writer Clive Barker puts it in his commentary for the new Special Edition DVD, “An urban legend is a story that is passed orally around a community or around a culture. Part of the power of these stories is they are presented to us as real events. It happened, that somebody, somewhere close to the teller, experienced this.”

Indeed, the enduring resonance of Candyman, adapted and directed by Bernard Rose, has to do with its respect for and investment in specific and real events. As Rose says, “There are two big blots in American history. The first one is the massacre of the aboriginal Americans, the second is slavery. Essentially, those two events are not tangential to American history. They are American history.”

This despite the fact that Barker swears his own story, “The Forbidden”, from The Books of Blood, was based on tales his grandmother told him in Liverpool, about men who would cut off little boys’ genitals in public restrooms. Transposed and reframed to suit its various contexts, this legend and others as well, belong singularly to each community, no matter when and where.

The story begins as Helen, a graduate student in folklore, is listening to one of several versions of the Candyman myth. And it is, as Barker observes, a meta-text, a “movie about horror movies, a monster movie about monsters.” (The DVD includes comments from Rose, Barker, Madsen, Tony Todd, producer Alan Poul, and Kasi Lemmons, all on separate tracks, as well as two featurettes, the 24-minute making-of film, “Sweets to the Sweet: The

Candyman Mythos”, and a bio of the author, “Clive Barker: Raising Hell”. “I was a nervous kid, I was the kind of kid who found it very easy to imagine the worst.” There’s also a sequence of Rose’s evocative storyboards set to Philip glass’ memorable score.) Helen and fellow student Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are gathering stories from Chicago locals about the Candyman (played by the magnificent Tony Todd), a monster who haunts the projects, assaulting little boys in the public bathrooms and babies in their cribs.

The women’s research leads them to the devastated Cabrini Green projects, where they meet some bangers looking to keep control of their turf and a young mother, Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams), who is desperate to protect her baby. Though Bernadette suggests they back off, it’s not long before Helen takes a dare to disprove the monster’s existence; speaking his name five times into a mirror, she conjures him up.

As she resembles his own long lost love, Candyman proceeds to terrorize and murder all those near her, including Bernadette, Helen’s husband, Professor Trevor Lyle (Xander Berkeley), his new girlfriend Stacey (Carolyn Lowrey), and Helen’s shrink. As no one else can see Candyman except Helen, when he guts people with his hook-for-a-hand, they think she’s on an exceedingly powerful rampage. The plot revolves around Helen’s initial efforts to fight off Candyman, and eventually, succumbs to his seduction. Rose notes that no one else treats her with such devotion (admittedly bloody and brutal). Her choice has to do with turning her back on the horrible history that has produced Candyman.

The fiend’s origin story shapes the havoc he wreaks. A black man during the Civil War, educated, artistic, and betrothed to a white woman, he’s tortured and killed by the white townspeople in especially gruesome ways — they chop off his hand and replace it with a hook, then cover him in honey so bees will sting him to death. (The Hamlet line that serves as homage to him in the projects, “Sweets for the sweet,” speaks to this experience.) “He was a good man that was done wrong,” notes Madsen in her commentary. “And he became evil through no fault of his own. That’s the same for Dracula and Frankenstein… He kills and he ravages, but it’s not his fault.”

Or again, as Lemmons puts it, “The Candyman is born of extreme racism against him. And he takes that hatred and it’s become a part of his monstrousness. I guess that we are breeding monsters, we are making monsters by our past hatred… We’re responsible for the monsters that we create.”

Because the film is about what Lemmons calls “ancestral traumas”, it is appropriately set in the direst section of the city. As producer Alan Poul recalls, “In finding the contemporary equivalent of the haunted house, [Rose] chose to go into the projects.” Moreover, as Madsen recalls, during production, “in Los Angeles, the heat was building, and things were getting worse and worse and worse, and we all knew it. The Rodney King tape was played on the nightly news. And nothing was done about it. And everybody was outraged.” While Madsen and Lemmons assert their commitment to the project, in particular for its timing (Madsen says, “I was glad that people were shocked”), Barker notes, “Nobody thought it was a good idea… [They said,] you can’t cast an African American man.”

Rose pursued the invocation of racism with his own sort of vengeance. “Irrational fear, in a sense, is the very fundamental building block of racism,” he says. “I think that the film… became a rather subtle way of exploring what is really the dark heart of American history, which is a country built on racism.” As Candyman is a victim as well as a villain, he embodies a specific complexity, one that Rose says is best available in horror films.

“In an action film,” he says, “you sympathize with the killer… An action film is about how many people can you kill. How many bad guys? But who designates who’s good and who’s bad? It’s a moral judgment I’m uncomfortable with… I think they’re really made in the main to help gun manufacturers show their wares. I don’t make them. In a horror film, on the other hand, you sympathize with the victim… It’s all about waiting to be killed, it’s all about trying to stay alive, which to me seems a much more human objective.”

At the same time that the story of Candyman is produced by US history, Helen is also formed by her experience, her yearning, and her disbelief. In an unhappy marriage, she seeks escape and difference. “She’s looking for something,” says Rose. The monster is “somebody that she has invoked by her disbelief. She really caused him. She is the trouble.” That doesn’t make her the victim who “asks for it”; rather, she is exploring causes and motivations, seeking narratives. She is, above all, a student of storytelling, as it creates, suppresses, and revises history.

This makes her relationship with Candyman simultaneously “monstrous and romantic”. Both Madsen and Rose recall that he hypnotized her on the set to achieve the “trancelike” state of her ultimately violent seductions by Candyman. Todd remarks, “This movie isn’t just about race. It’s also a love story.” (This as blood spurts from his latest victim, Helen).

But Rose also underlines the physicality of the relationship, as Candyman hovers over Helen in her psych ward cell, pressing himself against her chest as she’s strapped to her bed: “His attack is openly sexual. He has, basically, this huge cock on his hand, and he kills people by sticking it in them, in their orifices. That’s part of the appeal of the movie… There’s a pervy angle to him.” That’s one word for it.