Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Candyman

The slasher boom of the 1980s introduced such villains as Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, and Jason Voorhees, By the end of the decade, the genre had grown long-in-the-tooth, and these once formidable, frightening  boogeymen had been commercialized, watered-down, and overexposed. The 90s brought us more true-to-life killers - Hannibal Lector, John Doe, etc. - who though twisted and brilliant were decidedly more human. Few villains of the period carried the supernatural mantle.

One notable exception was the Candyman. Candyman was the son of a former slave, educated at the best schools, and much celebrated as an artist when commissioned to paint the portrait of a beautiful, virginal daughter of a wealthy man. The artist and his subject fell in love, and when she became pregnant, her father exacted a horrible revenge. Candyman had his right hand sawed off with a rusty blade, a hook fitted on the bloody stump, and then his body was smeared with honey and left to be swarmed by bees. Now he haunts the Chicago housing project Cabrini Green; look in the mirror, say his name five times, and he arrives to gut you "from groin to gullet."

That's the legend we're told in Candyman (1992). Directed by Bernard Rose and based on "The Forbidden" by Clive Barker (who acts here as executive producer), Candyman explores the power of stories, specifically urban legends, the roles they play in people's lives, and how they sometimes can take on a life of their own. More importantly, it's an exquisitely crafted horror movie that contains moments of utter revulsion matched by moments of pure poetry.

Graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), along with her research partner Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), is working on a thesis about urban legends when she learns the story of Candyman. Investigating, she discovers a local gang leader using the legend to tighten his hold on Cabrini Green. When Helen gets the thug arrested, disproving the legend in the process, the real Candyman (Tony Todd) appears so she will believe in him. Candyman commits a series of gruesome crimes, leaving Helen to be framed. The only way to prove her innocence is to prove the legend is true.

I find the Candyman just a fascinating character. Michael Myers, when unmasked, looks like a normal young man, Freddy Kruger is horribly disfigured by burns, and Jason Voorhees was a misshapen child when alive and a decayed zombie when resurrected. Most slashers are ugly, scarred, and usually adorned in a mask or some other concealing garment. By contrast, Candyman possesses an air of nobility about him. Instead of ratty clothes, he dresses in a manner fitting a regal aristocrat, not a deranged killer: fur coat, polished shoes, etc. He is an eloquent speaker as well, neither a mute like Jason nor a raspy-voiced jokester like Freddy. His voice is so thick, so resonant, it rattles bones and walls. But Candyman is more than image and sound.

In Hamlet, Queen Gertrude utters "Sweets to the sweet" as she scatters flowers on the grave of Ophelia. This phrase appears on the walls throughout Candyman, and it's not the only connection to Shakespeare's play. Like Hamlet, Candyman is an existential character. He kills not out of revenge, thrills, or compulsive psychosis. Candyman wants to live; he wants to exist. As the movie explains, it is the faith of his "congregation," the terrified residents of Cabrini Green who attribute daily ghetto horrors to him, that gives him his power, his ability to be real.Without that belief in him, he is nothing.

Hamlet, in the play's most famous soliloquy, describes the fear of what lies beyond death, that "undiscovered country" from which "no traveler returns." Candyman also wants Helen to be his victim, to solidify in his legend in the minds of his believers. Helen says she fears not only the pain of dying but what lies beyond. He assures there is nothing to fear; they will live on as the "writing on the wall," the stories lovers tell to hold each other closer, the tale told frighten children, and the whispers in the night. To have that belief is to live forever.

Candyman contains some powerful images, some beautiful like when Helen climbs through a hole in a wall that is revealed to be the mouth of a painting, and some are gruesome like when Candyman pulls open his coat to reveal a swarm of bees crawling over his entrails. Just as effective is the music. Composed by Phillip Glass, the music is haunting and ecclesiastical, like a dark church choir, and again, it's beautiful, a mix of vocals, piano, and organ.

There are horror movies that work by being gritty and ugly. Films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead break decorum and put their audiences through the wringer, brutalizing them as much as their characters. Then, there are movies like Candyman. Yes, they're scary, but they leave you in awe.

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