Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Candyman (1992)

Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992) was one of the first horror movies I ever saw. Not only that, but when innocent 14-year-old-me came upstairs after watching it in the basement, the radio was playing "Candyman" by Christina Aguilera, and in my Clive Barkered state I was convinced that this was a Doomful Omen and that I was Going To Die. Thankfully, I did not die, but lived on to watch Candyman again, years later. And it was still good. Sort of.

Tony Todd is a little thin-skinned.
Candyman's heroine is earnest grad student Helen (Virginia Madsen), who hears about the "Candyman" while writing her thesis on urban legends. She visits Cabrini Green (the real-life 90s Chicago housing project where large chunks of our plot take place) to get to the bottom of the story. Unshockingly, The Legend Is True, and Candyman (Tony Todd) marks Helen for his next lover/victim. Hapless Helen keeps getting accused of the murders Candyman commits and is finally institutionalized, but when he kidnaps a Cabrini Green tenant's baby, Helen escapes the asylum long enough to rescue the infant, die in a fire and become Chicago's newest ghost story. That's why you don't mess with babies. Not even if you're a horror villain.

Candyman riffs on racial cliches which have plagued Hollywood for years (most prominently aggressive black male VS virginal white female, AKA D. W. Griffith syndrome), with mixed results. The film is strongest when it subverts the tropes -- for instance, when Helen literally takes Candyman's place as an urban legend, underscoring her own destructive impulse and sexual agency. Unfortunately, Candyman doesn't play against our expectations nearly often enough. Helen descending on Cabrini Green to utter words of cool logic to its superstitious inhabitants (never mind that their "superstitions" turn out to be true) and rescue a baby while its mother stands by have a yucky White Burdeny aftertaste. Me no gusta.

Where Candyman excels, however, is in turning the guy-cackles-girl-screams misogyny of the slasher canon on its head. The bee metaphor which pervades the film, with all its matriarchal connotations, is wickedly clever. Beyond mere symbolism, I really dug that Helen was an active agent in triggering her own Candymanly doom rather than idly hanging out, wandering down dark alleys and waiting to get slaughtered, as she would in so many movies. On this front, Candyman's ending is especially satisfying. I don't often get to enjoy a horrified shiver which also satisfies my feminist impulse.

To shut up about the politics for a second: great score by Philip Glass. Yay Philip Glass! Great pacing by Bernard Rose. Yay Bernard Rose! Less-than-great villain, unfortunately. Candyman has too much going on, with his fancy coat and his being covered in bees and his decaying chest and his scary hook and his elaborate backstory. The best horror villains are simple. Pinhead: piercings, S+M. Freddie Krueger: dreams, scary fingernails. Candyman needs to do himself a favor and streamline his image. Still, Tony Todd does what he can with it, and I like how self-satisfied Candyman seems whenever he makes Helen's life difficult, so yay Tony Todd!

All in all, I give Candyman a 3/5. I love Clive Barker's stuff and I think this movie is smart, enjoyable to watch, and full of studied, subtle performances (when do you ever hear that said about horror)? But it ventures into hyper-political territory and then doesn't follow through, which makes me sad. Maybe Candyman's imbalances are rectified in the sequels, but they've both got like -24% on Rotten Tomatoes, so I seriously doubt it.

"Please don't make me wear this stupid hairband!"
FINAL GIRL: Carolyn Lowery as Stacey. One of my favorite things about Candyman is that, technically speaking, Helen is NOT the Final Girl. Helen dies, which means the last girl standing is her scumbag husband's lover Stacey. Stacey would not be unusual in any other horror movie, because all she does is act sexy when she's not in danger and scream and cry when she is. When she shows up in Candyman, however, her bouts of hysteria underpin Helen's unique behavior patterns among horror heroines -- Helen's reaction to the Candyman isn't hysterical fear, but entranced sorrow, characterized by dewy eyes, fly-catcher mouth, and soft focus. Madsen's unusual and generally effective technique looks even better juxtaposed against Lowery's shrill fright-night posturings. So thanks, Stacey/Carolyn Lowery. You weren't anything to write home about yourself, but you were an excellent foil.

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