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Sweets to the sweet.
While working on her doctoral thesis in urban folklore, Helen Lyle stumbles across a strange set of circumstances. Seems that people have been dying in the Cabrini Green Projects of Chicago's South Side, and the residents are convinced that it is the work of the Candyman. Known to the locals as a mythical figure with a hook for a hand, this dreaded entity is the subject of innuendo and, indeed, legend. As she investigates, Helen befriends a young single mother, Anna-Marie McCoy, who tells her that it is indeed the poverty-row harbinger of death who is doing all the destroying.
One night, on a whim, Helen calls the Candyman in the customary fashion—saying his name five times in the mirror. Soon, her life is turned upside down. She is accused of murder and haunted by visions of the menacing monster man. But is it real, or all part of the Candyman's demonic design? From his slavery-era extermination to his modern metropolitan dominion, there is something sinister—and yet sympathetic—about this forlorn fiend. Only Helen can quell his unearthly desire.
Mixing urban legends and the standard slasher circumstances, with just a little overt empathy thrown in for good measure, Bernard Rose's Candyman was a refreshing change of pace from the usual underdone horror films floating around in 1992. The '80s and the home video boom had effectively killed off the terror tale, as a market flooded with foolishness saw several of its supposed saviors (fictional fiends with names like Krueger, Voorhees, and Myers, and real-life legends like Carpenter, Craven, and Romero) treading the boring, brackish waters of wasted opportunities. Leave it to the brazen Brit, Clive Barker—a writer famous for his Books of Blood and the supernatural story of adultery gone demonic, Hellraiser—to step up to the challenge of salvaging the genre. Rose, inspired by Barker's blueprints, went about crafting a brand-new monster, an enigmatic antihero born out of romance and racism, relegated to his position as a bogeyman. Rose gave the madman a hook for a hand (how "campfire tales"!) and a torturous death for a motive—and thus, a new creature feature was unleashed.
One of the most compelling parts of the Candyman mythos, and the movie made from it, is the boldness of the back story, a tale of illicit love and lynch mob retribution that somehow makes more sense than many of the standard flesh-rendering foundations. Barker and Rose hit upon the right combination of corruptions—the mingling of social stigma with individual fear—to create a perfect iconic beast. While it would later be mucked up in the unnecessary sequels, the lovelorn loneliness and desire for recognition makes Candyman one otherworldly killing machine with a streak of the compassionate.
Rose, whose 1988 Paperhouse announced a fresh breed of visual stylist to the world of horror, has always been a better image-maker than storyteller. In such films as Chicago Joe and the Showgirl and Immortal Beloved, the looks of Rose's pictures have occasionally outweighed their narrative logic. Candyman is really no different. It uses insects, bloodletting, graffiti, feces, and all manner of evocative urban settings to populate its palette with indelible symbols, none more potent than the title terror himself. Simultaneously suggesting heft and tenderness, darkness with despair, the Candyman is such an inspiring icon that he almost overwhelms his own film, partly because he is shrouded in so much mystery. Like a magnetic stranger across a room, or a peculiar painting half-viewed from the corners of your eyes, Rose relegates his bad guy to long and medium shots, allowing him to slowly creep up on us. By the time Candyman is going mano a mano for control of his destiny, we are finally in close, able to see the figure in all of his frightening facets.
While the wasteland-as-war zone of Chicago's ghettos resonates with a palpable sense of dread (Rose does not spare us any of the ugly injustice), suspense resides in every corner of Candyman's cosmopolitan home. From the reconfigured condos that hide a secret shame to the stark settings of police stations and sanitariums, Rose keeps his apprehension pressing, never once letting the audience breathe. We soon come to realize that once Helen repeated the Candyman's name in the mirror, nothing would ever be the same. This is one movie that never lets up on that directive.
Candyman is really not about the murder of innocent people in the projects of Chicago. The entire Cabrini Green issue is more like an awkward allegory, a way of providing the "realistic" threat that the filmmakers feel the paranormal avenues may miss. Indeed, the dark, brooding figure that haunts our heroine Helen (Virginia Madsen in a complicated performance) is far less scary than the ghetto counterpart who trades on his name to control his territory. Whenever we meet our true antihero (Tony Todd at his evocative best) he is a gentle, beguiling presence, only resorting to violence when forced. Like Harlan Ellison's Deathbird Stories, which explores the realm of gods and their psychological connection to their omnipresent power, Candyman wants to examine what makes a monster, and better yet, what authorizes and controls his ephemeral existence. Several times throughout the course of this captivating film, Rose and Barker argue that people "command" the Candyman, using their fear and belief in him to guide his atrocities. But the filmmakers also suggest that the slasher is still couched in his educated upbringing (the son of a former slave, the Candyman was a schooled artist) and seeks permission from his victims, not only as a way of connecting with them personally, but of assuaging the guilt he feels in living out the dread of others.
This intricate underpinning keeps Candyman from turning into a traditional horror film, the likes of which are usually filled with false shocks and lapses in logic. Along with the mindf*ck narrative that never quite lets us know what is real and what is spiritual illusion, Rose succeeds in formulating a new representation of the sinister, an emblem that to this day is still considered based in the truth, even though it is a complete fabrication. It's too bad that Rose chose to pursue other avenues of storytelling (period dramas and biopics) to fill out his resume. With Candyman, as well as Paperhouse, he was well on his way to becoming a viable force in the medium of the macabre. Though never reaching the level of undeniable classic, Candyman is still a mesmerizing movie with more meaning than most dances with the devil.
Visually, Columbia TriStar offers us a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is, frankly, a little underwhelming. Rose uses vibrant colors to suggest the slums of the inner city and relies on subtle shifts in scenery to work his alternate planes of reality conceit. The image here manages to feel both washed out and incredibly detailed, as if a strange filter has been passed over the picture, highlighting necessary elements while muting others. The movie does look well preserved. But Candyman occasionally feels well past its 12 years of age. Aurally, Rose strove to make his film a feast for the ears as well as the eyes, and thanks to the terrific Dolby Digital Stereo mix, famed contemporary composer Phillip Glass's monumental score soars over this entire enterprise. Suggesting grandeur as well as the Grand Guignol, Glass encompasses the entire emotional spectrum of this film with his wounded, beautiful works and, thankfully, the digital recreation of them is remarkable.
As are the bonus features. First up is a commentary featuring Rose, Barker, producer Alan Poul, and stars Madsen, Todd, and Kasi Lemmons (who played Madsen's best friend Bernadette). Obviously recorded separately, or in certain pairings, each individual has a great deal to say, both positive and prosaic, about his or her experience with the film. Rose and Barker are the most philosophical, consistently addressing the meat of the Candyman's dilemma. Rose also lets us in on a little technique he used in the film. In order to get Madsen and Lemmons to appear transfixed by the title entity, the multifaceted director put the girls under hypnosis. Acknowledged by the actresses and described in contradictory terms, this is the kind of behind-the-scenes insight one expects from a DVD narrative.
Just as informative is the featurette, "Sweets to the Sweet: The Candyman Mythos." Covering some of the same territory as the cast and crew discussion, but also adding historical and personal significance, this documentary does an exceptional job of outlining the production. With bows to beekeeping and how poorly the characters fared come sequel time, this bonus is a great addition to this disc.
Additionally, we are treated to a ten-minute interview with Clive Barker, which is more of a retrospective on his life and career than Candyman-specific. Featuring fascinating images from all aspects of his personal and professional history, Barker's beefy, gravel-toned voice belies the skinny, scared artist we see in most of the mini-movie's images. Barker has a lot of interesting things to say about fear and the ability to scare, and he never forgets to thank those who helped him along the way. Along with a nice five-minute slideshow of Rose's storyboards (set to more incomparable Phillip Glass) and some trailers, the DVD presentation of Candyman is a vast improvement over the previous barebones release from the technology's early days (1998 to be exact).
Candyman may not be the film for everyone. It is easy to envision a few fright fans getting antsy with all the urban legend logistics and sudden shifts in perspective. And those gratuitous gorehounds out there who want their monster movies loaded with liquid will find the selective scarlet of this film's flesh rendering to be far too infrequent for their liking. But most individuals inclined to give this decidedly different fright flick a chance will not be disappointed. Candyman is an amazing visual work that actually has some substantive sources for its scares.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Director Bernard Rose, Executive Producer Clive Barker, Producer Alan Poul, and Actors Tony Todd, Virginia Madsen, and Kasi Lemmons
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