Friday, October 5, 2012

Candyman Movie Review

This one was released when I was already fourteen and not really scared by scary movies anymore. I saw this on video with a bunch of friends in high school. I remember having feelings of not wanting to be in a bathroom with the light off because of the legend that if you say his name five times in front of the mirror, he'll appear behind you and kill you with his claw hand.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

By the time I was a teenager, I wasn’t so easily frightened by scary movies. I remember watching Candyman on video with friends, but it didn’t leave enough of an impression that I really remembered it 20 years later. Now that I’ve seen it again I can safely say it has some chilling moments, but the overall effect of the material is no all that resonant.


The film, adapted from a Clive Barker short story, tries to tackle so much that it gets a little lost and ultimately never really resolves any of its themes satisfactorily. It’s part slasher, part supernatural thriller with touches of miscegenation hysteria and a white savior. Virginia Madsen plays Helen Lyle, a grad student at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where she’s working on a thesis about urban legends. There are some interesting ideas to be worked out regarding origins of these kinds of stories. Are they modern day folklore? Are they based on real events that have been exaggerated or just invented from society’s primal fears?

The character Candyman is an urban legend recounted several times to Helen about a boogeyman with a hook in place of a hand. If you look in the mirror and say his name five times, he appears behind you and kills you. One of the hallmarks of urban legends is that the details can’t possibly have gotten out if the people involved are dead. Helen investigates and discovers that an architectural shortcut in the housing projects leaves a gap behind the bathroom vanities through which intruders can enter. The boogeyman story, she figures, is a way for poor people in unfortunate circumstances to explain away grisly crimes.

Helen rather brazenly, and perhaps foolishly, ventures into the Cabrini-Green housing project in the Near North neighborhood. The people who live there are not accustomed to outside visitors, especially white women, and are reasonably suspicious. Her second visit gets her into some serious trouble. Later she’s visited in a parking garage by Candyman (Tony Todd), who has come for her because her nosing around is reducing the fear he induces in the people. If she’s going around convincing people that Candyman is a myth, how can he wield power? So he uses his wiles, which seem to include some kind of power of hypnosis, to land Helen as the prime suspect in a kidnapping and suspected murder case.

Bernard Rose’s direction, aided in part by a haunting score by Philip Glass and cinematography by Anthony Richmond, provides the most suspenseful scenes with the right amount of haunted atmosphere. When Helen crawls through a hole in the wall in the project to find derelict apartments doused in graffiti and strewn with bric-a-brac, you’re not sure if you want her to return to sanctity of her own neighborhood or if you want the bone-tingling chill of fright. We never really see any deaths, but only the aftermath. These sights are often as grisly as anything you’re likely to see in a thriller.

The weight of the story is provided for in Candyman’s history as the son of a slave who had an affair with a white woman and subsequently had his hand sawn off (among other painful indignities) by a lynch mob. Rose, who also wrote the screenplay, infuses the movie with the tantalizing suggestion that Candyman is a mythical figure who helps the American people retain the memory of the dark spot of slavery in our past. He haunts the Cabrini-Green projects just as slavery haunts our national history.

Kasi Lemmons appears as Helen’s friend and colleague. Watch how uncomfortable she is, as a black woman, going into the ghetto and witnessing how people of her own ethnicity, but a much different socio-economic class, are living. Xander Berkeley is suitably sleazy as Helen’s husband Trevor, who goes through the motions of supporting his wife as she apparently loses her mind.

Candyman would have been much more powerful if Rose’s screenplay had focused primarily on the tie between slave history and modern urban black living. And the way the movie winds itself up in the end gives me serious misgivings. It ultimately becomes just one more in a series of films that use a white savior character who helps black people rise up. It left a bad impression from an otherwise decent supernatural slasher flick.

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