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Urban legends are funny things. On their surface, most of them seem pretty easy to discount: How, exactly, do baby alligators grow to enormous size after being flushed down the toilet? Do we actually believe that people have died from mixing Pop Rocks and soda? How come this stuff always happens to a friend of a friend’s twice-removed cousin? Examined in the cold light of day, almost all urban legends seem absolutely ridiculous (even the hook on the door requires too much suspension of disbelief to be truly scary): rational thought is always there to chase away the boogeymen and monsters of the imagination. As our parents may have been wont to say, we’re only scaring ourselves most of the time: there isn’t really anything out there to be worried about.

In reality, however, humans are deeply flawed, superstitious creatures who possess boundless capacity for believing in anything under the sun. We need look no further than the infamous witch trials that claimed the lives of so many innocent people in the 1600s: none of us believe in witches until there’s mob rule, at which point we all believe in witches. The human mind is a wondrous thing, the equal to any computer that’s yet been conceived. Part of the mind’s power comes from our ability to acquire, examine and interpret information around us, changing our preconceived notions if the new information should go against them. In other words, we possess the limitless capacity to learn, to absorb new knowledge and experiences and allow these experiences to change and color our overall world-view. We are so amazing because we have the simultaneous ability to soundly reason and to unleash our wildest imaginations. We believe in urban legends because we are human: our rational mind examines the evidence and discards each situation as it arises, yet the imaginative, childlike part of our brain allows for any number of possibilities…including the very real possibility that everything we think we know is wrong. Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), an adaptation of one of Clive Barker’s short tales, examines the intersection of rational thought and unchecked imagination, detailing what happens when our belief in something becomes so strong that we can pull something from the shadowy world of legend into the cold, hard light of the real world.

After an ominous, impressionistic opening that establishing the oppressive mood of the film, we meet our protagonist, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen). Helen is a grad student who happens to be married to the egotistical, philandering Prof. Trevor Lyle (Xander Berkeley). Helen and her friend, Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), have been doing research on urban legends, with their eyes on publishing a paper about their results. In particular, their work focuses on the legend of Candyman, a hook-handed, vengeful spirit who’s said to haunt the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. While neither Helen nor Bernadette actually believes in the myth (say “Candyman” five times in a mirror and he’ll appear to gut you with his hook), Bernadette lets Helen know that there are plenty of real-world horrors to be found in Cabrini Green, including vicious street gangs and omnipresent drug devastation.

Ignoring her friend’s warnings, Helen plunges headfirst into the mystery of Candyman, going so far as to examine the abandoned apartment of one of his supposed victims. Once there, Helen finds a hidden passage into an area that contains a giant Candyman mural, explaining the events that led to his original death, as well as what appears to be a shrine to the cult figure. She also meets and befriends Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams), an initially suspicious and standoffish neighbor who has an infant child and a healthy distrust of white people like Helen: “The white folks that come around ain’t to handshakey,” she tells Helen and it’s not impossible to believe. Cabrini-Green, as portrayed in the film, is an almost post-Apocalyptic, burned-out wreck: Helen seems to be the only white person for miles and the various residents she meets view her with a mixture of contempt, amusement and dislike.

As she continues her journey into Cabrini-Green, Helen befriends a youngster named Jake (DeJuan Guy), a firm believer in the Candyman mythos thanks to a “friend of a friend” connection to the supposed killings. Jake shows her the public restroom where another young boy was supposed to have been butchered by Candyman and, once there, she runs afoul of a local gang leader who calls himself “The Candy Man” and wields a sharp hook. When the police arrest the gang leader, everyone (including Helen) assumes that he’s responsible for all of the Candyman-related deaths. Helen changes her mind, however, when she’s confronted by the real Candyman (Tony Todd) in a parking garage. Helen passes out and wakes up in Anne-Marie’s apartment, covered in blood: Anne-Marie’s dog has been brutally killed, her baby is missing and Helen is lying on her apartment floor, holding a bloody knife.

As the terrified, confused Helen finds herself the number-one suspect in a terrible crime, the walls between fantasy and reality begin to collapse. Helen keeps seeing Candyman everywhere and, when she does, someone around her is sure to be butchered. He seems to want Helen for something although whether it’s vindication or vengeance is left up for debate. As she finds herself increasingly alone, Helen becomes even more connected to Candyman and his tragic history. In order to clear her name and end the terror, Helen must descend into the shadowy recesses of Cabrini-Green, in search of Anne-Marie’s missing child and the truth behind Candyman. Will Helen end up solving the mystery, bringing peace to Cabrini-Green, or will she end up as another of Candyman’s victims? Is there really even a Candyman or is Helen just losing her mind?

I remember watching Candyman when it originally came out and being less than impressed, perhaps because I was such a gonzo Clive Barker fan at the time: I was so eager for any Barker content on the screen that my expectations were constantly too high (damn you, Lord of Illusions (1995)) and I was always getting disappointed. Ironically enough, I haven’t read the original story, “The Forbidden,” in decades, so it’s a little hard for me to determine how close/not Rose’s adaptation ends up being. My most recent viewing of the film, however, revealed a pretty simple truth: Candyman is actually a really good film.

Part of the reason for the film’s success is due to the unrelentingly oppressive atmosphere served up from the first frame to the last. Thanks in part to renowned experimental composer Philip Glass’ haunting, dissonant score and some beautifully evocative cinematography from industry vet Anthony B. Richmond (who shot The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), The Sand Lot (1993) and one of my all-time favorite films, Ravenous (1999)), there’s a thick, Gothic vibe to everything that really accentuates the horror. Cabrini-Green, with its dilapidated buildings and empty, burned-out streets is a helluva location even before we get to the ultra-creepy “shrine” that Candyman calls home. Stylistically, the film often plays out like a fever-dream, as if avant-garde genius Ken Russell were helming the proceedings rather than a more workmanlike director like Rose. Many of the scenes, such as the beginning and any of Helen’s meetings with Candyman, play out with imperfect logic. The apex of this definitely has to be the disorienting, horrifying scene where Helen wakes up in Anne-Marie’s apartment: the scene is played with such a breathless, breakneck pace that it’s easier to absorb what’s happening than to actually understand it. It ends up being a genuinely powerful cinematic moment in a film that could just as easily have been aimed at lowest-common denominator multiplex audiences.

On occasion, Rose’s film can be a bit heavy-handed (heavenly choirs on the soundtrack always indicate something is up) but this tends to play nicely into the thick, cloying atmosphere. If anything, Candyman often plays a modern-day fairytale, an update to the cautionary tales of the Brothers Grimm. As a horror film, Candyman contains not only the requisite moments of gore and violence (which tend to be a bit shocking, although that’s always been Barker’s milieu) but also scenes that are genuinely creepy and unsettling. One of the most well-done moments in the film involves Helen and Bernadette discovering the secret passage in the murder victim’s apartment. As Helen looks into the mysterious, dark unknown, the sense of creeping tension and dread is palatable. Her passage to the other side carries the same sense of primal wonder and fear that can be found in the similar scene in Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983): humanity moving from the warm light of understanding into the frigid abyss of the unknown.

Candyman’s backstory is well-integrated into the overall themes of the film, driving home the notion that our history of racial inequality and a terrible lynch-mob mentality are ultimately responsible for Candyman’s rampage. While it’s painfully evident that Daniel Robitaille’s transformation into the Candyman is due to the violence inflicted on him by his white oppressors, it’s just as evident that a similar, if much more subtle, form of violence is being inflicted on the mostly black residents of the Cabrini-Green housing project. When Anne-Marie makes her comment about the “white folks not being too handshakey,” she seems to be speaking for most of the residents of the Green: if white people are there at all, they’re there to take advantage, satisfy their curiosity or get a cheap thrill. Even Helen, who seems to have the best of intentions, ends up bringing an untold amount of misery down up on the residents of Cabrini-Green: she presumes to be helping them but she’s really only furthering her own academic ambitions.

Acting-wise, Candyman is top-notch, with Madsen presenting a nicely vulnerable, multi-faceted performance as Helen. Even though she’s far from perfect, Helen actually means well and Madsen takes a character that could come across as condescending and makes her appealingly real. I didn’t always agree with everything Helen did (to be honest, she made some astoundingly bad decisions from the jump) but she never felt like a plot contrivance, especially once we reach the powerful, emotional climax. The final scene is one that could have across as over-the-top and unnecessarily maudlin, but Madsen wisely takes the “Ellen Ripley” approach, letting the character’s inherent heroism shine through, if for only a brief moment.

As the titular “villain,” Tony Todd is excellent in the role that brought him to the attention of the horror world and turned him into a household name along the likes of Robert Englund, Sid Haig, Kane Hodder and Bill Moseley. While Todd doesn’t get a ton of screen-time, relatively speaking, he is a completely empathetic, complicated character, as far from a one-dimensional slasher like Freddy Krueger or Jason as one could get. There’s an inherently sad, tragic and romantic component to the Candyman backstory that’s beautifully communicated via Todd’s ever-expressive, sad face. Combined with his powerful, mellifluous voice, Tony Todd’s depiction of Candyman went a long way towards enshrining the character in the annals of pop culture. That and the ribcage full of bees, of course.

Ultimately, Candyman is equal parts bombastic and restrained, hushed and explosive. While Clive Barker’s books/stories haven’t always survived the transition to the big screen (the aforementioned Lord of Illusions is ridiculously disappointing and the torture-porn version of Dread (2009) is thoroughly wretched and despicable), Candyman is one of the best, perhaps only bested by Barker’s own Hellraiser (1987). I can only imagine that my teenage mind must not have been quite ready to process what was presented on-screen, since my recent viewing brought up very few actual issues with the film, many of which were endemic to ’90s-era horror films. For its intriguing collision of the past and present, violence and sexuality and white vs black relations, Candyman deserves to be dusted off and given another look in the 2010s. Just remember: you better think real hard before you get to that fifth “Candyman.” It’s probably just a myth but…better safe than sorry.