Directed by: Bernard Rose
Written by: Bernard Rose
Starring: Virginia Madsen, Vanessa Williams, Tony Todd, and Xander Berkeley
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“They will say that I have shed innocent blood. What’s blood for, if not for shedding?”
Without a doubt, the most dismal time for modern the horror in both the mainstream’s eyes as well as in the opinion of most horror fans came during the late 80s and lasted through the mid-90s. During this period, we were still getting stale, late entries in the slasher sub-genre (Cutting Class), films that tried to create new, often wise-cracking franchise killers ala Freddy Krueger (Wes Craven’s Shocker), plenty of worthless entries in the newly-founded direct-to-video movement (Witchcraft), and an over-saturation of mainstream “psychological thrillers” that tried to desperately distance themselves from their horror roots (Silence of the Lambs). Cutting through all the muck in 1992, there suddenly came a new voice in terror. A voice that gave the genre hope in a truly dark hour. The voice was a collective of director Bernard Rose, author Clive Barker, and actor Tony Todd…and the result of their collaboration was the fright classic, Candyman.
Grad student Helen Lyle (played by Virginia Madsen) and a friend are doing their thesis on urban legends and most specifically, the legend of “Candyman”. As the legend goes, if you stand in front of a mirror and say his name five times, he will appear behind you and then kill you (similar to the legend of “Bloody Mary”). As Helen conducts her research, she finds out that the residents of a run-down housing project are attributing their everyday murders to the mythical character. Fascinated, Helen is soon able to help police apprehend the man who took on the persona of Candyman in order to terrorize those in his slum-ridden neighborhood. This, however, displeases the actual ghost from the legend (the spirit of a slave who was brutally tortured and murdered for having a baby with a slave-owner’s wife) who is very much real and relies on people’s belief and fear of him to continue his eternal life. In order to keep his name and spirit alive, Candyman frames Helen for a series of bloody murders. She keeps trying to tell everyone that Candyman made her do it, but they believe her to only be crazy.
Candyman works on so many levels. It not only delivers a sophisticated, engaging story but it also gave the horror world a tragic new boogeyman to fear in Tony Todd’s ominous portrayal of Candyman. It’s the rarest type of horror film: One that is a genuinely great movie all-around. Here we get tense and scary scenes, well-written characters and story, in addition to healthy doses of the red stuff. What more could you ask for in a horror movie? Bernard Rose had already impressed horror audiences with his little-seen 1988 film, Paperhouse. No doubt his stellar work on that film helped him land this directing gig. Very noticeable is cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond’s use of light and shadow in many of the scenes. The horror of the film arrives in different forms: The supernatural form of the Candyman character and from the apparent real life dangers of the gangs in the area that Helen investigates. Of course, what is unique about this horror dynamic is that Candyman can’t really hurt you unless you call on him in the mirror. As the audience, we know this but still fear him. Street gangs can kill anyone at any time seemingly at random. The only one that is in direct danger of Candyman is Helen, who seems to be more hypnotized or possessed by the character than anything else. It isn’t often that you see real life dangers and fictional horrors mixed for one film, and given this story and location, I think it fits perfectly.
Tony Todd’s work as Candyman is one of the best of modern horror. His character is menacing, but also tragic and full of sorrow (much like many of the best movie and literary monsters). Todd’s booming, low-key voice and physical stature provide audiences with a horror villain unlike any other. Helen is played to perfection by Virginia Madsen (Michael’s sister). Through her performance, Madsen gives us a highly intellectual, but ultimately fragile character to root for. Also in top form are character actors Xander Berkeley and Kasi Lemmons (as Helen’s professor boyfriend and best friend respectively). Like many of the best horror movies of all-time, the film isn’t afraid to serve as social commentary, either. It delves into such controversial subjects as race and poverty. As Helen observes, two black people were murdered in the projects she went to visit for her thesis, but once a white woman like herself was merely injured in an attack by a black man, the police completely locked down the entire area. It also discusses what makes up an urban legend and how they get passed down from generation to generation. Candyman’s power is derived from how many people believe in and fear him. Do people really believe and fear things so easily? Judging by the amount of urban legend-esque forwards I receive in my inbox every day, I believe the answer is yes. It’s easier to attribute something awful to a legend or story. That way, you don’t have to deal with it directly. If you talk about something tragic with friends as being something that supposedly really happened, it’s probably that much less likely that it will happen to you, right?
As stated earlier, the film isn’t afraid to show a lot of blood. Most of the murders are quite bloody, as we see both depictions and the aftermaths of gutting, castration, and even the decapitation of a dog. We don’t see a lot of the actual events, mostly their aftermath. Most times, though, the aftermath is so gruesome and shown in such a graphic way that we get a very vivid mental image of exactly what occurred. For instance, when we see the dog’s head laying lifeless in a pool of blood with a bloodied knife beside it, it’s shown so frankly and realistically that we really didn’t need to witness the actual scene to know that what the dog went through was very gory and horrible. Realistic and gruesome is how I could describe the deaths in the film. They are never over the top or cartoonish, which further adds to their disturbing and scary nature. One death scene toward the end featuring blood spraying from the screaming body of a still-living victim looked to be edited differently than the others, showing a little MPAA interference. This was the only scene that where I saw any noticeable editing of blood or gore. The film still has plenty of blood for most horror fans to enjoy.
The film was based on the Clive Barker short story, “The Forbidden”. I have yet to read the story, but I am dying to. Though I’ve heard it’s a bit different than the movie, Barker is a writer that rarely disappoints. In most interviews, he seems very pleased with Bernard Rose’s product (he should, for he was the Executive Producer on the film). Rose’s screenplay is extremely well structured and well written. It isn’t your standard stalk and slash fare, because it actually gives you something to think about and toward the end offers multiple layers of interpretation. The beautiful, haunting score by minimalist composer Philip Glass is one of the all-time greatest in horror film history. It evokes not only a gothic flavor with its beckoning choirs but also takes us back to horror’s earliest days with its menacing pipe organs. Glass’ score is available on CD, and I highly suggest you pick it up. Of course, knowing the genre well, director Bernard Rose knows when to quiet the music during the appropriate moments. During scenes of tension and suspense, we’re often given no music, to heighten the awareness of every possible sound we could hear. Nearly all the jump scares in the film work, because they were properly constructed and not mishandled by overscored scenes.
Despite the decline in quality with the second and third films in the series (Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and Candyman: Day of the Dead), the original Candyman is definitely powerful enough to be considered a horror classic. It’s rare when a modern film is released that actually succeeds in scaring audiences, and this one came along at a time when most felt the genre was dead. Though, sadly, it didn’t bring about resurgence to the genre, it served as fine example of what all the other horror filmmakers of the time were doing wrong by giving audiences a good, scary film that does everything right. Rose has since left the horror genre for period dramas, having directed 1994’s Immortal Beloved and the 1997 Tolstoy adaptation, Anna Karenina. One almost wonders if Candyman were made only as a bargaining chip to catapult Rose into the genres he felt the most passionate about working in. Will he return to the horror film someday? Bernard Rose is truly a master of the craft and if he were to ever return to directing horror, all of us would have great reason to celebrate…but also because he is so good at this craft, we would potentially have many new reasons to fear. I can’t recommend a movie much higher than this one. It’s an automatic own for any self-respecting horror fan. Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman…nah, I’d better not. It's Essential!
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