Monday Movie: Candyman, by David Bax
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Candyman originally ran as a Home Video Hovel review.
Nothing says “prestige horror” like a score by Philip Glass. His towering, choral, staccato music is unmistakable from the very beginning of Candyman. And, in retrospect, the fact that the movie is directed by Bernard Rose, whose other best known film is the Beethoven biopic he would make next, adds even more class. Rose’s adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” is highly literary in its employment of allegory and its respect for the source material. But “prestige horror” is a term most often used by snobby filmmakers and critics who think the genre is beneath them. And Candyman is definitely not that. A beautiful new Blu-ray from Shout! Factory reminds us that this is a flick that’s as weird, dark, gory and trashy as it is metaphorical and probing.
Virginia Madsen stars as Helen, a graduate student writing a thesis on urban legends who stumbles onto a particularly potent and grisly one about a phantom killer who haunts the grounds of a notoriously dangerous housing project. Rose uses some standard horror conventions, like moody lightly and sustained silence, to create a tense and frightening atmosphere. But he has some other tricks up his sleeve as well. He captures the foreboding emptiness of Chicago when it’s freezing cold but still snowless. And horror cinema has yet to invent a better special effect than the voice of Tony Todd, who plays the Candyman himself.
It’s ironic that, when we use the term “urban legend,” we are mostly talking about stories that take place in decidedly suburban trappings. It’s all teenagers necking in cars or babysitters alone in big houses. Candyman puts the emphasis back on the urban part (as did “The Forbidden,” in which the main character was studying graffiti, not folklore). The opening titles appear over a tracking, bird’s eye helicopter shot of Chicago that emphasizes the concrete, manmade rigidity of the kind of city planning that intentionally keeps poor minorities out of the areas trod by the moneyed and desirable. The movie may center a white protagonist in a non-white setting but it’s far from another “white savior” story; it may, in fact, be a critique of them. The Black residents of real-life Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green (since demolished) are not portrayed as unruly criminals in need of saving but as single mothers (Vanessa Williams), scared kids (DeJuan Guy) and young men whose chief concern is protecting themselves and their friends from the cops.
In fact, it may be Helen’s arrogance as the concerned interloper who views the community anthropologically that puts her in the most jeopardy. And yet she’s not unsympathetic. Her skin grants her privilege, venturing into Cabrini-Green during the day and then relating her tale at a chic restaurant in the evening. But her gender makes her vulnerable and often disrespected. Her husband (Xander Berkeley) patronizes and ignores her while another professor (Michael Culkin) literally laughs in her face. Candyman builds toward a fiery, bloody climax that doesn’t obscure its identity as a slasher film. But it’s at its most chilling and emotional when it explores the friction between competing tragedies, one of a smart and kind woman dismissed by those around her and the other of a community cut off and left to wither so that that same woman can enjoy luxuries she takes for granted. It’s scary how relevant it all remains over a quarter century later.