Horror films by and large are disappointing to me. Like science fiction, they offer huge opportunities to explore social and psychological issues, and many classic sci-fi films often wander into the dark territory explored by horror: Soylent Green, Omega Man, Day of the Triffids are all great examples of films that straddle the lines. Often in supernatural horror there is some crossover back to sci-fi as the protagonists utilize technology to battle their ghostly enemies, a la EVP, Paranormal Activity or El Orfanato. Too often in recent years, horror films have warped into an opportunity to indulge horrific behaviors rather than expose them, and function as an outlet for a frustrated audience to vicariously experience sexual and violent thrills rather than imply that those urges exist to begin with. This disturbs me more than a horror movie ever could, as it implies that everyone secretly wants to take part in murder or rape, which is very different than making that discovery on one’s own and being horrified by it.
Bernard Rose (director) and Clive Barker (writer) were onto something great with the film Candyman. They didn’t quite deliver it as the story unravels towards the end, coinciding with Helen’s descent into madness, but few horror movies of the last twenty years have stuck with me the way Candyman has.
Candyman is the story of Helen Lyle, a graduate student researching urban legends who winds up getting in over her head. Specifically, she’s researching the story cycle of the Candyman, a bogeyman supposedly tied to a series of brutal slayings in a Chicago project called Cabrini-Green. She and fellow aficionado Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, again providing support to a friend dabbling with a dangerous man, as she did for Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs–I wish she had more films under her belt!) first make a fruitless attempt to summon the Candyman by chanting his name 5 times to the bathroom mirror. When nothing happens, they head out to the projects to photograph and research further, where they are menaced by local hoods and mistaken for Five-Oh. Their investigation gets them more than they’d bargained for, and the rest of the movie is about Helen’s attempt to escape the strange hold the Candyman has on her.
This movie stands above the usual slasher fare for many reasons. For one thing, it was one of the earlier attempts by horror filmmakers to explore the ‘real’ world of African-American culture as opposed to a more stereotypical one or worse, a highly idealized one, while acknowledging that this was not the only African American culture existant. While Helen experiences the worst of the ghetto, she is doing it alongside her friend Bernadette, an African American who’s part of the same academic program, investigating urban legends and story cycles. Bernadette is an interesting character because of who she is and what she DOESN’T represent: She isn’t ‘from the streets’ and trying to make good, she isn’t a single mother putting herself through school to be a lawyer or civil engineer so she can fix the ghetto from whence she came, she’s just a person interested in ghosts. Her ethnicity is not a thing that must be explained, as it is in many films out today. The only thing she has in common with the underprivileged people of Cabrini-Green is what ‘ethnic origin’ box she might check on a census form.
Another thing that sets Candyman above other horror films is the psychological nature of the eponymous ghost: a black artist who fell in love with a rich white man’s daughter, the Candyman’s hand was cut off and rudely replaced with a hook, and he was left chained to tree to be stung to death by bees, sometime around the turn of the century. In short, Candyman is not just a bogeyman of the ghetto, he’s a walking, talking representation of white guilt over the way African Americans were treated in the Colonies over the last 500 years.
Discussing reparations or the Middle Passage and everything that went along with it is a little beyond the scope of an entertainment blog, but I do take for granted taht many white Americans feel some measure of guilt, insecurity, or shame over slavery. Whatever your political leanings, if you have any humanity you at least feel bad for the people it happened to, and recognize that racism is still an ongoing problem in the US. We do have a black president, but we’ve also had a huge upswell in the membership of racist organizations and hate groups since our President came to power.
But I digress.
Horror movies used to be about someone having something awful happening to them for no reason; since the 60’s, they have morphed into a chance to watch someone be punished for their crimes. Someone in a horror movie always makes a choice that leads tot heir being attacked by monsters, ghosts, psycho killers, dinosaurs, zombies, whatever. This choice allows the viewer to disconnect from the protagonist right at their most vulnerable, so we no longer empathize so closely with them. But Helen, in direct opposition to this, has made her choice from the beginning, and so watching her spiral into madness makes for a more visceral, evocative viewing experience. The most difficult part of this movie for me is when Helen, being booked for a murder she may or may not have committed under the influence of the Candyman, must peel off her blood-soaked clothes in front of a female police officer while weeping hysterically. No part of her comfortable, upper-middle class life has prepared her for this kind of violation, and Virginia Madsen gives a great performance here.
Candyman is also about worlds colliding. The world of Helen, with her upper-middle life, college professor boyfriend, cool apartment, and hip lifestyle is to me the essence of the NPR-set, a liberal with great intentions but little understanding of life outside the bubble. They drink good wine, listen to soft jazz, donate to charities, and roll their windows up while driving through bad parts of town, but still convince themselves they can handle going into the ghetto. In short succession, Helen’s bubble is broken: she is attacked by a gang leader in an incredibly shitty bathroom outside Cabrini Green, booked for murder, subjected to mental and physical torture by the Candyman, and then admitted to a psychiatric facility. Beyond that, her seemingly perfect life unravels further as her husband has been cheating on her with a hot young student, and he now fears her as a dangerous mental patient.
Candyman, though overly gory for my taste, is still a brilliant attempt to examine the psychology of guilt, of social injustice, of race relations, and a host of other topics. It definitely reached for the stars, and sort of succeeded: it percolates, it sticks with you, and you find yourself wanting to go back to it later on. I can definitely recommend this one, and if you’re really interested in film it has a very illuminating commentary that’s worth a listen.
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