Candyman: Clive Barker’s Urban Horror Masterpiece

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.

Totally not selling me on his product. Which is murder.

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.

The Big ‘Preacher’ Post

Originally, it was a film, with James Marsden set to star. Then, it was an HBO series, which would have honeslty been the BEST way to adapt such a broad story without cutting out details or screwing around with the characters too much. Then it was a film again, with Sam Mendes, of American Beauty fame, set to direct. Now he’s off the project and the last thing heard was Joe Carnahan, of Smokin’ Aces, saying he would like a crack at it while doing press for The A-Team.

If you aren’t already familiar with Garth Ennis’s brilliant graphic novel, then read further. If you are and don’t need an intro, skip on down to the meaty bits of the post.

Preacher is a series written by Irish writer Garth Ennis, who before Preacher was most famous for his work on Hellblazer, a book that starred John Constantine. Constantine is one of my FAVORITE series ever, and on another day I’ll do a post about that. But today is for Preacher.

In Preacher, young man of God Jesse Custer has lost his faith and sets out on a quest to find and question God concerning the state of the world. That’s really the absolute bare bones of the story, and it’s so hard to write that without going into all the juicy story bits that make this series so awesome and ruining it for first-time readers. There is nothing about this series–well, there’s violence, and ADULT SITUATIONS– that isn’t well-told, fascinating, and though-provoking. A freak occurrence with a divine presence means that Custer is imbued with the Word of God, meaning no one, providing they speak his language, can refuse his direct orders. Such a power in the wrong hands would be a huge disaster, but as Custer is a humanist with his own strict moral code (‘Don’t take no shit off fools, and be one of the good guys, because there’s way too many of the bad) he does not take advantage of this power and only uses it in times of real need.

In high school, someone recommended the book to me for all the wrong reasons, and I didn’t read it. Their stance was ‘it’s awesome because it’s violent and he goes around kicking ass.’ That’s definitely true, violence surrounds Custer the way that small birds and animals surround a Disney heroine–not because he seeks it out, but because its drawn to him. I wish I’d read this brilliant dissection of masculinity and American values years ago, but at least I’ve read it now.

Custer is joined on his quest by his girlfriend Tulip, a gun-toting chick  who is a walking case of Awesome,  and drunken reprobate Cassidy, an Irish vampire almost a hundred years old with dark shadows in his past but a rakish, devil-may-care attitude that you can’t help but be drawn to.  Cassidy’s optimism about the US and how many opportunities the country affords is one of the most interesting things about the book, and makes you remember all the stuff you want America to be, rather than all the stuff that it is.

Since the story is a quest, a goodly amount of meandering is done, but there is never a part of the book that’s boring or worth skipping. Their journey takes the group from Texas, to France, to New York City, to New Orleans, to Monument Valley in Utah, and everywhere in between. It’s a sweeping epic at the same time as an incisive character piece.

Which is why adapting it has hit so many roadblocks.

Originally, it was a film, with James Marsden set to star. Then, it was an HBO series, which would have honeslty been the BEST way to adapt such a broad story without cutting out details or screwing around with the characters too much. Then it was a film again, with Sam Mendes, of American Beauty fame, set to direct. Now he’s off the project and the last thing heard was Joe Carnahan, of Smokin’ Aces, saying he would like a crack at it while doing press for The A-Team.

This, but Christina Hendricks. Curse you, lack of Photoshop skillz!

Which is nice, but totally wrong.

What I think is necessary for the film to work on the same level as the book is to get a great dramatic director who can bring the right level of emotional weight to the story, and have to work hard to do the action. Don’t get an action director and expect them to be able to deal with the depth of the material. Edgar Wright would be great, especially since the entire series is an outsider’s view of the US. Michael Apted, who has a long history of drama and action, would also be ideal, if he were interested in the project.And there are oodles of other young directors with a firm grasp of both emotional resonance and drama that could do a decent job.

And just because I’ve been wanting to do this for years, here is my dream cast for a Preacher movie, if there ever is one.

Cassidy – Ideally I’d like Robert Carlyle for this, even though he’s Scottish. If he’s not available find an unknown, not some 19-year old, someone with some mileage under their belt. Cassidy’s some some messed up things, and although he’s nigh-indestructable he really needs to project that he’s been around for as long as the century.

Tulip – Christina Hendricks. I like her because she can turn from innocent, All-American sweetness to icy badass on a dime. That kind of range is important, but there’s a lot of area in-between that someone playing Tulip needs to inhabit. Tulip is strong, but she’s been scared, she’s been angry, she’s been petulant. This is a job for a real actress, not a model who’s just getting into acting. I’m sure there are other blondes out there who’d want this role, but I’m definitely biased as i’ve seen her as a badass and would like to see more in that way. No, I have not seen Mad Men yet.

Jody – This is a tough one. Ideally I’d like Woody Harrelson since he played a psychopath with such chilling presence in Natural Born Killers. And Jody is an older man, he’s not some 30-something. He’s got miles on him too, and whoever plays him has to bring that to the role. Every moment he’s on screen the viewer should be imagining Jody as a child perfecting the art of putting nails through the eyes of a puppy or something. And he HAS to be on screen. Other possibles would be Bruce Willis (come on, it’d be great!) or Ray Stevenson from the recent Punisher movie and Rome, but only if they can do decent Texan accents. Whoever is chosen, it has to be someone who can do both serial killer and twisted father figure, since Jody raised Jesse, though they were never close.

Jesse Custer – this is a difficult one. In the books, Jesse is only in his early twenties, but I’ve always read him as someone approaching thirty just because he’s so level-headed and sure of himself. I thought Timothy Olyphant might be right after loving him in Deadwood so much, but his accent left a little to be desired. There’s probably an undiscovered twenty-something out there who can play this– just please steer clear of stunt-casting. No Jake Gyllenhaal, no Toby Maguire, no Anton Yelchin. EDIT: Oh man, Justin Theroux would be GREAT for this, IF he can do a Texan accent.

Herr Starr – Oo, man, this is a tough one. Except not, because ever since Christophe Waltz wandered onto the scene, he is MEANT to play Herr Starr. It’s important for whoever plays Starr to remember that the character really wants to make the world a better place, no matter who he has to kill to do it.

I’m a little surprised that the Preacher movie has been dragged to screen by now, if only because

A. Studios will greenlight anything printed in panels these days, no matter the content, ie Kick-Ass.

B. Manly men are all the rage now–Clive Owen, Gerard Butler, Colin Ferrell– and yet there aren’t any real American manly men. I mean there are a few, but none come immediately to mind. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are many, but both have daddy issues. Perhaps that’s the exact reason–macho AMerican men come off as dickhead bullies, as characters out of Team America: World Police.

If Preacher gets made, and done right, maybe that’d change? I am totally a feminist in many ways, but I do like to watch  Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Bruce Lee movies. . . Perhaps Johan Hex will give a good indication as to whether or not Preacher will be made, or how well it’ll be done. I won’t see Jonah Hex, not until the release the DVD version where they’ve cut and pasted Megan Fox out of it, but I’ll still keep an eye on the buzz.

The origin of the phrase ‘he was redoing his bathroom’

Anyhow, there’s a section in the book where Campbell recalls a time a fan came up and congratulated him on an appearance in some TV show, I’ve forgotten which. Funnily enough, so had Campbell, and had to be reminded. When asked why he’d accepted the role (whatever it was) he finally remembered the part and responded with ‘I needed a new water heater.’

Several years ago, I read Bruce Campbells marvelously funny and entertaining autobiography, If Chins Could Kill.

If they could, this is the last thing you'd see before you died.

ICCK is a fascinating read, told by a man who’s been front and center in the Hollywood industry for over twenty years. I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Campbell a question at a screening of his film ‘The Man with the Screaming Brain.’ I choked, asked him some rambling inane bullshit, and he shut me down like he was Bruce Willis and there was 1 second until the bomb went off. It was kind of awesome.

Anyway, Campbell, a man’s man if you believe the Old Spice commercials (and we do–there are no Nonbelievers here) made a lot of fascinating points about being an actor in an industry that favors the lucky and attractive rather than the literate and mildly-attractive. He and David Duchovny apparently hung out on an X-files set making fart noises. Not quite up there with Sean Connery punching out Johnny Stompanato, but awesmome in its own right.

Anyhow, there’s a section in the book where Campbell recalls a time a fan came up and congratulated him on an appearance in some TV show, I’ve forgotten which. Funnily enough, so had Campbell, and had to be reminded. When asked why he’d accepted the role (whatever it was) he finally remembered the part and responded with ‘I needed a new water heater.’

This blew my mind.

My notion of actors living out of their cars for the love of THE THEA-TAH was forever shattered–which is good, because it was bullshit anyway. Actors, in other words, are people too.

Not in a ‘TMZ HAS EXCLUSIVE PICS OF LINDSEY LOHAN AT THE BIKINI WAXER OMG SHE HAS PUBES LIKE A HUMAN HOW AWFUL!!!’ but in a ‘Now where did I leave my phone, it was just right here‘ way. I love imagining actors in such situations–getting a craving for Taco Bell and then realizing they aren’t that hungry when they get to the drive-thru, so they order a drink and a single taco to save face; losing the number of the guy who trims their trees and spending a frustrating morning trying to remember his name, or at least what letter it started with; having cookouts, trying to decide if a pair of pants are ready to be thrown out or will last another few days, getting gum in their hair, dropping some freshly buttered toast and it lands BUTTER SIDE DOWN, etc. But most of all, I like imagining actors as people who sometimes do stupid things to pay the bills. There’s no malice in this, no jealousy aimed at a person who had the courage to pursue a dream and is having trouble making it happen–more, it’s just a fun mental exercise, another form of entertainment, if you will.

So often I will review a terrible film in which a respected or decent actor will appear, and wonder what the hell they were thinking. Since I know that sometimes in filmmaking the script that is written is a far cry from the finished project, I guess that had a lot to do with it. And sometimes you’ll wind up with someone Oscar-caliber making something terrible just for the fun of it, or the costumes or effects or chance to go somewhere foreign and exotic, or because they want to make movies their kids will enjoy. I’m pretty sure that 8 out of 10 films Nicholas Cage does are based entirely on his liking for the  wig he gets to wear. I don’t know these people, I just know their work.

But sometimes it’s nice to sit back, nod to myself and say ‘Ah, she was redoing her bathroom.’

So I watched this; I dunno, it was all right Review: Suspect Zero

Anyway, the story unfolds like a well-creased grocery list that’s been living in your pocket for a few days. There are some great scenes, and Kingsley ultimately carries the weight of the film while Eckhardt, who is serviceable, takes the film to be Srs Bznss instead of a Se7en knockoff. Carrie-Anne Moss runs around and does–something, I don’t remember what she was there for. Something.

Every time I sit down to watch a movie, I am conscious of how long the film is, sometimes down to the minute. The reason is because unless I’m doing something else, those minutes are time out of my life I will never get back. Do I expect every film I see to be worth 106 minutes’ worth of my time here on earth? Nope. I watch some bullshit too–looking into my queueueu is looking into seething madness. Kurosawa’s Rashomon rubs shoulders with Beverly Hills Chihuahua. A BBC nature program about the different meteorological regions of China and their native wildlife sits next to Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep. Gremlins 2 brings me a different kind of delight from Who’s Harry Crumb?, but both still delight me.

The point I’m getting to with all this rambling is that every film is a gamble, and your time is at stake. Some gambles are major windfalls for the mind, and in some, the house wins.

In Suspect Zero, a crime thriller starring Aaron Eckhardt,  Ben Kingsley and Carrie-Ann Moss and directed by Elias Merhige (he was redoing his bathroom that year), the house definitely won.

So here's the poster. It's all right, I guess.

I do not hate this film. I do not think it was a waste of time, or that it should be fired into the sun or any other example of internet film critic hypobole. I just don’t get what happened.

I suspect that Merhige, while he made the film, was either excited to be making a Hollywood crime thriller or wrestling with a choking case of self-loathing because he was making a Hollywood crime thriller. There’s a strange vibe of self-doubt saturating the film that has nothign to do with the story; I can’t even describe it except that it’s there, and it’s palpable.

The story is at least passable: an FBI agent who’s been transferred to a lesser field office because of something in his past is tracking a series of murders he believes to be connected, despite the fact that there is nothing to connect them. It turns out he’s tracking a serial killer who targets other serial killers, and kills them in new and creative ways so there is no pattern–the idea being that the FBI will only catch onto a serial killer’s existence if there is a pattern. Say, a guy who sets fire to his victims and then hits them with a car. There’s a pattern, so the FBI acknowledges a serial killer is responsible.  If a guy gets his head bashed in behind a gas station, and another just gets shot, and another gets skinned to death or something, the assumption would be three different perpetrators.

The movie starts out well–Ben Kingsley sits down at a table across from a restaurant supply salesman at an isolated truckstop and begins telling the man all the gruesome things he does to people, then showing pictures. Kingsley is incapable of losing his dignity–probably because he is always self-aware of the caliber of what he’s appearing in, be it Gandhi or Bloodrayne. He also seems to be one of those fortunate people who never get tied to bad movies. If you say ‘there’s a new video game movie coming out and Uwe Boll is involved’ sphincters immediately clench and oceans of vitriol roar forth onto the internet. Say the same thing about Kingsley and you get ‘Huh. That might be good.’ The man is bulletproof. Probably because he has a sense of humor about himself, from his appearance on The Sopranos (“Heyyy, guys. . .”) to his audition for Michael Bay’s Transformers 3.

Anyway, the story unfolds like a well-creased grocery list that’s been living in your pocket for a few days. There are some great scenes, and Kingsley ultimately carries the weight of the film while Eckhardt, who is serviceable,  takes the film to be Srs Bznss instead of a Se7en knockoff. Carrie-Anne Moss runs around and does–something, I don’t remember what she was there for. Something.

If you’re just looking for something to watch and are more comfortable watching films with famous actors in them (I’m guilty of that–Oh! So and so’s in this, well I’ll give it a whirl!) then you could do worse than watching Suspect Zero.

Also it has this guy, who is awesome, so it has that going for it.

Suspect Zero is available for viewing on Instant Watch. You know, if you’re interested.

Ink

INK is the kind of film that gives critics and viewers hope that films have not completley become monetized, that there is still room for creativity, for risk. It’s undoubtedly a strange film, and there are some slow parts, and sometimes the acting (particularly of Storyteller Liev) meanders into extreme melodrama, but it’s also a breath of fresh air for anyone worn out by modern cliches and lackluster filmmaking.

"Pleasant Dreams.'

INK is the sort of fantasy movie that you would think isn’t being made anymore. The only fantasies being made are the ones with with someone famous attached, like Neil Gaiman or Terry Gilliam, and with a watered down story that has usually defanged the source material.  Now that’s certainly changed in the last two years or so, but the vast majority of fantasy films are based on books or graphic novels with an established fan base. If it’s Neil Gaiman or Terry Gilliam, there’s a good chance of it being made.

Ink is a wonderful anomaly to that pattern, since the movie was made on a budget  equal to a four-bedroom house, by a group of no-name filmmakers. The film was never even sold to a major studio–instead, the intrepid Winans went straight to DVD and Blu-Ray distributers, and the film was reportedly downloaded over 400,000 times from BitTorrent. Now the film is selling like gangbusters, and stands as a marvelous example of moving outside the studio system.

The story is resonant of the aforementioned Gilliam’s Brazil, and the entire body of Gaiman’s work. The importance of Dreams, and the high cost of allowing one’s nightmares to become one’s motivation in life are explored here. The action focuses on a young girl and her itinerant father, and on a quest between a group of people who give dreams and their battle with the Incubi, who give nightmares.

Its rare for something in a film to creep me out these days, especially a Hollywood piece. There’s just too much money at stake, think the execs, to take a real risk and show something truly frightening or unsettling, which i’m pretty sure is what led to the popularity of foreign horror and other genre films–the chance of actually seeing something NEW. I still haven’t seen Paranormal Activity, but I attribute its success to the fact that it was an underground, indie-made film. INK, another independent film, delivers on that, while still trodding ground familiar to anyone who’s studied Jungian archetypes or read fiction concerned with dreams. The Incubi, a group of rubber-clad creatures with smiling screens for faces and who serve as the film’s main villains, are suitably disturbing and owe much to Brazil’s steampunk, anachro-tech look, albeit updated with an 80’s flair.

The story centers on a man, John, who has fought and clawed his way to the top of the corporate ladder, WallStreet-style, and in the journey lost much that was precious to him. Part of the charm of the film is in the delicate unfolding of the story, so I won’t ruin it; suffice to say that much of the film is concerned with him learning a lesson, but that trite description doesn’t do the film justice.

Some very realistic fight scenes give the film necessary thrills, and though the characterizations  of the good guys trying to rescue a little girl is heavily influenced by the Matrix, they remain interesting enough to become more than just a pale comparison. Jacob the Pathfinder is particularly memorable, and though his acting is a little uneven and sometimes seems amateurish, it’s a refreshing change from the robotically poised constructs ambling across screens in many of this summer’s blockbusters. I look forward to the day that the Sam Worthington Acting Unit’s servos break down and the whole thing is shipped back to the factory, and when the Megan Fox RealDoll becomes too stained and stretched out to be filmable in anything but Jhorror rebirthing scenes. I’m sure Takashi Miike is counting the days.

INK is the kind of film that gives critics and viewers hope that films have not completely become monetized, that there is still room for creativity, for risk. It’s undoubtedly a strange film, and there are some slow parts, and sometimes the acting (particularly of Storyteller Liev) meanders into extreme melodrama, but it’s also a breath of fresh air for anyone worn out by modern cliches and lackluster filmmaking. Given half a chance, the movie delivers on its promise of reawakening hope and the joy of a pleasant dream. Which is not to say that the film isn’t suitably dark–there’s a reason it has an R rating after all, but its the kind of dark that is earned, instead of just filmed in back alleys and shitty abandoned hospitals.

The film is available for viewing on Hulu and on Netflix’s Instant Watch feature, and I highly recommend it. It washed the bad taste left by Prince of Persia right out of my mouth.