FEATURE: Shocktober '15 - Candyman

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.



Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a Chicago-based grad student working with her friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) on a thesis about urban legends. During one of the research interviews, she hears a tale about the local Candyman legend. Supposedly, if you say his name into a mirror five times, he'll appear behind you and he has been linked to a recent unsolved murder in the infamous Cabrini-Green projects. Both sceptical, she and Bernadette jokingly say his name five times into a mirror, unaware that he might not actually be as fictional as they think.

Adapted by Bernard Rose from a Clive Barker story, The Forbidden, it's a haunting urban fairytale that doesn't shy away from its own intelligence, nor that of the audience. As you've probably guessed from these reviews if you've been following along all month, I really enjoy horrors that operate as explorations of fear, rather than simply manifestations of scary things that go bump in the night. Candyman is packed full of ideas, utilising disenfranchised voices, racial tensions and the power of the imagination to spin out what could have been an average slasher into something more exploratory and poignant. 

The idea that gods and monsters thrive on the faith that people have for them is a theme often found throughout genre fiction (one that immediately sprang to mind was Neil Gaiman's American Gods). In Candyman, it's rather Helen's scepticism that brings him forth, her efforts to debunk his existence and thus demythologise him in the eyes of the residents of Cabrini-Green act as a threat to him. Making Helen believe he exists fuels his power, but there is still an ambiguity here; are we seeing Candyman because he really exists in this urban nightmare? Or does he exist because we're seeing Helen's imagination flourish a little too much?

In that respect, Candyman is akin to The Innocents in which the reader is never quite sure whether the ghosts are real or if they are simply the release of the main character's unhealthy repression. There's an element of that going on here too. Helen is frustrated by a lot of the things going on around her; she's got a husband who is quite obviously having an affair with one of his pretty blonde students (and that, I suspect, is how Helen's own relationship started, thus adding fuel to that particular fire) and her academic colleagues are determined to point out that she's not contributing anything new to the field and they all got there first.

When the Candyman legend arrives in her lap, she seizes it with enthusiasm, venturing into dangerous ground and finding evidence that suggests he may be a real serial killer operating in the building, but has become a mythic figure in the eyes of the residents. She finds pictures of him on walls, candies on the floor with razorblades in, even graffiti boldly declaring "sweets for the sweet". It's easy to see that he becomes an obsession for her, rather than simply a research project. When he shows up, he isn't the usual silent slash-first have-a-character-in-the-sequel killers. He arrives fully formed, a character born of injustice and rage, but he's not simply violent; he's seductive, even romantic in his own way, bewitching Helen. The mellifluous tones of Tony Todd only add to this element. He becomes her release from those people in her life restraining her, at one point, even literally so.

The film itself is bewitching for its audience, thanks to the way in which Rose manages to bring a dreamlike quality to the harshest of locations. The projects themselves are more on the nightmarish end of the scale, an endless maze of threats on Helen and Bernadette even before we're aware of the Candyman's true existence. It also helps that Philip Glass' score operates as darkly reverent motif throughout the film, evoking the idea of that key theme of worship through the choral arrangements for the Candyman himself and a carnivalesque lullaby motif that is at once both beautiful and unsettling.

There's still so much more going on in Candyman that I could wax lyrical on for ages. I didn't even get to the whole urban legend/modern fairytale idea. It's a fascinating, thoughtful and provocative horror and a great example of the genre operating on multiple levels to produce something really quite masterful.

- Becky

You can find my other Shocktober '15 reviews here.

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