WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Say it with me five times, straight into the mirror: "Candyman … Candyman … Candyman … Candyman …" Do you dare say it that fifth time? Do you dare tempt the ghastly specter of Candyman, who with one more utterance of his name will appear over your shoulder, ready to inflict unfathomable horror?
In the off-kilter, early-90s world of Bernard Rose's Candyman—from Clive Barker's short story The Forbidden, found in Volume 5 of his infamous Books of Blood works—the urban legend of the titular boogeyman attains near-religious pitch in the bowels of Cabrini Green, a primarily black ghetto deep in urban Chicago—an impressive setting change from Barker's far less ominous London. The best thing that can be said of Candyman is that its central baddie (portrayed excellently by Tony Todd) attains a primal power thanks to the way he's vitally integrated into the film's setting and into the mindscapes of both major and minor characters. The sheer, shaking belief in his existence, among his would-be victims, is his lifeforce. You can feel the pulse of violent fear in the haunted spaces of Cabrini Green, and as a result, the Candyman is an undoubtedly unnerving presence, with his hook hand and penetrating gaze and hypnotic, bass-thrumming voice. It's an approach to urban legend that makes Candyman one of the more powerful studies of the subject.
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a grad student working on a thesis about urban legends, with the help of fellow student Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, in a role eerily similar to a role she played a year earlier in Silence of the Lambs). Even Helen's husband, professor Trevor Lyle (the great Xander Berkeley) is heavily into urban legend, and perhaps provided her inspiration. While casually interviewing people about their experiences with urban folklore, she stumbles upon the insidious local legend of the Candyman, a murdered black man who haunts Cabrini Green. Say his name five times into a mirror, the legend goes, and Candyman will be after you. Naturally, unafraid of nonsensical folktales, Helen recites the incantation in her bathroom mirror, and all hell breaks loose. And Candyman is none too happy that Helen is posing a threat to Cabrini Green's belief in him and therefore his very existence.
The notion of a monster made flesh by the belief of others is certainly fine fodder for horror, but unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the promise of its villain. All the elements are there—capable actors, chilling moments, moody Philip Glass score—and yet Candyman never truly coheres into a solid horror film. To be sure, there's a terrifying scene in a filthy bathroom around which local legend swirls, and even today, 12 years after first watching scene, I find myself crying out for my mommy as our heroine, hand clutched over appalled nose, investigates the haunted toilets. There's at least one moment of disorienting violence and gore that is as effective as any I've seen in modern horror. But something keeps me at arm's length from Candyman, something in the pacing, perhaps, or something in the seemingly truncated storytelling. Or maybe it's the ending, which seems typical and tacked-on.
Bernard Rose (the man behind the chilling Paperhouse, still criminally unavailable on DVD) directs the film as if he's not entirely at ease with Clive Barker's sensibilities. Whereas Paperhouse is most certainly horror of the mind, Barker's fiction tends more toward horror of the flesh, evidenced by his own Hellraiser. Rose is unquestionably a fan of Barker's fiction, but in his adaptation of The Forbidden, he seems a bit lost when it comes to the film's lurid gore and frothy, fleshy proclamations. Barker, who served as Candyman's Executive Producer, definitely has his peculiarly perverse stamp on this production. But you get the feeling that he should have been either more involved or less involved in the direction of the film's story.
Still, Candyman is a thought-provoking film, not only for its theme of fear feeding on fear but also for its racial fearlessness. First, you have the casting of a black man in the role of a lead villain—practically unprecedented in horror, except for silliness such as Blackula. Racial tensions are high as Helen enters Cabrini Green, the Chicago housing project inhabited by angry black men and low-income families who live, essentially, separated from the white population. There's an inherent throb of menace as Helen enters a place where she's an obvious intruder, where centuries of anger and violence have produced a glowering isolationism. The racial anxiety feeds perfectly into the fear upon which Candyman thrives.
The cast is good without ascending to greatness, with one exception: Tony Todd utterly inhabits his role of Candyman. His voice will have you quickly under its sway, and you will hold little doubt that Candyman is quite real. The resonance of the voice proves to be more powerful than the words he speaks, unfortunately, as some of Barker's riper lines become a bit cringe-worthy, sounding more at home flowing from Pinhead's mouth. Virginia Madsen looks like a young Dana Scully on her first assignment, and Xander Berkeley is suitably slimy as the professor hubby. Oh, and watch for a humorous Ted Raimi appearance. The score by Philip Glass is appropriately moody…until you learn, in the supplements, that he didn't even realize he was scoring a horror flick.
As I suggested, the climax seems too quick, too easy. It's a disappointing ending to a difficult journey. Let's face it: A powerful ending would have knocked this film out of the park. But at the end of Candyman, you'll probably just be scratching your head and going "Huh?" Still, Candyman has a lot to offer in its study of urban legend. It remains the second most effective Clive Barker adaptation, after Hellraiser.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia/TriStar presents Candyman in a pretty good new anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. You'll notice right away that the image has a flat, somewhat dirty, murky appearance, but things improve as you get into the film itself. The highest compliment I can pay the transfer is that it boasts strong detail, fading into softness only in backgrounds. The color palette seems a bit inconsistent, or perhaps this was the filmmakers' intention. Scenes of the Candyman's lair are lurid and even oversaturated with reds and oranges, whereas everyday urban landscapes are washed out, gray and white. The result is that some scenes look positively spectacular while others look drab and dated. I noticed very minor halos in scenes of high contrast, and I also observed a fair amount of grain, most of it seeming digitally sourced. Some backgrounds teemed with mosquito noise. Overall, though, this is a nice effort for elements that have surely aged.
This new transfer is a marked improvement on the image quality of the previous release, which suffered more from softness.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Surround track is dated but seems an accurate representation of the film's theatrical experience. Dialog seems fairly accurate, if the slightest bit muffled. Screams and other high-end sound tend toward brittleness, sometimes breaking up in distortion. What an opportunity a 5.1 track would have had with Candyman's deep-bass, immersive voice! But, alas, we get only a front-heavy presence for his ominous dialog. It does sound pretty creepy, I must admit, with pleasant bass presence. The surround speakers do murmur occasionally with crowd noise.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Let's talk briefly about Clive Barker. I've been a huge fan since my college days, when I discovered, through good ol' Fangoria Magazine, Barker's Books of Blood in lurid paperbacks at my local B. Dalton Bookseller. Remember those ugly things, with the grotesque masks on the cover? I devoured them cover to cover, and each short story seemed to speak directly to me at that time in my life. I loved the books so much that I jumped at the chance to meet Barker at a Fangoria Weekend of Horrors convention. This was perhaps 15 years ago. I shook his hand and marveled at his youthful, boyish looks—an innocent, friendly face behind the ghastly horror of the books. I also met him in the early 90s in Denver, amazed how he'd kept those boyish looks.
Good heavens, what has happened to Clive Barker? He appears here to have aged 25 years, and his voice has gone completely gravelly, an old man's growl. This is evidenced dramatically in the Filmmaker's Commentary, which features contributions not only from Barker but also from director Bernard Rose, producer Alan Poul, and actors Tony Todd, Virginia Madsen, and Kasi Lemmons. This is an edited-together track that's actually very informative and enlightening, but the shock of hearing a Barker's dilapidated voice is eye-opening, particularly for someone who—not so long ago—got a kick out of a young author's boyish, grisly charms. Anyway, the commentary is only vaguely scene-specific, seeming more of a collection of interview snippets than a commentary. That's not necessarily a bad thing. There's a whole lot to keep your attention here, a lot of backstory and thoughts about inspiration, from the importance of urban legends to the care in which the crew chose the film's setting to the essential distinction between action films and horror films. The subject of race is covered in great detail, as well as the reception of the film by its African American audience. The film was lensed in the era of Rodney King, and the participants discuss the impact of that cultural turning point. The specter of the boogeyman is discussed. There's a fascinating story about actually hypnotizing Madsen to create a convincing portrayal of a mesmerized character, and you get a humorous anecdote about the film's composer, Philip Glass, who apparently didn't realize he was scoring a horror flick.
The 24-minute Sweets to the Sweet: The Candyman Mythos is a good little documentary about the making of the film. There's a significant amount of duplication from the commentary, but I enjoyed the visuals aspect of the piece. We get contributions from the same players who take part in the commentary, including gravelly Barker. (You'll find yourself begging him to clear his throat.) They talk about—again—the basis of the film in urban legend, the film's casting, the hypnotizing of Madsen, the Philip Glass score, and the audience reaction. But you also get fun stories about the challenges of working with bees, the film's origin in Barker's story, and the film's sequels. Overall, this is a surprisingly intellectual discussion of the film and its characters, much like the commentary.
The 11-minute Clive Barker: Raising Hell is a bio featurette that covers the author's career from the very beginning, touching mostly on his film work. It's mostly an interview piece, in which he talks about his inspirations and specifically what he calls "the pleasure of being scared." I enjoyed the brief bit on his Books of Blood.
You also get 5 minutes of lurid Bernard Rose Storyboards, a montage of them set to Philip Glass music.
The disc wraps up with Previews for Creature Features, Darkness Falls, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
If you're a fan of the film, this DVD of Candyman belongs in your collection. Sporting a terrific cast-and-crew commentary and an informative documentary, the supplements are quite engaging and enrich the experience of the film. Image and sound quality as just about as good as we can expect. The film, however, is somewhat dated, so newcomers would do well to rent first and buy later.