Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An urban legend in its own mind (Candyman)

Somehow I missed seeing the horror film Candyman when it was released at the beginning of my freshman year in college. Probably I was busy acclimating to college! But acclimate I did, and by my junior year I had decided to try writing an honors thesis the following year, eventually honing in on urban legends as my topic of independent study. Several times during senior year, when I would explain what I was researching and writing about, people would nod their heads sagely and ask, “Have you seen Candyman?” Three years apparently was more than enough time for the film’s reputation and regard to have grown, to the point where I was getting this question from people I never would have pegged as horror fans. It may go without saying that whenever I said “No, not yet,” the response was invariably “Ah, you really should.”

I did not track down Candyman on VHS during my thesis-writing, presumably out of some sense that I needed to keep my thought process relatively undiluted by others’ visions. (I have to presume at my own motivations because twenty years of hard living dulls a lot of memory capacity.) All research-based writing is synthesis, of course, but I had bamboozled the English department into letting me complete a creative writing thesis rather than a literature thesis, so I needed to be especially guarded. And I was able to glean at least that much from talking to people who were being reasonably circumspect and spoiler-free (back before everybody used phrases like “spoiler-free”) in urging me towards Candyman: that it focused on an invented urban legend which drew on the broader American tradition, and that its protagonist had an interest in urban legends which drew her into the plot. What no one told me was that the protagonist, Helen, was in fact a grad student writing a thesis on urban legends and thus even more of a parallel to me personally (notwithstanding Helen being a married woman living in Chicago).

In any case, the years go by and nowadays I participate in the 1001 Movies Blog Club and I was looking over my viewing options for Spooktober(vember)fest and lo and behold, Candyman is actually on the master must-see list. The Blog Club hasn’t gotten around to reviewing it as a group yet, but I figured I was long overdue to check it out.

Here’s the thing I suspect many of my well-meaning friends may have overlooked: it’s true that I have a long-running fascination with folklore in general and urban legends as modern examples of the oral tradition in particular, which makes me pre-disposed to enjoy the subject matter. But because I’ve studied urban legends and picked them apart to see what makes them work and then indulged in attempts to stitch them back together in new and interesting ways, the bar is set pretty high for anyone else trying to dazzle me by doing the same. (I know that’s another sheaf of evidence for the swollen file on me marked Arrogant Cerebral Elitist but so be it.) Candyman tries to be dazzling, oh me oh my it does try. But it is also pretty much a complete dang mess. (Yeah, spoilers.)

There is another version of this post (which I gave myself a geek-headache trying to write yesterday) that is about 5000 words long, in which I indulge in unpacking the byzantine plot of the film and then go through which twists and turns are simply needless and which are disruptively illogical. But I’m going to spare you guys all that. However, if you ever run into me at a party and you’ve seen Candyman and you want to talk about it at great length, I’m all over it. For purposes of this post, suffice it to say that Candyman is not just a kitchen-sink movie, it’s a utility-sink-shared-by-a-burger-stand-and-a-landscaping-company-and-a-golf-pro-shop movie. If anybody trying to get me to watch this movie had laid out there case by describing just how much is crammed in here, I would have called them out as a liar, and a bad one at that.

And some of that crammed-in stuff is really quite good, no denying. Urban legends are like modern day fairy tales, equal parts collective fear and instruction on social mores and taboos. So the movie uses the Cabrini-Green housing projects as the deep, dark fairy tale forest, which works pretty well symbolically, and the legendary (and as it turns out as the movie progresses, all-too-real and powerful and terrifying) Candyman as its dragon, complete with an abandoned Cabrini-Green apartment as his lair. The set design for the lair is phenomenally evocative, turning mundane elements like crumbling cinderblock walls and chaotic graffiti into a sinister realm of fear. And Tony Todd freaking owns it as the Candyman, from his voice to his crazy-eyes to the sheer intensity of his presence. It’s understandable how the original film could be seen as a can’t-miss proposition for an enduring horror franchise with Tony Todd as Candyman comparable to Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger.

But ultimately the movie falls victim to too many pitfalls of invented mythologies. The film wants to play around with the ideas of urban legends not just as contemporary fables but as contemporary religion; the character of Candyman talks about his “congregation” and makes vague pronouncements about how his power is fueled by people’s belief in him and all the lore associated with him. So it tries to amplify Candyman’s potency by making him an amalgamation of multiple urban legends: Bloody Mary, the Hook-Handed Killer, and various wrongful death vengeful spirits. (Also, bees!) And that wrongful death is part of a convoluted 19th-century origin story (recounted by a condescending professor) that is equally random and shoddy, so much so that for a while I honestly believed that part of the resolution of the movie was going to hinge on Helen (who as a grad student should maybe represent rational thought?) poking holes in Candyman’s origin story, such as:
- They cut off his hand with a rusty saw? Who keeps rusty saws on-hand? Wouldn’t it be far more likely that the nearest saw would be in good working condition?
- Then they replaced his hand with a hook? ‘They’ meaning the lynch mob? Why give him even a crude prosthetic if you’re just about to murder him?
- Then they smeared him with honey from a farmer’s beehives and the bees were drawn to him and stung him to death? Isn’t it ants who are drawn by honey? Wouldn’t the bees attack the people who broke open the hives?
And then, poof! Candyman would be destroyed by the irrefutable evidence that he never existed to begin with. But I guess that’s way too meta. The fact remains, though, that Candyman’s abilities and powers are ill-defined and inconsistent, and that makes the whole movie hard to get invested in. This is the bad, unentertaining kind of chaos in horror movies, where things just get crazier and crazier for no real reasons. And it all leads to a twist ending where, after destroying him shortly before dying herself (but only dying after saving the life of an innocent baby), Helen herself becomes a supernatural creature of vengeance like Candyman. Although apparently her whole thing is not going to be shedding innocent blood, but punishing adulterous men. If any adulterous men happen to say “Helen” five times in the mirror, that is. Which, beyond Helen’s own cheating husband, seems unlikely! The implication of course is that Helen becomes another real urban legend, but I fail to see how her legend would spread beyond what’s covered in the runtime of the movie.

There are moments in the movie where it seems to want to be a meditation on late 20th-century race relations, the legacy of slavery, the impossible realities of life in the projects, and so on. Candyman is the son of a slave, killed by a lynch mob for falling in love with a white woman … but he builds his lair in Cabrini-Green and seems to mainly kill black people. There are other moments where it seems to want to satirically skewer academia (Helen’s relentless striving to be published, the condescending professor, and Helen’s husband cheating on her with a young coed aka the oldest cliché in the book) … but once Helen gets disabused of her book-smart conviction that Candyman isn’t real, all the university trappings fall away pretty fast. There are moments near the end where a tragic love story comes out of nowhere, as it is abruptly revealed that Helen resembles Candyman’s lover for whom he died, and that’s why he wants Helen to surrender to him … except that for most of the movie he’s threatening her (but failing to kill her) for telling people the Candyman was a myth that local gangbangers cloaked themselves in for the intimidation factor … and then also at the end is he trying to trick her into killing herself, because that’s the only way he can have her? He has a chance to kill her and lets her go only to lure her into a deathtrap which does in fact kill her? But the reason it kills her is because someone sees a glimpse of her but thinks it’s the Candyman, which means people still believed in him even when he was ranting about renewing their faith … gah, I’m on my way to 5000 words again. Contradictions abound, is what I’m saying.

Basically, Candyman has some cool imagery and a magnetic villain, but the core story (or stories) can’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny. It also has cheesey special effects which have not aged well, and some regrettable sub-par acting throughout. For cult-classic midnight movies, that’s not that unusual. But for once I think I’m going to be able to resist the siren call of tracking down all the subsequent sequels and spinoffs for completeness’s sake. I can finally answer yes when people ask me if I’ve ever seen Candyman, and that’s good enough.

1 comment:

  1. It's an alright movie, but not as scary as I would have liked. Definitely creepy, though, that's for damn sure. Good review.