Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Scariest Characters in Cinema #16 - Candyman
One of Clive Barker's greatest talents is his insight into the significance of horror archetypes even as he employs them to terrifying effect. Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), the protagonist of Candyman (adapted from Barker's short story "The Forbidden") is a grad student who, in conducting interviews for her thesis on urban legends, hears repeated references to the Candyman, a vengeful African-American ghost with a hook for a hand who, like "Bloody Mary," appears when summoned by repeating his name five times into a bathroom mirror. The Candyman is a mixture of standard tropes of urban legends and our uneasy knowledge of our national history of racism and oppression. As Helen's research on Candyman leads her into the most dangerous housing projects of early-'90s Chicago, the film has a good deal to say about the role of oral tradition in our culture, how supernatural fears can be representative of real-life fears anxieties over poverty, crime and racial tension (Candyman was filmed during the Rodney King trial and released months after the L.A. riots).
And just as the film has successfully deconstructed urban legends and put its boogeyman in a larger social context, the Candyman (Tony Todd) appears to Helen and us to assert his existence with a vengeance. Director Bernard Rose's elegant, restrained direction does an excellent job, as Candyman stalks Helen, of blurring the line between reality and nightmares. Rose even hypnotized Madsen for her scenes with the Candyman (a technique previously used by Werner Herzog for Heart of Glass) to give her performance a hallucinatory quality. As we learn more about the Candyman's origin, the story becomes an intersection of the darkest aspects of our culture's notions of race, gender and sexuality - the Candyman is a very real manifestation of our collective guilt. But Candyman isn't just a treatise - it's a great, gory, terrifying ghost story, with a boogeyman (played with gravitas by the gravel-voiced Todd) who both elicits our sympathy and scares the bejesus out of us. The sequels don't work at all, but the original, which kept me up all night after a slumber-party screening in the fifth grade, is still deeply unsettling.