Monday 30 January 2017

On a Thousand Walls #2: Candyman (1992)

When I started my We Don't Go Back project, one of the things that most delighted me about it was that so many of the films I loved were already in the category of folk horror. And it gave me the chance to watch things I hadn't seen for many years. Like Candyman. Candyman is one of the very rare pure horror films that I genuinely rate; usually I will tend towards the artsy, as I have said many times before, but Candyman (directed by Bernard Rose, and based loosely on a short story by Clive Barker) is strictly a genre piece. It is also, I think, one of the best horror films I have ever seen.

It is also about as close as you can get to an urban American equivalent to a folk horror piece. It is probably one of the most quintessentially Urban Wyrd movies ever made.
Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman... Candyman.
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, one of those actors who always deserved better) is a researcher in Social Studies at the University of Illinois. Along with her best friend, Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), she's investigating urban myths. One that keeps coming up concerns Candyman. He was the son of a slave made good, a handsome, charming artist who made the mistake of falling in love with a white woman. A lynch mob sawed off his right hand and rammed a meathook in its place, and then tore a honeycomb from a hive and smeared him with the honey, so that he was stung to death. His vengeful ghost haunts Chicago.

If you look in a mirror and say his name five times, so the story goes, he comes and guts you with his hook. An interviewee tells Helen the story of a babysitter and her boyfriend; of course, it's untraceable. But then, the black cleaning lady tells a very different version of the story, about how, over in the projects, someone was killed by Candyman and the woman in the apartment next door dialled 911 over and over again and no one ever came.
Look where people don't look and you find something true.
Helen looks in the newspaper records and yes, something like that really happened. 

Helen is intrigued and decides to investigate further, and yes, people get killed by Candyman all the time, it seems. Although patronised by colleagues, including Helen's lecturer husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley), who Helen suspects is sleeping with his students, or maybe because of that, Helen and Bernie go to Cabrini Green, one of the most deprived places in Chcago (and which remained so, right up until its demolition in 2011) and between them they find the sites of more than one of the Candyman murders. They strike up acquantainces with a young woman named Ann-Marie (Vanessa Williams), who was the woman who called 911 in vain, and with a boy called Jake (DeJuan Guy), who tells the bloodcurdling story of a murdered boy.

Into the murder room.
In the murder apartment, Helen finds disturbing graffiti, and offerings of candy with razorblades in the wrappers. In the public toilet, she finds, written on the walls in shit, SWEETS FOR THE SWEET. And then she finds Candyman, who it turns out is just a gangster who murders those who get in his way with a meat hook. This Candyman, just a man trading on the urban myth, isn't dumb enough to kill a white woman, but is too dumb to leave her alone. He beats her unconscious. And when she recovers, she goes to the police, and testifies. He's imprisoned, and the myth is exploded.

Helen and Bernie even said the name five times in the mirror. He didn't come.
Not the Candyman.
But when his myth is exploded, the spirit awakens. The real Candyman, as debonair and sinister as you would hope, his bloody stump still with its hook, his chest full of live bees, comes to Helen and begins to wreak bloody havoc in her life, even as he speaks to her with a sort of twisted fondness.
Candyman: Your disbelief destroyed the faith of my congregation. Without them, I am nothing. So I was obliged to come. And now I must kill you. Your death will be a tale to frighten children. To make lovers cling closer in their rapture. Come with me and be immortal.
Tony Todd plays the most romantic of body-horror villains.
Candyman (Tony Todd, so iconic that he would never gain real recognition in any other part) is charming, almost poetic, his face chiselled and handsome. He is a perfect gentleman, even as he commits dreadful and bloody crimes. He doesn't kill her, though. Instead, he repeatedly sends her into a dreamlike state, and when she recovers, she finds herself at the scene of a hideous act, and herself the prime suspect.

The second half of the film, Helen finds herself abandoned and betrayed. She wakes from a drugged stupor and stages a desperate escape, in one final attempt to save a baby who Candyman has stolen as a very special victim.
Virginia Madsen apparently underwent deep hypnosis so that she could be put into a trance without warning by the director. So when Helen's mind is clouded and she goes all glassy eyed and dreamy, it's convincing because Madsen really is completely under the spell.
But he doesn't kill Helen. He won't. She is part of his story, and he depends on her for his survival. His story is her story, and he depends on her story reaching its end for his story to survive. They are tied together in ways that Helen doesn't understand. But she is as much a fiction as he.
Candyman: Our names will be written on a thousand walls. Our crimes told and retold by our faithful believers. 
In fact, Helen Lyle's very name as a character links her to Candyman. In the UK, we forget that some things are strange. Take, for instance, Lyle's Golden Syrup.
Yes, that's a dead lion.
On the tin there's a dead lion with bees in it. It's a reference to the story in the Biblical Book of Judges, the reference Judges 14:14: "And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle." It's in a story where Samson sees the decaying carcase of a lion with a beehive in it, and he uses the image in a riddle to confuse his enemies.

Candyman is literally a corpse made host for bees; Helen Lyle, his nemesis and desire, is the receptacle for his story. She's a tin for the syrup. Out of the strong comes sweetness.
It was always you, Helen. It was always you.
Candyman is fantastic. The principal actors, particularly Virginia Madsen, Xander Berkeley and Tony Todd, deliver excellent performances and the story is gory, nerve-rattling, poetic and even at times sort of moving. The music, by Philip Glass of all people, creates an atmosphere somehow unlike any other horror film. I think it's Bernard Rose's best film (a lot of people rate Paperhouse, but I admit I never much liked it, and he's certainly never made another really great film since).

And it has one of the best endings of any horror film (an ending that the very existence of sequels detracts from, and if you're watching this film, do not watch the sequels, nor even accept their existence).  
One of the reasons Candyman is so good is that it (serendipitously, I think) strikes upon the very true point that the stories we tell each other, the folk traditions we create, are actually very different, depending on where we come from. Middle-class white teens tell stories about babysitters meeting urban myths in suburbia, unverifiable friends of friends. Poor black people in the projects tell stories about real horrors, things that happened to people they know. The stories of poverty are that much more visceral because poverty brings these horrors so much closer.

Much is made visually of Helen's swank apartment in a building that is nonetheless laid out and designed identically to Cabrini Green; she lives in a gentrified housing project. And the myth of  Candyman is, we find at the start of a film, a gentrified myth. It is a story of race and class inequality from its inception, and it belongs to the black urban poor of Chicago, but it has been inhabited by giggly white suburban teens.
Oh, Helen.
Candyman demonstrates how stories of urban horror are shaped by the space in which we live. The housing project shapes Candyman's legend, but he does not appear for "real" until Helen causes his story to stumble. Helen becomes the focus of the vengeful ghost's desires because Helen is the central crux of his story.

In the movie, a musical theme recurs, always at the most important, mythical parts of the story: it's called "It Was Always You, Helen." And when this line is finally spoken in the film, it resonates on every level. The ending, which I cannot spoil, but which is so good, is the ultimate expression of the story, and its most satisfying outworking. A legend needs a place, and it needs a vehicle.