Strange creatures everywhere; in nursing homes, in family homes, in orphanages. These 3 shorts show what's lurking right next to us in the shadows.
Someone is killing fae in the Burgue, and the murder isn't stopping.
Underrated, underseen, Kevin S. Tenney's 1986 horror WITCHBOARD helped make the Ouija popular again.
Sometimes sequels improve on the original, sometimes they're only a bit better. Other times, they're rougher than that.
Gore Verbinski's return to horror is disturbing, Gothic, & way too damn long.
A look at the depth of grief, trauma, and how to cope afterwards.
Refn brings his wild sensibilities to a dark fantasy epic involving the possible course of a Viking trip to North America before anybody other than the Natives set foot on its ground.
Needful Things. 1993. Directed by Fraser C. Heston. Screenplay by W.D. Richter; based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
Starring Max von Sydow, Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Amanda Plummer, J.T. Walsh, Ray McKinnon, Duncan Fraser, Valri Bromfield, Shane Meier, William Morgan Sheppard, Don S. Davis, Campbell Lane, Eric Schneider, Frank C. Turner, & Gillian Barber. New Line Cinema/Castle Rock Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 120 minutes.
As an avid reader of Stephen King I’m always happy when I can tout one of the film adaptations as worthy of his writing. With any book the movie never seems to match up in quality, though on rare occasions this happens. What an adaptation for the screen can hope for is that it preserves the spirit of the source material. Not all adaptations of King novels work out appropriately, as I’ve mentioned in my other reviews recently. At least with a good couple hours directors and writers are capable of turning a large-sized novel into something worthwhile of the author’s efforts.
Needful Things makes use of every minute out of the two hour runtime. Screenwriter W.D. Richter manages to turn a large cast of characters into interesting people within that time frame, not jamming anything down our throats. Rather the screenplay allows for so much in 120 minutes because it’s structured well, it focuses on the right elements. Doesn’t hurt that the cast is spectacular, right down to the smaller roles. Then you’ve got Ed Harris, Max Von Sydow, Bonnie Bedelia leading the ensemble with strong performances. In particular, Sydow presents us with a version of the cinematic devil that stands out amongst so many other similar depictions of that mythic character. I can’t help loving this King film when so many never hit the mark, nor are they given the proper level of production in order to achieve what potential they have inherently. There’s a little bit of cheese here or there. Maybe you dig it, maybe not. Either way, Needful Things is a devilishly fun and mysterious mix of the supernatural and personal stories of drama, crime, and all sorts of small town issues. The novel is treated well here in this uneven yet awesome fantasy that takes place in that little town of Castle Rock, Maine.
First and foremost, Max Von Sydow is great. A perpetually fantastic actor whom I always find interesting to watch. He’s well suited to play a man such as this, one whom we know little of but glean that he’s, essentially, the devil. Literally. Even the name works, Leland Gaunt. But Sydow is what gives this screen character such fearful depth. His voice, his way of dressing, how he laughs and sweetly ingratiates himself to the men and women alike in Castle Rock; only part of that is the writing. Sydow’s abilities as an actor come out quite nicely with such a classic character as the literary Satan in disguise. He makes the devil so flawlessly friendly to those around him. Really one of the best devils out of any movie, regardless of how you may feel about the rest of the film.
Part of the performance is also his look in terms of makeup and costume. For most of the film we get that elegant, suit wearing look that suits Sydow so well. In brief moments the makeup renders him into a nearly goblin-like creature, his long nails protruding, yellow and thick, his nasty teeth shining in the light of certain head movements. Plus, much more. This isn’t always outwardly visible, only in those brief shots is it clear and that makes it more unsettling.
Everyone else is mostly great, even if Sydow is the centrepiece. Harris and Bedelia are both excellent, just as their chemistry makes their characters relationship sweet and loveable. Even young Meier does well as Brian Rusk, a tough and complex role for an actor of any age. Most of all I love Amanda Plummer – the character is good enough, but she automatically makes ANY character that much better. She turns up and I’m usually ready to keep glued to the screen. She does not disappoint, and her final showdown, warring with neighbour Wilma (Valri Bromfield) is so satisfying in a morbid way that you’ll have trouble not cheering a little. Don’t worry, I did. So we’re both sick fucks. If the acting weren’t so good then it wouldn’t be this hard to resist.
Visual callback to The Exorcist, as Polly (Bedelia) walks down a set of stairs and witnesses Alan (Harris) shaking hands with Danforth (J.T. Walsh). I’d never noticed that until this last time watching. Funny how that escaped me. Right now, it stood out so evident. Not in a hokey sense, but a stellar homage to William Friedkin’s supernatural, religious horror masterpiece. The movie isn’t built on homage. Not in the slightest. Everything else is pretty well shot. It doesn’t stop at the cinematography from Tony Westman. The entire flow of the film in its writing to the directing choices and the editing is a huge reason why everything works. Alone the way most scenes are edited together is good filmmaking, but better yet are certain scenes. For instance, when Brian (Shane Meier) is tossing the baseballs, then there are the flashback moments certain residents have as they make their dirty deal with Gaunt, among others.
Also have to mention the inclusion of classical pieces. I’m a huge fan of classical music, so it’s even better that the soundtrack here is used to such advantage. Beautiful, soul-filled pieces play over moments of wild destruction and violence. Always an interesting, effective juxtaposition.
Furthermore, in terms of writing, I find Richter does impressive work. A lot of movies insist that linear storytelling means you can’t move back and forth between moments in time. In a sense, yes. Many others prove that you can tell a linear story and also include plenty of non-linear aspects. What the screenplay here accomplishes is a linear plot that gives us 99% of the current story, then peppers in the whole cast of characters within that whole structure with their own histories. The overall story never gets bogged down because of how well the writing is adapted. Again, this is how Richter manages to fit all these characters into one two hour span without making a mess of things. The writing, the editing, the direction on Fraser C. Heston’s part, all comes together to make Needful Things a horrific bit of fantasy inside a story of intense human drama.
Another solid King adaptation. Lots of negative reviews out there. Although I’m totally in the other camp, this is a fantastic little movie. Not perfect by any means and a couple of the actors leave some to be desired. I can’t fault anybody in particular for not making the movie better. Needful Things is a good deal of fun. The story is one that could easily go epic in scope, instead King’s original novel takes that type of plot about the devil making deals with ordinary people for their souls and crafts that into a tale of corrupted innocence in a coastal town in Maine, bringing the scale down to a personal, emotional level. Sydow looms large as the Satan figure, Leland Gaunt, and everyone from Harris to Bedelia to Meier and Plummer all play their respective characters well.
I know not everyone will always feel the same. A typical story is done differently and done well with this film version. In a world of terrible movies made from Stephen King stories, let’s appreciate the ones that genuinely work. We get all the character, all the setting and the terror and the familiar macabre qualities of King, including some blood and psychosis along the way. If that can’t please you, nothing will.
A Late Thaw. 2015. Directed & Written by Kim Barr.
Starring Michelle Boback, Lucas Chartier-Dessert, Kathleen Fee, Helena Marie, & Ivan Peric.
Over at ChicArt Productions they’re consistently putting out interesting little short independent films. Some are great subversions of genre, others are merely great examples of the genres in which the films exist. In the past six months or more, I’ve received a lot of fun screeners from them. I’m only now just getting around to seeing each film and reviewing them. No matter how big or small a production, it’s always a major honour for me to be asked by filmmakers and their publicity teams to take a look at their work. Getting a screener is like Christmas for me!
But it’s even better when these shorts are actually solid pieces of cinema. Usually, I receive requests for horror movies, seeing as how my website is (for the most part) fairly horror-based. All the same, I find many genres wind up in my inbox.
Director-writer Kim Barr’s most recent short, A Late Thaw, is less a horror – though it contains the essence of creepiness most of the time – and more a drama-fantasy. Better yet it reminds me of contemporary Gothic Literature, honestly. You could almost say it’s one long hallucination with bits of reality peppered in. No matter how you define it – perhaps dark fantasy might work best – Barr executes an innovative little screenplay to make 14-minute film into something magical, otherworldly, and excruciatingly personal. More than that, this short examines grief, how people deal with it, when they do, and how that grief can reach out from a person’s past to either strangle or give way to their future.
The cinematography is beautiful, at times quite surreal. Very much dig the fantasy elements, as they’re woven around the story fairly well. When Tara (Helena Marie) walks through the house and the snow is falling, frost is on the doorknob, you feel in an entirely other reality. The snow-covered stairs, the hallway shrouded with foggy, blowing snow; each moment is like something out of a dream. And then soon comes the paranoia, which includes great little sound design thrown on top of everything else. The score sits perfectly beneath all the camerawork. It pulls the viewer in with an ambient sound, swelling, fading, and helps to put us in a nostalgic frame of mind while we continue to watch on, wondering what will come next: dreams, or reality. These elements come together to create a strange atmosphere; strange in a good way. Barr’s directorial choices work well alongside the cinematography to create a space that feels like one step in a different direction through this house will take you to a whole other world. Short films by nature only have a limited window to take you inside their universe. A Late Thaw immerses us into this story so easily, so quickly, that it’s a seamless transition. One minute you’re here, the next you find yourself walking through this dreamy, cloudy house, snow falling, the air thick. A remarkable aesthetic overall, which is something I’m big on. Although the story is excellent, it could’ve been only half decent an the technical work on this film would still make it highly enjoyable.
When it comes to the titular thaw, we find out Tara has been trying to move on from a previous tragedy. Only now, with the new house and all its happiness, her old grief is thawing and working its way up to, and out of, the surface. The film’s imagery with the snow and all the frostiness is so dark without needing horror. This personal drama about a woman is moving in that it explores very touchy, tragic memories. Certainly the snow and all that are partly representative of the old lover and their apparent death on a mountain, climbing somewhere; it’s as if that atmosphere has moved itself into her house, mentally and visually we see it literally. At the same time, the snow buries, it covers up and conceals. So the further things progress in the film, the more snow covered and cloudy things become, until even Tara finds her own face and eyes covered. In a way, the snow is also grief.
Further than that those memories are evoked with interesting images and writing. For instance, at first you’ll believe the wall climbing scene is something out of place. I did, and found myself questioning what exactly was the purpose – other than to look neat – to have this woman and her friend at a rockwall climbing spot. Then as the short moves by and gets closer to the end you begin understanding why Barr decided to include this moment, as it becomes totally relevant to Tara’s plot. Even better, there’s a terribly creepy scene which sees Tara sort of falling further and further into the hole of memory, calling back the climbing. This is one of my favourite moments, it is so unique that I felt the scene stick with me long after the film finished. Again, there’s no outright horror here, yet Barr lets the psychological terror seep through the drama at the center of this story to make everything edgy, uneasy, hard to predict. The imagery is so damn powerful, I had to go back and watch this a couple times after my first viewing.
Personally, this is one of my favourite short films I’ve ever seen. There are a handful or two of shorts that are just near perfect in my mind; this is one of those movies. Kim Barr is definitely talented, and it may be her work in other areas before coming into her own as director which helped shape some of her style. I’d dig a full-length feature from Barr because if this is any indication of her talent, any studio would be glad to have someone with the writing skills she possesses, along with the fact she has a knowledgeable grasp on her role as director. Keep an eye out – if you get the chance to see A Late Thaw, do it. You will not regret these 14 minutes. And maybe, like it did me, the film just might leave a mark, too.
Immortals. 2011. Directed by Tarsem Singh. Screenplay by Charley & Vlas Parlapanides.
Starring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, John Hurt, Stephen Dorff, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans, Joseph Morgan, Anne Day-Jones, Greg Bryk, Alan Van Sprang, Peter Stebbings, Daniel Sharman, Isabel Lucas, Kellan Lutz, & Steve Byers. Relativity Media/Virgin Produced/Mark Canton Productions.
Rated 18A. 110 minutes.
Tarsem Singh is an interesting director. He has music video sensibilities, which is where he really got his start doing videos for such artists as En Vogue and more important R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and it helps because his films have their own sort of flow. He doesn’t direct like everybody else. And while not all his films are that special, some of his work is undeniably impressive, visually exciting, and with a flair all his own. The Cell grabbed me when when it first came out, around the time I was about 15. It is such a unique and brutal serial killer film, and one of the three movies I can actually stand, as well as enjoy, Jennifer Lopez’s acting skills. The Fall is a beautiful film, a trippy piece of cinema. Then comes Immortals.
This is one hugely underrated action-fantasy mash-up. Whereas stuff like Clash of the Titans never really hits its mark, Immortals has so much to offer. Again, the visual style Singh employs makes this into, as he describes it himself, an action movie steeped in the look of Renaissance paintings. In addition, people like Mickey Rourke, a pre-Superman Henry Cavill, Luke Evans, even a bit of John Hurt, helps the acting rise above standard and stale melodrama you might amongst other similar offerings.
This screenplay is interesting because the writers chose to change pieces where they found themselves able. For instance, Zeus and Poseidon (Luke Evans/Kellan Lutz) are young men instead of the standardized old men we’re used to seeing. They apparently attributed this to the fact, and it is fact, that the Greeks themselves would often adapt certain aspects of the stories re: their Gods to in turn adapt with modern issues and times. So it’s only fitting some things get rearranged. Most of all, despite the stylized look of Immortals I’m glad that they chose to write this not as a modernized, contemporary adaptation. Due to that we’re treated to some amazing locations, many wonderfully designed sets which take you away from merely some desert, to the desert of another plane, a place where Tartarus and other mythical locations exist. Something I admire about Singh is how it’s very clear even as a director he takes great interest in set design, as well as design of the overall production. I’m convinced that’s a sign of a director’s grasp, as lesser directors likely leave that task completely to a production designer without having a hand in it. The style of Singh’s films is singular across them all. Like The Cell with its ability to take us inside the deranged and rotting mind of a serial killer, here Singh transforms the world in front of the lens into a lost place of Greek myth. He and production designer Tom Foden (who has worked with him before several times and other solid films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Mark Romanek’s chiller One Hour Photo) really take us away to another realm. These types of films concerning Greek mythology could easily be set simply in regular deserts and other similar landscapes. Instead we’re pulled right into the books and poems which describe Heaven, Tartarus, an Earth where Gods still came and left their mark.
As opposed to 300 with its CGI, Cavill’s physique as the lead, Theseus, is commendable work. He insisted on achieving his chiseled look naturally instead of having it all drawn on in post-production. The entire story behind it is mad, as financing troubles ended up having him effectively build up his body a few times before the money finally went through. Regardless, he also does some proper acting. So that’s really a double threat when it comes to action-oriented actors, which he’s turning out more and more to be; he can act, he can look the part and kick some ass. He does well with the choreographed fight sequences, which show off his athleticism, and in part his theatricality. It’s no wonder he’s gone on to even bigger things, as he has the gait and attitude of a Hollywood leading man.
Further than that, Rourke provides the essential villain that is Hyperion. In actual mythology, Hyperion is a little obscure, and though the film’s plot/story are linked quite a bit to the Titanomachy he also barely appears there at all anyways. So the writers have really come up with using Hyperion as a tabula rasa, where the Titan rebellion is sort of thrown on his shoulders, as he searches out the Epirus Bow to release them and find revenge on the Gods. Rourke is unsettling, even just Hyperion and his men are scary, scarring their faces and smashing the genitals of their recruits, going into battle like complete and utter savages. The ruggedness of Rourke makes for an imposing character in Hyperion, plus he looks absolutely mental with the big helmet on, such a perfect costume design that makes him look like some kind of jackal, or something of the like.
Added to these two lead roles, Evans is great as a young Zeus. He is a serious looking dude to begin with, and here he gives that youthful God a stern, calculating gaze, and fierce intensity that makes him formidable. Playing the oracle Phaedra is Freida Pinto; she is a nice choice, even if her role isn’t as massive as the men. But her feminine power as the oracle, a respected and revered role, is clear by the way she performs and how she makes the character feel. Also, really have to mention Robert Maillet – he plays the Minotaur, who in this version is just a massive, beastly man with a helmet and horns made from barbed wire-like steel wrapped around his head; terrifying. Maillet used to perform in the WWE, before it was WWE, as the wrestler Kurrgan. He does well here with a horrifying character. Honestly, that part actually freaks me out, and I’m a horror veteran. Great to see him here, using his physicality no less.
Lots of action, plenty excitement, a nice ass kicking showdown between Hyperion and Theseus. What more could you want? There are a couple pieces of CGI that I wasn’t big on, as well as some dialogue in parts (Stephen Dorff’s character wasn’t overly well written or at all developed; his acting doesn’t help much either). But overall, Immortals is a 4-star fantasy flick with heavy action, even some nice moments of bloody madness. Cavill, Rourke, and Evans too, they drive the cast, making this more than action fodder with a Greek mythology twist. Straying slightly from the myths and carving their own path, Tarsem Singh and Co. make a fine effort out of this one. Not enough people give this the credit it deserves, which is a shame. Let’s hope after a few missteps Singh does more fantastical work like this and The Cell down the road.
Eraserhead. 1977. Directed & Written by David Lynch.
Starring Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart, Allen Joseph, Jeanne Bates, Judith Roberts, Laurel Near, V. Phipps-Wilson, Jack Fisk, Jean Lange, Thomas Coulson, John Monez, Darwin Joston, T. Max Graham, Hal Landon Jr., & Jennifer Chambers Lynch. American Film Institute/Libra Films.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
One of my consistently favourite filmmakers is David Lynch. The first of his films I’d ever seen was Lost Highway. Then I moved to Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, and finally went for Eraserhead, his groundbreaking and eternally confusing feature-length debut. This started out as one of those old late ’70s midnight movies, not expected to draw out a huge crowd. Until it did. Today, it’s one of the most talked about debuts of any film director in the history of film, right up there with Citizen Kane. More than that, and especially due to the coy attitude of Lynch, it has remained one of the most inexplicable, hard to pinpoint films ever made. While part of its mystery can sometimes piss me off, mostly it is impressive. Because many artists, film or otherwise, are so eager to let the world know what their art means. In opposition, directors like Lynch, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, they challenge what we see as regular art by often defying any sort of ready made explanation. Not that there aren’t explanations. Likely, someone has guessed the meaning of Eraserhead, only Lynch prefers never to confirm, nor deny, and likes to let his audience determine meaning on their own. But to sit down and try extracting some type of definitive meanings from this movie is futile. Sure, like any great artistic experience there can be parallels, allusions, metaphors, many instances of symbolism. Here, though, Lynch keeps things just weird enough as to elude the easy grasp of definition. And in the process, properly disgusts, disturbs, as well as horrifies us on a physical and existential level all at once.
Obviously there are major portions of the film influenced by Lynch, his own personal fear of becoming a father, which also has to do with his daughter having trouble with clubbed feet after she was born. It’s easy to read this angle of Eraserhead. But there’s more than simply the fear of fatherhood. In our main character Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is the overarching existential fear of life, the different phases, the various expectations which come along with it. Particularly when it comes to lower class living. Henry and his wife live in a veritable ghetto of industrialized America where the smokestacks rise up and spew their filth into the air, infecting both the atmosphere and the people surrounding it. So in a way, Lynch’s time in Philadelphia certainly plays a part in the story, and the bits of discernible plotline. The fear of giving birth to a mutant child is both a normal fear of fatherhood, as well as a fear of our external environments bleeding into the internal components of our life. As if all the fear and anxiety and horrible pollution of the outer world is expressed directly in Henry’s monster baby.
Above all, the fear of fatherhood is the fear of creating life. The fear of casting a new life you’ve made into the dark abyss of the modern world. All the terrors of becoming a parent by bringing life into a miserable world are on display; a dreary, filthy, industrially driven world that Lynch pushes forward both with the industrial city visuals, as well as the constant sound design of background sounds rattling and banging, the whistling of the radiator, a non-stop hum of white noise, the sounds of a partner’s teeth grinding in the night, an eye being rubbed as the socket bubbles around at the skin.
But the imagery concerning parenthood is downright frightening. First we see pups suckling at their mothers teets, the sound of them whining and sucking and trying hard to get at the milk is unnerving, as it’s right out in the open. Then there’s the baby itself, which is like an animal fetus and some sort of alien mixed together. Altogether a foreign object, as many children feel to parents after their birth; they feel unnatural, almost like a screeching little animal. Lynch personifies that sentiment here with a hideous, deformed creature.
And then later, one of the most significant fear of fatherhood images comes to us in the form of Henry’s head falling off, then erasers being mined from his brain. Whereas the pencil is the creator – a.k.a the penis, the organ which creates life – the brain is the eraser, in the sense that the brain is meant to be able to outwit the dick re: any big decisions, such as getting a woman pregnant, for instance. So, in effect, Henry’s eraserhead should have scrubbed clean the decision to have sex with Mary, clearly with reckless disregard, as it eventually led to the birth of a monster.
There are so many striking images in the film, it’s hard to pick one that is the most intriguing. The Man in the Planet by the window, pulling levers; a hideous, ugly god behind the scenes? Pulling levers in his sickly condition, running things below and putting people through the motions of their horrible lives in an industrial, almost toxic environment.
The man-made chickens – everything man made, including children, are bound to be fucked up in this Lynchian version of industrial Hell on Earth. So it’s no surprise there are some genetically modified, bloody chickens in here. As if to symbolize everything born is, at its core, a disgusting thing, from babies to chickens.
Finally, the image of the Lady in the Radiator onstage, singing, dancing, then stepping on the strange sperm-like creatures, maybe fetuses. This one is as striking as it is unsettling. My take is that this represents his inner mind, the voice speaking to him deep down. While she stomps on the strange fetuses, then sings “In Heaven everything is fine” this can be seen as the inner urge in Henry to kill his child; those dark, unmentionable feelings of wanting to shake a screaming child that’s disrupting life, making everything worse. As if in Heaven, the child will be fine. So stomp on it like those fetus things. And of course after dreaming of his head falling off and being mined for erasers, the Lady in the Radiator egging him on, Henry goes and kills the baby after removing its bandages. After Henry tries erasing his failed love life, but is effectively rejected, all his miserable failures are compounded by the laughing baby. He even sees himself as the hideous alien-like monster baby several times, once involving the woman across the hall with whom he imagined escaping the dreariness of his old life. So if he can’t figuratively erase that old life with Mary, the rest of his unhappy existence, he decides to be rid of the monster for good. That way, he also rids himself of the hideous part in him. But in doing so, Henry may just have killed the last remaining light in him, too, which is ultimately signified by the breakdown while he tries to kill it.
Yet after all is said and done, everything is fine for Henry, in Heaven, with the Radiator Lady. Because everything is fine, when you’re dead.
If there were maybe a few more concrete moments, Eraserhead would be flawless. While I love mystery and elusiveness, sometimes this movie gets frustrating, even as I love it to death, simply because there’s so much defying explanation. It is well filmed, acted with unsettling subtlety. The sound design and the mysterious of the imagery is all beyond compelling. A 4&1/2-star masterpiece of weirdness, that spans both a fantastical aspect, as well as a straight up examination of personal psychological horror. Do not think my explanation nor that of anyone else will get to the bottom of David Lynch’s debut masterpiece. Explanation, at least definitive and sure explanation, is basically futile. This experience is about taking away from it what you will, answering your own questions. Because Lynch only asks them, giving us the contents of his horrified mind in relation to the world around him through cryptic and usually eerie imagery. I’ve sat through this movie many a time and still can’t get a full grasp on it. Part of it makes me frustrated, yes. Most of it makes me happy to have a director and writer out there like Lynch, probing the dark heart of our cinematic minds one picture at a time.
Candyman. 1992. Directed & Written by Bernard Rose; based on the story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker.
Starring Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, DeJuan Guy, Marianna Elliott, Ted Raimi, Ria Pavia, Mark Daniels, Lisa Ann Poggi, Adam Philipson, Eric Edwards, Carolyn Lowery, & Barbara Alston. PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/Propaganda Films.
Rated R. 99 minutes.
The idea of a hook hand often has its roots for people in the area of urban legends. So already the infamous, titular Candyman plays on fears. Add to that an excellent basis in the short story “The Forbidden” from Cliver Barker’s Books of Blood. As well as the fact Bernard Rose – proven by his 1988 feature Paperhouse – has a proven ability to give people the creeps.
This 1992 horror film is an amalgamation of different ideas. You can see it as a straight-up slasher horror. Then again, can you? It’s part slasher, part ghost story sub-genre. So there’s a definite crossover of genres here. Some of my favourite movies weave from one genre to the next. Rose expertly crafts a spooky urban legend into a living, breathing work of horror that reaches out of its roots in the past and grabs hold of us. On top of it all, Candyman can be taken as an allegory for urban horror and the white guilt people feel standing on the outside looking in, encountering worse horrors after invading places where they just don’t belong. Or maybe it’s anti-colonialist, set in the sprawl of the urban jungle of the Cabrini-Green housing development of Chicago’s North Side. Either way, Rose takes us to the heart of darkness. He touches on everything from the ghosts of slavery to very real, visceral horror. This is one of my favourites out of the 1990s in terms of horror. I still remember first seeing it, and now when I watch it still scares me. A great ride through fantasy-horror territory, along with a solid dose of human drama to give the terror some actual weight.
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and her friend Bernie Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) are students that decide on writing their thesis concerning local urban legends and myths. At the Cabrini-Green housing complex, they investigate the legend of the supposed Candyman (Tony Todd). He is a one-armed man that appears from nowhere if you repeat his name five times at the mirror. What Helen and Bernie decide, not believing in such legends, is to do their thesis on how those legends are actually based around real events, which create these sorts of entities that then dominate a culture.
Only, this legend? May just be true after all. And when Helen finds herself framed for a murder committed by that very same Candyman which she could not bring herself to believe in, the horror of its reality becomes brutally clear to her.
One thing I love about this one is that, at the beginning of the 90s, this movie came out with some real mature horror. The rest of the decade included Scream (though I love it) and other stuff like Urban Legends, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and other similar slashers, which are all filled with pretty young teens. And I’m not saying Virginia Madsen isn’t a beauty. But the fact this story is all centered around adults is something special. Sure, it isn’t innovative for that, it’s not like there aren’t tons of other movies out there in the horror genre involving adults. There’s simply a perfectly timed aspect to Candyman, jammed between the late 90s and those aforementioned titles, and those which came before it in the 80s where slasher movies were often populated with teens being sexualized and promptly murdered after their various debauchery. This is one horror villain whose range exceeds the typical slasher. Not only is he a ghost, an entity of the wretched past, he doesn’t need a stable of teenagers for victims. So it isn’t some schoolyard ghost story, or an urban legend told in the dark around campfires or in the bedrooms of teenage boys and girls during sleepovers. The legend of Candyman moves beyond the realm of childish scares and enters the adult world of nightmares.
While Clive Barker’s original story “The Forbidden” is based in England, the adapted screenplay from Rose moves things to America, specifically to Chicago and the Cabrini-Green housing development. I dig the story, Barker has a knack for all things macabre. However, I also dig the way Rose has transposed the story into an American setting. Because so much of this screenplay deals with the white guilt of Americans over their racist past. In a sense, Madsen’s character Helen embodies the ultimate experience of white guilt. She wants to investigate the supposed Candyman murders, she goes to Cabrini-Green, a place completely out of her element, and she superimposes her perspective over that of the black residents. She wants to shape their story for them, just like all those other white folk that come in wanting a story, wanting something. So through a metaphysical ghost story Helen becomes a real part of the legend, framed for murders committed by this entity, Candyman. Her white guilt has taken her from an outsider’s perspective, to one of a woman whose guilt is palpable and all too real. So now she no longer tells the story, she lives the story. She is the story.
Most of all, Helen’s experience with the Candyman is symbolic of America’s constant, consistent struggle with its racial history. All the horrors of slavery, everything that came out of that period. The story of Candyman’s becoming and the men who terrorized him is a vicious tale, befitting of the post-Civil War era where those memories of slavery still linger, haunting the people, descendants of those who endured amazingly savage experiences fueled by the irrational hate of racism. And it can never be escaped. In the end when Helen tries to do the right thing, or at least the best thing she could at that point, she must purge herself in the fire outside Cabrini-Green. Because it is not her place from the start to interject herself into the black struggle. So she becomes the opposite of what she’d hoped, a woman who kills black people, steals a black baby, all setup by the Candyman. Her white guilt and need to be the white saviour is shockingly derailed, which allows Rose to also give us some wonderful, vividly nasty horror, too.
The gorgeous, dreadful vision of Bernard Rose and Clive Barker collide in 1992’s Candyman, still one of the movies that scares me most. There will always be unsettling aspects to Tony Todd’s villainous persona. But everything down to the writing and execution of the effects, all of it, works as a complete package. Horror and sociology come together to make this ghostly slasher something bigger than the sum of its parts. It isn’t a by-the-numbers sub-genre horror that simply goes through the motions. At times Candyman plays perectly into those expectations, others it subverts the norm we’d usually expect. Regardless, it is a terrifying modern horror that plays on white guilt and repressed racial history. It haunts my nightmares to this day. You can’t ask any more of a scary movie.