Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I enjoy horror movies, but I am more than willing to admit that most of them are pretty bad.  The horror genre usually doesn't have much more to offer than some unique ways to kill teenagers, but every so often, I get surprised.  Candyman was one of those times.  This film distances itself from its horror brethren in some very basic ways.  There are no teen-aged main characters, for starters.  Instead of creating a fictional city or town, this movie takes place in Chicago, primarily in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, which are scary enough on their own.  The main character in this movie is played by an Oscar nominee (not for this role), which is one of the few, if not the only, time that has happened in a horror movie.  Oh, and it doesn't completely suck.

Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a graduate student researching urban legends for her thesis.  She polls freshmen for any legends they know and notes that most legends have many versions.  While researching, she comes across the Candyman legend.  Like Bloody Mary, if you say his name five times in front of the mirror, he allegedly appears and murders you.  Helen doesn't think much about the legend at first, and she and her friend Bernadette jokingly say his name in the mirror five times.  Nothing happens.  Big surprise.  Later, she meets a maid at the university who claims that the Candyman story is true.  This intrigues Helen, because being able to trace a legend back to its real-world counterpart would be a scoop for her thesis.  The maid claims that the Candyman murdered someone in the Cabrini-Green projects, which leads to Helen finding some newspaper articles about a hook-related murder.  She has some theories on the crime that would help explain some of the more supernatural elements of the story, like Candyman appearing near the mirror, she just needs some hard evidence.  Helen researches the story on location in the projects, but she does not come much closer to the truth.

That's when he appears.  While Candyman (Tony Todd) doesn't look like a nice guy, he doesn't have the gross disfigurement that most iconic horror villains possess.  He does have a hook in the disgusting stump where his hand should be, which I suppose makes up for his otherwise normal appearance.  Candyman is upset by Helen's research, as she is helping convince others that he does not exist.  Candyman urges her to become his victim (which is a little awkward), but she resists, so he decides to prove himself to her.  Helen blacks out and awakens in the Cabrini-Green apartment of the nicest resident she interviewed during her research; Helen is covered in blood, notices that the apartment's dog has been decapitated, and the resident's infant is missing.  Beside herself with grief, the resident attacks Helen, who is forced to protect herself with a butcher knife.  Not surprisingly, this escapade lands her in jail, but her husband (Xander Berkeley) bails her out.

Bad move.  Candyman begins appearing more and more frequently, but only to Helen.  He has the baby hidden somewhere and will kill it if Helen does not give herself to him, to join him and strengthen his legend.  As the movie continues, Candyman keeps killing and Helen keeps getting blamed for those crimes.  Despite being wanted for murder, Helen realizes that she is the baby's only hope of survival and decides to do whatever it takes to save it.

That might not sound too good, but there's a lot to like in this move and there are some aspects that I genuinely appreciate.  I like Candyman's desire to seduce Helen into becoming his victim.  He could have killed her at any time, but he wanted to make her, the urban legend debunker, part of his urban legend.  That's actually a pretty cool motivation.  I like Candyman's voice; the production team treated his dialogue as voice over, so when he spoke, it felt like an omnipotent narrator was speaking.  That was a nice touch that definitely added to the creepiness of the character.  I also liked the scenes where Candyman handled/was made of bees.  I'm not a huge fan of bugs crawling all over characters, but bugs that sting are definitely scary.  I don't usually squirm while watching movies, but that made me wiggle a bit.

I think this was a pretty smart slasher flick, too.  It went out of its way to avoid a lot of slasher cliches; all the people that died were truly innocent, not promiscuous, drunken teens on a drug binge.  If this film had been edited just a little bit better, there would even be a question as to whether Candyman existed or not.  He's only on screen without Helen for about fifteen seconds; everything else happens with Helen present.  If those fifteen seconds had been cut, then there we could make a valid point that Helen could be responsible for everything and Candyman was either her going crazy or something that possessed her.  That angle would have improved this movie's IQ enough to be a classic.

Unfortunately, that is not this film's only shoulda-coulda-woulda.  Despite all the unique and smart things in this movie, a lot of careless mistakes are made:
  • Ted Raimi has a cameo as a "bad boy"
  • Helen walks into a public men's restroom outside Cabrini-Green.  That's a whole horror premise by itself.
  • Trevor, Helen's husband, is a professor married to a graduate student in his own department.  He cheats on her with one of his students.  And he's paid enough to have a gigantic apartment on Chicago's North side with a view of downtown?  How does that happen?
  • Helen's Chicago apartment does not have a deadbolt or latch.  Now that's fiction.
A lot of horror movies get people to overlook the overall crappiness of the film by going all-out for the climax.  Not so much here.  I thought the climax was pretty ineffective, but it did set up a pretty good ending.  That's a trade-off I'm willing to make, and just one of the many choices that director Bernard Rose makes that work well.  Most of the budget went toward special effects instead of actors and script, so the casting choices are pretty solid (Tony Todd is a creepy man), even if their acting isn't great (Xander Berkeley, I'm looking at you).  Is this a masterpiece?  No, it's too stupid for that.  It is a good horror movie that is also a pretty decent movie in its own rights. 

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