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Friday, August 27, 2021

A Hypnotic Horror: How the Original ‘Candyman’ Led Me Down the Path of Horror Movie Obsession

The landscape of the city, with its many moving parts, appears to be not all that dissimilar from a beehive— from a certain point of view. There’s a purposeful busyness that pervades such a place, presenting the illusion that the individuals there are all part of the hive, working toward something meaningful. Of course, it’s easy to compartmentalize the whole when peering down on its vastness from above. Upon closer inspection, however, instead of togetherness, there is detachment. Instead of solidarity, there is abandon. No united colony serves the vast network of honeycomb which comprises the intertwining city streets, leaving nothing but the uncertainty that fills the void of separation to create some broken sense of homogeneity amongst those who dwell within.

It was a balmy summer night in the south suburbs of Chicago the day my friend carried a stack of VHS tapes up to my room, laid them out on my bedspread and asked, with no small degree of giddiness, which one I wanted to try first. My uncertainty betrayed me, as the look on my face and the obvious hesitation in my voice made it clear that my request to “try watching a few horror movies” may have been made prematurely. Still, the time had come, the night was set and, whether I was hungry for it or not, horror was on the menu.

It had only been a few weeks since my first, full-length exposure to horror in the form of a Scream (1996) VHS tape at the same friend’s house. To my surprise, despite a lifelong aversion to the genre, I had enjoyed it. It was a taste of something exciting and new; an extreme of sorts that, despite my misgivings, I couldn’t help but be interested in exploring further.

But once the moment to embark had arrived, I found myself nowhere near prepared. Fear had gripped me, wrangled control, and not a frame had even yet graced my rounded 22’’ tube TV. I moved to speak, to put a stop to this whole thing, when my companion reached down and lifted a tape, grinning as he surveyed the white cover marked with a large open eye, reflecting the visage of a hulking figure as a honey bee perched on its retina. “This,” he said, “let’s start with this.”

I had heard of Candyman (1992), I knew the story. Everybody did. We all knew what would happen if you said his name five times in the mirror. It was like Bloody Mary, or Blue Eyes— dare to repeat the thing enough and who knows what one might manifest. Just the thought of it sent a shiver down my spine. But it was too late, he had already pressed play.

Transposed from Clive Barker’s Liverpool set short story The Forbidden by prolific writer and director Bernard Rose to the projects of Chicago, the pedigree of its creatives and history of its adaptation was obviously lost on me at the time. However, as a resident and steady downtown frequenter of the Chicagoland area, the setting and thematics were sharply resonant from the start. As Philip Glass’s stirring score played romantically over the opening scroll of busy streets and the independent yet intrinsically connected lives of those who traversed them, I found myself surprised at the thoughtfulness this horror movie was already starting to conjure up.

Quickly the film revealed itself to be concerned with the power and pervasiveness of urban myth, the way in which folklore has evolved to be one of the few uniting sources of community in the modern world. The process of adaptation is inherent in the DNA of Candyman, but this is visualized within minutes of the film’s start by way of a teenager’s recounting of the titular legend. She tells of a good babysitter and a bad boy, the night where the two are finally going to consummate their attraction and the hooked specter who appears when called to gut the virginal character before she can give herself to the leather jacket wearing rebel waiting for her downstairs. The baby too, we’re told, falls victim to the vicious Candyman, or so the storyteller’s roommate’s boyfriend had suggested to her.

This is juxtaposed against another story heard shortly thereafter. Not from a teenager, but from a cleaning woman who works at the same college as the film’s protagonist, graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen). Collecting these stories for her thesis regarding the use of urban myth to explain and endure the suffering experienced by the communities that proliferate them, Helen realizes that the perspectives she’s been compiling derive almost exclusively from a place of privilege. The story recanted to her by the upper-middle-class white teenager varies dramatically from that told by the lower income middle-aged black woman— and it’s in comparing the two that the true horrors of society begin to emerge.

Far from the upscale home where the babysitter met her demise, this woman’s tale took place in a low-income housing project, a place called Cabrini-Green. A woman was heard screaming through the walls. The police were called, but no one came. When the authorities finally arrived, all that was left was the woman’s slaughtered remains. No amount of temptation brought about her death and no moral breach of contract occurred to usher in some cosmic punishment. She was simply a person who needed help and was left to die. Between the dangers of stepping out of bounds to have a little fun and a gruesome fate locked by race and social standing lies the biting disparateness of the telling nature of urban legends and the communities they haunt.

Captivated by the classism and racial tensions being explored, the more frightening elements had a tendency to sneak up on me. Well timed jump scares had the effect of making me leap off of the floor and the ever-gnawing approach of Tony Todd’s omnipresent villain cast a shadow of fear on every reflective surface the film had to offer. Despite the fact that Scream was the only horror film under my belt at that time, I was aware of the slasher titans. I knew the name Freddy Krueger and could have easily picked the hockey mask clad Jason Voorhees out of a line up. And yet, given the manner in which Candyman was dissecting such legends to find the core of truth at their center, I could not help but shake the idea that Candyman’s historical backstory and social implications had them all beat in the fear department.

Fitting in with the film’s overt themes of gentrification and ethnocentrism, Candyman’s tale is more fully explained by an inebriated, wealthy scholar, Professor Philip Purcell (Michael Culkin), an older white man whose demeanor espouses acidic misogyny and authoritative self-importance. He tells Helen that the person once known as Danielle Robitaille walked the line between wealth and poverty, the son of a slave who grew up to become a renowned portraitist. It was when he fell in love with a young woman that he had been hired to paint that the world of wealth he had become accustomed to turned on him so violently. They took his instrument of artistry, his right hand, and smeared his naked form with a honeycomb that was being pursued by the hundreds of angry bees. Fitting that the mob used honey, a luxury by all rights, a sweetener enjoyed by the wealthier class, as a way to painfully erode the man’s life from this earth.

As Helen ventures ever further into the world of Cabrini-Green, discovering that her own up-scale condominium is nothing more than a mirror image of the projects, some drywall and pleasant local surroundings notwithstanding, the lines between the two blur. Identity is thrown into question and the veil of protection that privilege provides wastes quickly away. Helen’s life with her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) seems less and less secure and her research project with her best friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) briskly slips from purely academic to the realm of dangerous practicality.

Helen’s drive carries her into the beating heart of Cabrini-Green, her blatant disregard of logical fear and personal safety an indication of the advantages she’s had and the savior-like mentality they have afforded her. This is most apparent in her dealings with young Jake (DeJuan Guy), a child she convinces to show her the place where Candyman might lie. This births one of the film’s more horrific sequences, involving the story of a disabled boy who’s castrated in a grotesque public bathroom.

While most of the tale is shown in brief flashes, executed verbally far more than it is visually, the culmination of the storytelling is one that amounted to a deeply unsettling feeling that only grew as the film progressed. As I watched, I became acutely aware that the effectiveness of the filmmaking was in its unique ability to create discomfort by marrying sparse visual horror, vulgar and horrific as it sometimes was, with the sort of verbal storytelling that Helen was so keen to document.

Helen is shortly thereafter confronted in the bathroom by the head of the Overlords, a gang that, as she posited, was leveraging the community’s fear of the Candyman to mask their crimes. After beating her and leaving her to die, Jake calls the police. Unlike the woman in the bathtub, for Helen, the authorities come. This place of violence, crime and fear, sitting right beside a community of absolute wealth and prominence is only given attention when one of the white privileged passersby is slighted by it. When Jake rejects her actions, Helen attempts to assuage his fear, telling him that Candyman isn’t real, that the legend is akin to Dracula or Frankenstein. From her perspective, villains and violence can be snuffed out with only a few bruises to show for it. From Jake’s, it’s far more complicated.

It’s soon after this exchange that Candyman does appear to Helen. He stands silhouetted some distance away, his head cocked to the side and staring upward, his deep, resonant voice calling to her, asking her to be his victim. Helen appears to fall almost immediately under his spell. A hypnotic horror, Candyman’s appearance here had me so on edge that first time through that my leg spontaneously spasmed, dislodging my TV’s power cable and causing everything to go pitch black. After fleeing the room and flipping on all the lights, it was only after several minutes of investigation that my friend and I determined it was my own fault the TV went out and not, in fact, the vengeful spirit of the hook-handed man on screen.

Having acknowledged that her world and that of Cabrini-Green’s are not as far removed from one another as society might have had her believe, Helen awakens fully entrenched in the horrors of the housing project she so recently believed herself to have saved. Embracing the extremities of the chaos only incredible violence can bring about, the film thrusts Helen into a bloody mess in the apartment of a young woman she had previously interviewed, Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams). She finds a dog’s severed head, a butcher’s knife and Anne-Marie hysterically convulsing over her infant’s bloody crib.

Reality begins to slip as the police hold Helen in custody, the Detective (Gilbert Lewis) that was once so supportive of her, now shouting at her in disgust. As she heads back to her condo on bail, she becomes the representation of the dangers of that same privilege she so weaponized to get her story. Candyman’s presence intensifies, illustrating his need to propagate his tale, his legacy and therefore his existence through Helen. He is an artist and she is his instrument, her curiosity lit his flame and, at the same time, nearly extinguished it. He says that he is rumor, that he lives in others’ dreams but does not have to be. He is the terrors of bigotry, hatred and misunderstanding made manifest and he is all the more dangerous to those who fear those things most.

Helen loses everything— her freedom, her home, her best friend, her relationship— she watches Candyman strip it away from her, incriminating her along the way and crafting a new legend. A terror that the wealthy, upper-class condominium owners can whisper about. A new rumor, one that unites the disparate communities in shared fear of something that no one is safe from, no matter how well put together your decor might be. Underneath, there’s still cinder block.

The film concludes with Helen once more finding her way back to Cabrini-Green, fulfilling Candyman’s request. Submitting to her fate with the knowledge that by doing so she will save Anne-Marie’s baby from an equally terrible demise. And despite Candyman’s attempts to renege on his agreement to spare the infant child, Helen does indeed rescue the baby from the large bonfire outside of Cabrini-Green, emerging from the flames as a charred husk, raising the baby to his mother. It’s an offer of restitution to some, perhaps, or maybe the sort of sacrifice that so many might claim to be willing to make but to which so few would ever commit.

The film left me with that legend, evolved and informed. One where Helen’s name might be muttered sacredly into the mirror, the other side of which might lead anywhere, be connected to anything, resulting in the appearance of a different kind of malevolent spirit. One that doesn’t haunt the graffitied hallways of the projects, but the plaster spaces of the condominiums eight blocks away. One that bridges the gap between hero and villain, a savior to some, a destroyer to others. A complicated folktale that gains resonance, traction and influence with each person who whispers it to their roommate’s boyfriend’s friend.

It was dark outside as the film concluded, the room having grown pitch black over the runtime. It took a moment or two for my friend or I to stand up and flip on the lights. It wasn’t fear I was lost in, but thought. The movie had scared me at times, certainly, but that was only a fraction of its legacy. This was a film, like any of the great movies, that would hover in my brain for years to come, evolving and revealing itself over time, much like the folklore the narrative was so concerned with exploring.

Candyman was very different from Scream. At first, I didn’t quite know how to feel about it. But, as I sat there considering all of the things the movie had made me feel, made me think about— Hell, the very nature of the city in which I lived— I realized that horror was a genre that I might be interested in. Being uncomfortable, I realized, may well be a good thing when trying to digest and understand uncomfortable ideas.

And, as the lights came on and I saw the look on my friend’s face, the inquisitive smile practically begging me to reveal whether the movie had sent me running from the genre or served to further entice my burgeoning curiosity, I returned the grin tentatively. Finally, after a moment of consideration, I responded, this time with only a hint of trepidation, “So, what’s next?”

The city is a place of preoccupation which, on the outset, seems to beget purpose. Like the hive-minded creatures which exist solely to serve the whole, the many thousands of bustling individuals all living, breathing and making their lives there move in tandem with one another. And yet, unlike the bees of the hive, they go about their days with no small degree of obliviousness to the needs of those doing the same thing right beside them. The harmony of the hive is absent, the city breeding dissonance in its place: social disparities, emotional inequities and the cultural aversion to facing the truth that such matters represent.

But that’s the importance of stories. Myths. Legends. Those things which can bridge the socioeconomic gaps and bring to light the injustices others might ignore and continue to go on ignoring. We’re no hive, but we do have minds, and it’s stories like Candyman that can send them reeling— for better, for worse and everything in between.


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