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CANDYMAN (DEVIL’S ADVOCATES) ****

Written by Jon Towlson. 134 pp. £9.99 RRP

Out now from Auteur Publishing

 

Bernard Rose’s CANDYMAN emerged in the dark days of 90’s American horror, when George Romero could barely get arrested, Jason went to Hell and Keanu Reeves knew where the “baarstard” (Dracula) slept. Prefiguring the short post-SCREAM cycle of latter-day slasher movies endlessly winking as they recycled the plot machinations of PROM NI|GHT, it was an unusually mature 90’s horror film about grown-ups menaced by an abnormally complex and seductive “slasher”. A box office hit at the time, it survived a couple of sequels that cheapened it as cruelly as the multiple follow-ups to HELLRAISER insulted Clive Barker’s other most famous creation. Tony Todd’s rent-paying cameos in recent genre fare (including an insultingly throwaway role in this year’s HELL FEST) do not diminish the unforgettable title character he helped to create – one that is about be reborn under the watchful eye of the trustworthy Jordan Peele.

 

Jon Towlson’s illuminating Devil’s Advocate monograph on the 1992 film positions it as a key genre text in a period of stagnation and the unstable political climate of post-Rodney King America. He defines CANDYMAN as a rekindling of Robin Wood’s “return of the repressed” for the Bush Sr. era and draws perceptive parallels between the plight of its impoverished black characters and the heroine in the patriarchal world of academia – both of which mark it as a fascinating film to revisit (and remake) in the era of Trump and #MeToo.

 

The background is compelling, as Towlson analyses the key differences between Barker’s memorably eerie original short story “The Forbidden” (with “Spector Street” reflective of its author’s pervasive misanthropy) and Rose’s film, which echoes the imagery of the director’s earlier PAPERHOUSE and anticipates his experimentation with self-reflexivity and changing media technology in later movies like SNUFF MOVIE. It’s refreshing to read Towlson’s love for Rose’s outstanding FRANKENSTEIN, which feels like a companion piece to his take on CANDYMAN – offering another study of the plight of the urban poor in modern America and a Monster who, demonised by enfranchised society, finds solace among L.A.’s dispossessed – in particular a homeless vagrant beautifully played by Tony Todd. FRANKENSTEIN’s ending confirms its position as a spiritual sequel to CANDYMAN, with its “conflagration of monster and the object of his desire”, complete with self-immolation.

 

Towlson considers CANDYMAN a major precursor of the post-modern trends of 1990’s American horror: exploiting the universal awareness of “living folklore” and employing key elements of the Bloody Mary legend, CANDYMAN is a study of urban legends and, by extension, a movie about horror movies. Not long after its release, established genre masters John Carpenter and Wes Craven made their own films about horror storytelling in the form of (respectively) IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, while Hollywood’s undeservedly lambasted LAST ACTION HERO offered a self-mocking commentary on its star’s entire Hollywood career.

 

Candyman is defined as a 1990’s addition to the Gothic tradition of seductive, tragic villains, meshed with blaxploitation horror, built upon the enduring cultural fears of powerful, well endowed black men keen to mate with white women. An examination of the evolution of black-white relations in horror cinema leads to a valuable look at the movie’s critical backlash, with ONE FALSE MOVE director Carl Franklin among the vocal dissenters and the film’s own press kit inviting controversy on its own. We also get an insight into the WWII-constructed Cabrini Green (mostly demolished, under highly contentious circumstances, in 2011) and its legacy as a symbol of both public housing failure in the U.S. and a positive example of residential activism yielding genuine results.

 

While Towlson busts enduring myths (Eddie Murphy as an original casting choice, Barker’s unhappiness with the direction taken by Rose) and offers an insight into its production, the book’s centrepiece is “Candyman and the Return of the Repressed”, a contextual analysis that considers CANDYMAN as both progressive and regressive. The author discusses the way in which the film marginalises both women and black characters in both its narrative and framing, while revisiting the kind of criticism inevitable from a mainstream film set within a black community with white creative personnel and a white heroine. Ultimately, CANDYMAN is a particularly effective example of urban gothic, with the city itself as a malevolent force as the story documents the everyday trauma of “bad neighbourhoods” translating into hostile energy and “The Projects” essentially converted into an all-encompassing haunted house.

 

Like all good long form analyses of single feature films, this DEVIL’S ADVOCATE compels us to consider things that we may not have spotted even on repeat viewers, from the parallels between Helen and the “Paranoid women” / “wrongly accused” protagonists of 1940’s melodramas and Hitchcockian thrillers to the inventive ways in which the parallel narrative paths of Helen and Candyman are visually conveyed enroute to the downbeat end. This highly accessible and thoughtful examination of a stand-out studio horror film ends with the author’s interview with Rose himself. Although it only fleetingly touches on CANDYMAN, it’s a particularly engaging chat in which the filmmaker unleashes his views on American cinema, Hollywood’s inflated budgets and jump scares in horror films. He admits the second half of CANDYMAN is not nearly as effective as the first (and explains why that was always going to be the case) and talks of assorted influences – including the dread-infused FANNY AND ALEXANDER.

 

Steven West

 

 

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 © 2000 - 2018