“Candyman” was released in the early 1990s, as the serial killer boom was falling apart. It owes everything to those films. But it isn’t one of them.
These monsters have entered pop culture. So what if we make a monster who acknowledges that?
It’s oddly academic, rarely scary. Do those two qualities cancel each other out? Is it possible to scare with a film that feels so clean, so precise?
Helen (Virginia Madsen) is a University of Chicago anthropology Ph.D student with an iron will and big ambitions. She wants to write a dissertation about urban legends, in particular that of the Candyman. When she learns about a rash of murders in the Cabrini Green housing projects attributed to the Candyman, she can’t help but investigate.
Her partner, Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams), and husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley), scoff at her. “The Candyman is just a legend,” they say, as supporting characters are wont to do, “Get a new project.” While she fundamentally agrees, she still wants to write about the real murders attributed to the folk figure. Naturally, in the process, she summons the Candyman.
“Candyman” is the response of all responses, one that tries to use the very obsession with pop culture serial killers as a monster. The Candyman (Tony Todd) is a killer with a hook for a hand and summoning device ripped straight off of Bloody Mary, with a panache for gory retributions like Freddy or Jason. He wanders around in a big fur coat, has a scary lair, a secret love, a tragic backstory. His power stems from active belief in him. If you say his name five times, he’ll come and get you.
The movie wants to say, “If you think about these monsters enough, you make them real.” It’s an amalgamation of every odd and seductive quality of an urban legend — but in the end, it proves to be too confident and meticulous. It understands them too well. It’s too conscious. Too smart. Somewhere in there, it forgot to be scary.
Through the film, the Candyman drives Helen crazy. After an escape from the insane asylum, she ends up finding out about Trevor’s adulterous relationship with a co-ed. The climactic events of the film leave Helen dead, a new myth, who returns after her name is spoken as a mantra. It’s all pretty cool, well-written fun. But it makes me ask: What really scares me?
The films I’ve watched over the process of this month have made me come to expect certain things from a horror movie. First, a story. If a film doesn’t have a story with characters on a journey, there’s nothing to root for — and nothing to necessarily fear deep down in your gut. Second, a reversal of fortunes that makes the characters react. It’s not particularly interesting to watch nameless goon characters die bloody and violent deaths simply because that’s what they’re there to do. Third, most of all, a complexity to the emotion evoked. It’s easier to shock than it is to plant a seed of unease and terror that grows over the course of 90 minutes. While shocks certainly frighten, it’s not as memorable or interesting. I want to watch a movie and come back haunted.
I like dread. I like fear. I like atmosphere.
The thing about “Candyman” is that the writers seemed to come up with a film and then write the scares in later. The most shocking moments come in the form of sudden apparitions, gory flashes between frames. So much of the film is spent with Helen slowly going mad, her support system systematically crushed by her supernatural stalker. Hers is a slow creation myth into becoming her own legend. But we’re never attached to Helen. She’s not terribly likeable. Her journey is one she chooses to go on rather than one really foisted upon her.
Philip Glass’s brilliant score provides the only real atmosphere of the film, but it’s also gaudy and over-the-top, expressing more about the scenes than the film ever does. “Here’s my cue to scream, I guess.”
It’s an intelligently written film with a clever ending. But it’s just not terribly scary.