Monday, October 14, 2013

Monster Serial: CANDYMAN, 1992

 Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies! 


I love CANDYMAN.  I am deeply disturbed by it.

And I’m deeply disturbed by the fact that I’m deeply disturbed by it.

Social anthropology student, Helen (earnest Virginia Madsen), begins investigating the urban legend of the killer-ghost-who-appears-in-the-mirror-if-you-say-his-name.  (Like saying, “Bloody Mary,” “Bell Witch,” or “Gene Shallit.”)  The investigation takes her to Cabrini Green, then one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden housing projects in Chicago... perhaps America.  It seems that the mysterious, regal, hook-handed Candyman has been doing his bloody work, but as the tale goes on and he begins appearing to Helen, her fainting spells begin.  Each time she wakes, someone new is dead, and the world has every reason to think that she’s the killer.  This turns the residents of Cabrini Green even further against her.  In fact, ala Josette, she is the reincarnation of the lynched Candyman’s lost love.  As Candyman attempts to consume her in a massive bonfire, she finds and rescues an infant that she was accused of killing. Helen dies in the conflagration, but not before taking Candyman with her.  While its funeral scene was not the inspiration for SCHINDLER’S LIST, that film’s felt unoriginal after CANDYMAN’s.  

So, why am I disturbed?  It’s because of why the film scares me.


I don’t consider myself a racist person.  I’ve had biracial romances.  (And I apologize if that’s the modern day equivalent to “Some of my best friends....”)  I was maybe ten or eleven before I heard of (or could even imagine someone concocting) “The N Word.”  Spent my formative years in a school that was 50-60% African American. There, we never talked race because it never occurred to us.  We saw skin differences, but they were irrelevant in a blissfully Roddenberrian way. 

And CANDYMAN scared the bejesus out of me.

Of course, I was much older.  I’d been exposed to (but never embraced) many more stupid ideas and ideologies.  The recent films of Spike Lee had made it very clear that racial tension did not end with the first episode of THE JEFFERSONS.  Most importantly, as a coincidental extra for the national Zeitgeist, Los Angeles (where I kinda lived) had just exploded from the Rodney King trial verdict.
This movie was not scary because of urban legends, hooks, or mirror ghosts.  It was scary because I was horrified at the depiction of Cabrini Green.  It was not only ugly and hostile to the upper middle class Virginia Madsen, it was just as (if not more) nightmarish to the hardworking residents of the community.  They seem to comprise most of the residents, but are under the thumb of the violent few.  Not only has  a criminal underworld flourished, and not only does Virginia Madsen’s color and social class make her a conspicuous -- eventually abused -- target, but a Candyman cult seems to have burgeoned within the walls as well.  That’s a mystery the film never fully explains, and that’s one of it’s queasiest elements.

I never knew that I’d see a horror movie about racial tension.  Talk about a taboo subject!  It ranks up with PET SEMATARY for generating chills as well as (and through) contemplation.  Perhaps it one-ups Spike Lee in that regard for consciousness raising.  I think that’s the contribution of horror.   Horror is about heroes suffering consequences.  In this sense, Virginia Madsen’s Helen becomes a symbol as much as she’s a protagonist.  With blonde hair, sympathetic eyes, and the Best of Intentions, she’s an angelic dream girl, somewhere between the wholesome eros of Playboy and the well-meaning guilty white liberalism of NPR.  She’s naive, as is most of the public (I’d wager), about just how monstrous poverty can be.  As a nation, we created low-income housing for the struggling and then — seemingly — abandoned the effort.  One of the scariest elements in the movie is the question of how Cabrini Green went from its (assumed) industrial luster on opening day to what it is by the time of the film. 

It is implied (and then made pretty explicit) that Helen is the killer during her periods of amnesia.  There are few things scarier than discovering that you are your own worst enemy.  That’s unsettling enough.  The more I live with the movie, the more I see Helen as (arguably heavy handedly) a stand-in for the upper middle class as a whole; in such deep denial that they (like Helen) casually gentrify former housing projects (doing what with the former residents?), their forgetful disregard for the lower income members of society unwittingly creates murder and mayhem.  Yes, it seems that blame can be placed upon a threatening black man, but that’s an urban myth.

But it’s not that simple.  Candyman is fixated on Helen, and the racial cliche of a black man obsessed with a white woman is shopworn.  I give the film a pass on this, however, because Candyman is very much in control of that dialectic.  He doesn’t need Helen as a resource or even as a bullseye for racial revenge.  Candyman is the most aristocratic character in the film, once a free man in his own time.  His destiny was and is the opposite of the denizens of Cabrini Green.  So is he a vision of what might have been if not for the alternately bad-then-good intentions of the rest of society?   

Whether he is or not, Helen pays the price as a martyr worthy of Sgt. Neal Howie, trapped in THE WICKER MAN.  It might just be a film about a killer ghost.  It might be one of metaphorical blame for the abandonment of the poor... specifically, African Americans. 

Either way, as Candyman intones, “It was always you, Helen.”

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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