It's got to be almost ten years now since I first read Clive Barker's short story "The Forbidden," which was the first Barker I had read. It was an intriguing, spare, and very British story, and thus I was loathe for the longest time to view Candyman; given Hollywood's track record, I had no desire to see Barker's story bloated into a Hollywoodized production, with spliced-in standard plot elements, obligatory love interests, and a transplant from the British projects to the Chicago ghetto, with the attending morph from British "white trash" to African-American "urban" culture. (The other reason I avoided it is that my roommates loved it -- roommates who also loved Highlander 2.)
But the weight of the canon won out, and I figured I'd better see it sooner or later.
I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised. Writer-director Bernard Rose's credits (including Paperhouse and Anna Karenina) show him to be a thoughtful filmmaker, one who perhaps makes use of convention but doesn't feel bound by it. It's also rare that a horror film tries seriously to be scary -- not just gorey, not just spooky, not just jittery in a springloaded-cat fashion. It fact, despite Barker's contributions were limited to the original story and an executive producer credit (which could mean anything), it's a very Barkerian film.
The focus is urban legends: Karen (Virginia Madsen, looking exactly like Agent Scully) and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are graduate students at the U of Illinois, working on a project involving the rumors surrounding "Candyman," a local hook-handed bogeyman that everyone's heard of. Karen's husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley -- that alone should tell you as much as you need to know about Travor's marital fidelity), is a professor in a related field (it's never mentioned exactly what, but it's probably sociology) who treats her research a little too patronizingly.
Helen fortuitously finds a taleteller who can give a Candyman legend a definite place: the projects of Cambrini Green, and a story of Candyman bursting through a wall to kill a tenant. As her own condo was built from the same design as Cambrini Green, with the odd flaw that the removable medicine cabinet in the bathroom backs directly onto the next apartment's cabinet (thus allowing someone to "come through the walls"), she realizes that she can actually trace this legend back to its route. She and Bernadette brave the ghetto to examine the apartment (with a hole busted through the cabinet) and the surrounding graffiti, including a giant face which uses a whole in the wall as a mouth, and the recurring graffiti "Sweets to the Sweet."
They also meet Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams -- the OTHER one), a young mother who's fiercely protective of her infant Anthony. It turns out that Anne-Marie is the witness from whom the legend sprang: She had called 911 when she heard the destruction of the wall and the other woman's screaming, but no one came.
Exulting in their research, Helen and Bernadette go to dinner with Trevor and some colleagues, only to find out that a supercilious, armchair-investigator-style professor has already tracked down the history of the real Candyman, the artist son of a slave who in 1890 had his hand cut off and was beestung to death for impregnating a client's daughter.
Somewhat deflated, Helen goes back to take more pictures, and makes friend with young Jake, who tells her of another Candyman attack -- this one a child's emasculation in a public restroom. As Helen explores the lavatory, some young toughs come in, including one carrying a hook; they attack her and leave her for dead.
When she survives and identifies her attacker, Jake is astounded that the "real" Candyman doesn't exist. Helen thinks that, with a minimum of injury, she's gotten a real scoop for her thesis -- but in the parting garage, a phantom appears to her: A tall black man in a fur-lined coat, with a hook stuck into the bloody stump of his arm. This is the real Candyman, played by Tony Todd (a terrific actor who's career has yet to blossom as it should).
She wakes up covered with blood in Anne-Marie's apartment; the head of Anne-Marie's dog lies next to her, and Anthony has disappeared...
To try to follow the plot further would ruin it -- not only in the sense of spoiling it, but also in that I couldn't do it justice by summary. The narrative depends so much on the dreamlike, noncontinuous narrative that is Barker's writing style that a summary would seem like a string of non sequiturs.
The premise is novel, and held to with an admirable consistency: That, whatever Candyman may have been to begin with, he know draws his existence from the fear his legends inspire -- and since Helen has started to draw away his "congregation" with doubt in his reality, he is forced to commit new atrocities to restart the rumors.
If there is one major flaw here, it is that Rose manages to adopt one of Barker's annoying habits into the narrative: The habit of letting the dreamlike quality overwhelm the narrative structure, keeping the story from building and winding up like a story should. I must admit to not having read any of Barker's novels, but I have read several volumes of short stories, anda common failing is that the image, the tableau, is given precedence over narrative impetus. Given Barker's background in stage and illustration, it's not surprising that he emphasizes image over impetus, but it gives so much of his writing that dreamlike sense of discontinuity that's more irritating than anything else.
From this arise a couple of plot breakdowns. For instance, after the baby is abducted, Helen is supposed to be committed and drugged for a full month -- yet the baby is still alive. Is Candyman warming bottles in his microwave, and burping the tyke in the middle of the night?
Then, also, Rose can't free himself entirely from horror movie conventions; he does have more than 90 minutes to fill, after all. So Candyman keeps appearing to Helen but no one else can see him -- is it a dream, or reality, or something else? Yawn. He also keeps setting Helen up to take the rap for his murders, which would seem counterproductive to me; wouldn't he want more mysterious, unsolvable crimes that would be attributed to the bogeyman?
There's a glaring inconsistency in how his whole immateriality is treated in the finale, though; he gets trapped in a situation that earlier scenes, focusing on his phantasmal nature, demonstrate he shouldn't be bothered by.
There's also a hastily sketched in reincarnation premise -- is Helen really Candyman's long-lost love, for whom he lost his hand and his life? Sorry, this comes too little, too late.
And why does Helen always climb into the second abandoned tenement through the medicine cabinet? Surely it has a door of its own.
Given these demerits, Candyman gets demoted to the rank of minor (rather than major) classic; but the nifty cinematography, attention to art and production design, and the ethereal (though not always effective) score by Philip Glass add to its mystique. It's hard to do a credible movie about something as nebulous as rumor and urban legend, and Candyman should get credit for doing as well as it did.