Having heard for years that this is one of the better horror movies out there, taken fairly seriously by people who, you know, take horror seriously, I decided it was time to lodge this thing in my neurons for further reference. We open with a straight-down helicopter shot of Chicago as we hear Philip Glass’ minimal score, giving us that kind of distant, God’s eye view on the unsuspecting peoples below. Then we see a bunch of bees, and a massive swarm of bees rising over Chicago. In retrospect, I don’t know what this giant swarm had to do with—maybe they just had the special effect left over from another movie—but hey, it looks cool. We hear a deep voice intoning various stuff, ending in “I came… FOR YOU,” and you start to think “I bet we’re going to see Virginia Madsen now,” and sure enough, there she is. She is interviewing this student for her thesis on urban legends, and soon goes to meet her research partner, Kasi Lemmons. They both have trouble disguising the fact that they seem to think people who believe in such things are pretty silly.
Then Virginia, she’s Helen, by the way, but let’s call her Virginia, arrives for this college course just as it’s ending. Not a very diligent student, you think, but no, she’s actually the wife of the professor, who just happened to be lecturing on, that’s right, urban legends. Are they the modern folklore? She hangs back while hubby flirts with the young ladies, then tosses some shade hubby’s way for his perceived indiscretions. Is this how Virginia came by her man? She does look a bit younger than him.
So Virginia repairs to her research room and ends up talking to the janitoress. This woman was recently killed in the Cabrini Green housing projects and the janitoress says that Candyman did it. She gets her friend, who spills more details. That night, Virginia shows Kasi how her apartment has the same layout as Cabrini, and here’s what I didn’t understand: she seems to be saying that her condo was made from Cabrini, but then again there’s a separate Cabrini. I don’t know. Regardless, the places have the same layout, including the fact that the bathroom mirror, when pulled out of the wall, reveals a hole to through the bathroom mirror of the other apartment. By the by, the legend is that if you say Candyman five times into the mirror, he comes and kills you with his hook hand. Virginia and Kasi say Candyman, but Virginia is the only one to say it five times.
So Virginia decides that they have to go visit Cabrini for research, because here is a living case study of “disadvantaged people who attribute their daily troubles to a mythical figure.” They are dressed in business suits, on Virginia’s insistence, and look terribly out of place. Kasi, by the way does NOT WANT TO GO. But Virginia makes her. They are silent, verging on disrespectful to the people they meet—you know, you could have just told them why you’re there and that you just want to look around—and make it up to the apartment where the woman was supposedly killed. They find that the mirror goes through to another apartment, and Virginia crawls through. There she finds a place with a hole in the wall, painted with a mural making the hole into Candyman’s open mouth. This whole scene is very scary and I had my eyes on the floor the whole time.
On the way out they meet Vanessa Williams—the other one, not Miss America—and once again, she is quite good. I admired her in Ice Spiders. Virginia helps her clean up after her baby pukes on her [not kidding], she tells them the same story about Candyman.
Then Virginia goes to dinner with the husband and his pompous friend, who spills the history of Candyman. He was a former slave and painter in 1890, and got a young white virgin pregnant. He was hunted by a mob, had his hand chopped off, and was stung to death by bees. Hmm, I guess I’d be pissed, too.
SPOILERS > > >
So Virginia goes back to Cabrini and meets this boy who says he’ll show her where Candyman lives. They walk by this large pile of furniture, which will come into play later. The kid tells her that Candyman chopped off a guy’s dick in the bathroom, and that no one dares go in there. Virginia goes, and finds the walls smeared with shit spelling out “sweets to the sweet,” and one toilet full of bees. Then this guy and his pals show up, claiming to be Candyman, and beat the living shit out of Virginia. When next we see her, her eye is swollen shut, but by the time we see her after that, it’s pretty much returned to normal.
Now the shit hits the fan and just keeps spewing, so if you haven't seen the film and don't know what happens, I would advise you to turn your attention toward something else, because this thing goes in unforeseen directions, and it's better to be surprised by them. So Virginia is in the creepy empty parking garage when she's walking to her car and what do you know, it's the Candyman! He politely asks her to "be my victim," and she gets all hypnotized [word on the street is that Madsen was really hypnotized for these scenes], and wakes up in a pool of blood in Vanessa's apartment! She comes out to find Vanessa's Rottweiler decapitated, her baby gone, and blood all over the apartment. Virginia just happens to pick up the nearest cleaver, and is found in chopping position when the police bust down the door. Virginia pulls out the acting stops during a scene where she is required to cry hysterically while removing her blood-soaked clothes and being strip-searched by a large female policewoman who is not in the mood for a laugh. So the story takes a huge turn in that suddenly her husband and friends and the press think she's this psychopathic killer, and she doesn't really have that great an excuse.
Soon enough Candyman shows up for another visit [never actually bringing any candy, which struck me as rather rude] and tells her that he wants her to believe in him. She was destroying people's faith in his myth with her research, so he had to come for her. He then kills Kasi, Virginia again decides that she'd better pick up the nearest knife [next time pick up the casserole, sweetie] and the police find her like this AGAIN! You know, some misunderstandings can get SO out of hand. In here Virginia prays to God to save the baby, who is in Candyman's lair, sucking on Candyman's finger. Which made me rather uncomfortable.
So Virginia is interviewed by the smug prison psychologist, says Candyman five times and—oh, the psychologist isn't quite so smug anymore! Candyman is there and flies out the window in a marvelous example of doing something very simply and with minimal special effects that works better than a big special effect could. Virginia escapes, as our heroines must, and goes back to hubby's house—to find him shacked up with one of his young students and repainting the whole place. She's been thrown in the mental hospital and he has moved on. Oh by the way, I forgot to tell you that, to our surprise and hers, Virginia finds out she's been in the hospital for a month. During this second half, where Virginia's losing her grip, there are all sorts of time dislocations large and small that work to keep one unsettled. After a very good freak-out scene with the hubby, Virginia goes over to Candyman's and offers herself to him to save the life of Vanessa's baby. He covers her with bees from his mouth [hon, let's keep it vanilla, okay?] and gives her the ol' bee kiss. Apparently they had to use bees that were only like a few hours old, because their stingers hadn't formed yet. Then there's this whole sacrificial pyre [remember that prominently-placed pile of furniture from before?] and this whole struggle and redemption that you can experience on your own. At the end there is a small coda that suggests that there may be a new Candyperson in town.
This is one of those movies that serious critics will describe as chock-full of sexual and racial statements, but never get around to articulating what those statements are trying to SAY. There is a great deal of the sexual to the story and the whole mythos of black sexual prowess and their power over white women, and let's not forget that Candyman was originally killed because he impregnated a white woman. There's something in this about Virginia wanting to save the black baby at the end. But to me it all just seems like several potent implications and not one definitive statement. Not that there's anything wrong with that. If I had to formulate one statement the movie is making, it would be that the white Virginia, who is somewhat smug and dismissive of the blacks at the beginning, regarding their belief in Candyman as a product of their weak, desperate minds, experiences what it is like to be in Candyman's position: blamed for crimes, the scapegoat of a community, persecuted and finally killed by a mob. Intriguing, but really I think the film just throws a bunch of generally-related sexual and racially-charged material at the screen and lets it vibrate there, without forming it into one thing that makes a clear statement. Which still makes it better than most horror films that have little to no real-world resonance.
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Ultimately quite good, quite ambitious, well-directed, well-acted… and yet that lack of cohesion keeps it just short of greatness. All the elements point to each other, but don't connect. Like that huge swarm of bees at the beginning—what was that about? Sure it's tangentially related but—what's it doing there? And throughout, there are several elements that all seem to relate, but don't fit together. In a movie like The Birds, all these elements add up to an even SCARIER prospect taking place offscreen. Here, they make the story seem like it has significance beyond the plot, but that "seeming" is about all there is to it. Again, this puts it ahead of most movies, it's definitely good and something worth watching, it's just that it could have gone from good to great with just a bit more cohesion.
Yes, it's very well-done and well-acted… I just wish it was a tiny bit tighter in terms of subtext