'Candyman' is not the treat it could be

October 16, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Here I go to "Candyman," and halfway through it I'm still wondering when Sammy Davis Jr. is going to show up. I'm sitting there, and these people keep getting rendered into chunks by a guy with a hook for an arm, and nobody has yet sung even one chorus of "Who can make the sun shine/ sprinkle it with dew?"

Sammy? Where are you when we need you?

No such luck. The movie hails from the perverse genius of Clive Barker, horror visionary extraordinary, and executive producer of this film as well as "Hellraiser III" a few weeks ago. The hallmarks BTC of the Barker style place it somewhere further up the evolutionary scale than the works of Stephen King and still further removed from the crude stalker pix of the early '80s. This means many of the characters express themselves eloquently, and one may find such refined values as irony and dry humor in the work itself and indications of inner lives on the parts of all the characters. But still -- people get whacked in all sorts of hideous ways, from all sorts of hideous angles, and this movie feels a bit like a first-year med school anatomy lesson. And it still doesn't make much sense.

The movie's masterstroke is to try to find new and original context for the gothic horror tradition. Gone completely are haunted mansions, mist-shrouded moors, cobwebby cellars. Instead we're in the bleak and poverty-devastated inner city, Chicago-style, in a loveless warren of buildings called the Cabrini Green projects. (Barker set the novel upon which the film is based in the British slum of Liverpool; it has been deftly "Americanized" by writer-director Bernard Rose who, funnily enough, is also British.)

Two urban folklorists -- Virginia Madsen and Kasi Lemmons -- are stalking rumors of a legendary serial killer known as "Candyman," a one-armed bad boy who is in some way associated with mirrors. One version of the story insists that if you face the mirror and say Candyman five times, he'll show up and liberate your liver.

But Madsen tracks the stories to the projects and realizes that there may be a literal explanation: that the cheaply constructed buildings have a gap between apartments accessible through the mirror in the bathroom; a bad boy could go in and out of locked apartments that way.

This is very promising stuff; and it gets better when it's revealed that the Candyman may be African-American and that the source of his fury is an ancient racial grievance. But the movie soon enough abandons this interesting and original direction, detouring back onto familiar horror movie ground. It can never quite make up its mind whether Candyman is real (though supernatural) or some manifestation of Madsen's own neuroses. this respect, "Candyman" resembles "Bob" in "Twin Peaks.") It never really bothers to differentiate between the two possibilities, and the result is a stylish hash of horror sequences and flamboyant murders that add up to a giant, "Huh?"

Technically, the movie is quite proficient; it achieves that baroque density of atrocity that is the Barker contribution to the genre easily enough, and in a sick way is extremely entertaining. You find yourself thinking, who is this guy?

He's the candyman, that's who.

'Candyman'

Starring Virginia Madsen and Kasi Lemmons.

Directed by Bernard Rose.

Released by Tri-Star.

Rated R.

... **

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