Can we talk for a moment about how modern horror movies mostly suck?
Yes, yes, there are exceptions, and hopefully there always will be.
But by and large, horror movies have been getting worse. Most of them are not even remotely scary, and they’re not as provocative as they think they are.
You can chalk it up to CGI effects looking flimsy no matter how much money goes into them, and on the foregoing of mood and atmosphere for some cheap jump scares. Those are definitely ubiquitous problems.
But I think the worst quality in new horror is a sense of self-awareness.
Wes Craven pulled it off back in 1996 with his first Scream movie, but that was fresh territory at the time.
Now it’s everywhere. We’re all too clever by half these days, and yet there’s nothing duller than a horror film that wants to prove how sharp its writers are.
Real horror shouldn’t be a lecture, or a game of spot-the-reference. It should be a therapy session, disguised as entertainment.
As such, the writers and directors should do more showing than telling, gently guiding viewers down a path toward our darkest thoughts and fears. The best horror stories come from the unknown, the irrational. They make a sort of intuitive sense to us, as they invoke the cracked logic of our dreams.
Take for instance, Clive Barker’s 1986 short story The Forbidden, and its 1992 film adaptation Candyman.
In The Forbidden, graduate student Helen Lyle explores the slums of Liverpool in search of content-rich graffiti to study for her thesis on “the semiotics of urban despair.”
In an old, decrepit building Helen finds a striking mural of an imposing figure with one hand replaced by a hook, and a phrase taken from Hamlet: “Sweets to the sweet.”
Wanting to know more about this ominous figure, she begins to ask the neighborhood residents about it, and she begins to hear various stories about grisly murders, all involving a hook.
Ostensibly by a figure known as “The Candyman.”
Fascination with the accounts of the locals turns into genuine interest in their veracity, but interest soon fades into doubt, dismissal, and then outright disgust. How could these people find such pleasure in spinning such gruesome tales, such fantastical distortions of real crimes? And it is here, with her academic skepticism and moral high horse, her reduction of the strikingly macabre legend to mere fiction, that Helen treads into dangerous territory.
At its heart, The Forbidden is a story about the power of stories. And so the sweet-smelling hooked killer that Helen dismisses as fiction comes to confront the pampered Doubting Thomas to put right the assault upon his reputation.
As grotesque as the real Candyman surely is to Helen, she is nevertheless struck by his grandeur. He is monstrous, and yet he is seductive. He whispers an invitation to “Be my victim,” and promises Helen’s own power as part of the local legend. By the story’s end, she hopes to have such power over her smug partner and colleague Trevor, as it was he who had repeatedly dismissed and diminished her. And so, brought low by the culture she looked down upon, Helen finds her own power as “the semiotics of urban despair,” and presumably finds new life as part of the story.
The Forbidden was adapted for the screen in 1992 by Bernard Rose, and was named “Candyman” after Clive Barker’s gruesome figure of legend.
The adaptation preserves the basic plot and all of the main characters, but fleshes out the Candyman himself, and also doubles down on the socio-political dimensions that permeated the original story.
The film changes the setting from Liverpool, England to Chicago, Illinois in the US, specifically within the Cabrini-Green project homes in the north of the city. This is a historically black neighborhood that has since become a symbol of urban blight and crime.
Thus, the class resentment at the heart of Barker’s short story has been given a racial dimension to make it even more potent. Helen is still an academic interloper treating the decayed neighborhood and its residents as mere fodder for analysis, but now she’s a well-do-do white woman intruding upon the homes of poor black residents for the sake of her school thesis, and as a result these character interactions come off as even more fraught. And as we shall see, the added racial dimension makes the film’s horror elements cut all the deeper.
As for his origin story, the titular Candyman was the son of an emancipated slave, educated in the arts thanks to his father’s fortunes as an entrepreneur. He became a gifted painter, and was commissioned to paint a portrait of a lovely young white woman. The two fell in love, and the woman became pregnant with his child. For this interracial affair, the man was brutally lynched. His right hand was sawed off with a rusty blade. His body was smeared with stolen honey to attract the hive’s angry bees to him, and he was stung to death. His body was burned in a pyre, and his ashes were scattered across Cabrini-Green.
Thus the film’s Candyman is as much a vengeful spirit in his own right as a manifestation of the community’s dreams gone rancid. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Dracula, this is a villain with whom we can sympathize. He has been rendered evil, spoiled from the injustices put upon him. And yet, he is nevertheless a malevolent figure who murders people without a second thought, including the residents of Cabrini-Green. As such, he represents a particularly toxic manifestation of dreams deferred; he has gained power as a story, but it’s a self-cannibalizing kind of power: through which pride and reputation come at the expense of everything else. (And duh: It also helps to make him scary!)
Also in line with Coppola’s Dracula film, Helen finds herself playing the part of the monster’s long-lost love.
What makes Candyman so unique, though, is that the story is not so much one long seduction of the victim into the partner, but one long spiritual debasement of the virtuous maiden, until she is fully brought low.
This smart, beautiful, well meaning white woman is suddenly implicated in murders around the Cabrini-Green neighborhood. The film never once says the word “gentrification,” but the coercive subtext of that social phenomenon has never been rendered on the screen so forcefully, or so viscerally. Cruel as Candyman’s actions may seem, there is a sense of reasoning to the revenge. After being debased and murdered for the crime of assuming equality in love, he eventually found a twisted sort of power as a living horror, and then sought to bring the object of his affection to his level.
By the end of the story, Helen acts heroically and dies burning in a pyre in order to save a baby. Yet she becomes the villain of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood tales, blamed for trying to kill the baby. And so the crazy white woman is born again as a vengeful spirit. And her first target? The rich white know-it-all man who always took her for granted, yet never respected her. In the film, we actually see Helen’s revenge as a spirit: she is just as deformed and debased as Candyman himself, and yet her thirst for agency has granted her great power, and some measure of twisted dignity, as a story.
Then, in 2021, a new film named Candyman was released. This was directed by Nia DaCosta, who co-wrote the story with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld. While the film is technically a sequel to the 1992 film, it is also seen as a fresh take on the story, a radical reworking to speak to a modern audience.
The prospect of a Candyman film that was actually developed by black writers had so much promise, as those social dimensions could potentially be tackled with even more depth.
Alas, the 2021 film did not fulfill that promise. Despite having some good ideas, it’s just not good storytelling. And it’s piss-poor horror storytelling.
Whereas the original film used subtext and visual suggestion to explore its socio-political theme of gentrification, here the writers use dialogue in the very first scene to make it clear that “This Film Is About Gentrification!” Through this exposition and others to follow, DaCosta’s film treats the audience like we’re all idiots. As I said earlier, the masters of horror know to guide us through the story rather than tell us the themes and character motivations upfront.
The movie does have an interesting starting premise: a black artist living in a gentrified Chicago neighborhood near Cabrini-Green becomes obsessed with the local Candyman legend as a possible conduit for his political art against racial violence.
Through his efforts, he somehow becomes implicated in the Candyman spirit’s violent actions, and his own fantasies start getting fulfilled in bloody fashion.
Despite the solid setup, there’s no discernible point of tension or conflict in this character’s arc, and thus serves no purpose in the narrative beyond political commentary. His girlfriend has some conflict, discovering with horror how her partner is slowly changing into something monstrous, and there is some drama to be found in that conflict. But the resolution of her arc at the story’s end feels more like a twist that comments on real life circumstances and online discourse than anything that came organically from within the story itself. More telling rather than really showing.
The writers of this new Candyman are so concerned with meta-textual relevance that they left the story’s text by the wayside. And completely forgot about the notion of subtext.
But a coherent text is not everything. As I said, horror speaks in the language of dreams. If the film had showcased sights, sounds, and scenes that were as arresting as those in the first film, then the intuitive power of the story would still win out over everything else. And yet, DaCosta’s film fails in this respect as well.
It has to be repeated: bad CGI is bad.
Cheap jump scares are cheap. Some of the effects that are used look neat, but none of it is scary. The glowering Candyman mural in the original film burned itself into our psyche, yet there is nothing in the remake that holds such power. What should be provocative and visceral instead feels manufactured and clinical.
Yes, in today’s world, even the critical darlings of horror tend to be lackluster disappointments.
The filmmakers are clever for their own good, and not willing to follow their intuitions to deeper, darker, more potent, narrative territory.tnocs.com contributing author phylum of Alexandria
Ironically, Candyman’s reputation has been marred by this overly academic exercise. He may well seek out his revenge. But hopefully he’ll at least get a more deserving crack at a new life as an unsettling and powerful story. What better way to “hook” younger audiences into contemplating the dark recesses of their souls?
But should that opportunity ever come again, I hope that its creators will first take some time to stop reading online think pieces, stop reading follower comments on their Twitter account, turn off their damn smart phones, turn out the lights, and close their eyes.
And from that darkness, to carefully study the things that go bump in the night.
Let the author know that you appreciated their article with a “green thumb” upvote!