Tuesday 28 February 2017

Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995)

Director: Bill Condon
Writers: Rand Ravich and Mark Kruger, from a story by Clive Barker
Stars: Tony Todd, Kelly Rowan, William O’Leary, Bill Nunn, Matt Clark, David Gianopoulos, Fay Hauser, Joshua Gibran Mayweather, Michael Culkin, Timothy Carhart and Veronica Cartwright

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Cheesy title or not, the original Candyman was one of the underrated horror gems of the nineties. I’ve seen it a couple of times but watched it again before reviewing this, its first of two sequels, on Mardi Gras, the day on which the finalé of Farewell to the Flesh is set. It surprised me again for a whole slew of reasons. Some were little ones, like Virginia Madsen being credited above Tony Todd, the monster of the franchise; the brief presence of Ted Raimi, brother of Sam; or the fact that the score was by a major composer, Philip Glass. Others were more important, such as the way in which it’s really an African American horror film that speaks without stereotype. Four of the six leads are actors of colour, though the focus is on a white woman; that leaves only one white male, who’s by far the weakest of that half dozen, being a college professor cheating on his wife with a bimbo student. Xander Berkeley played him well, but this isn’t about Prof. Lyle; it’s about racial inequality and how things haven’t changed much in a century or so.

This sequel isn’t remotely up to its predecessor, but it’s better than many have given it credit for; unfortunately, when it’s bad, it’s really bad and that lack of consistency really doesn’t help. A great example of this comes during the prologue, right before the title card, as the Candyman shows up in the bathroom of a New Orleans bar. Before I explain this, let me explain who Candyman is. He’s Daniel Robitaille, the son of a slave who grew up in polite society after the American Civil War because his father innovated a shoe production technique that proved highly profitable. Daniel became a renowned portrait artist, but made the mistake of falling for, and fathering a child with, a white woman. Being 1890, his lover’s father promptly led a lynch mob that severed his painting hand and replaced it with a hook, then smeared him with honey to attract bees to sting him to death. For reasons left unexplained until this sequel, his soul can be summoned by speaking the name Candyman into a mirror five times, whereupon Bad Things happen.

That background does more than neatly set up an urban legend in African American cloth. It illustrates an act of cruelty so utterly horrific that it underpins a horror franchise, but in a way that echoes down the decades. The lynch mob isn’t merely killing Daniel, it’s enforcing to him that he’s less of a human being than they are. Sure, he can live among white folk and he can even paint them, but he’s not one of them, because he’s black, and that inequality is mirrored in what we see in the contemporary scenes. So, as we begin the sequel, we expect Candyman to show up mysteriously when somebody unwisely summons him and we expect that he’ll gut that idiot with his hook hand. What we don’t expect is the red herring we get right before he appears out of thin air: the lights start to flicker, our victim looks around and then we watch, shot from behind, a black man standing up in one of the stalls. Yes, the sequel to arguably the most racially aware modern horror movie is setting up a scare by suggesting that all black men look alike.

Maybe the scriptwriters, Rand Ravich and Mark Kruger, who worked from a story by Candyman’s creator, Clive Barker, thought it might be acceptable because this first victim is the most annoying white dude from the first movie. Dr. Phillip Purcell, an arrogant expert on urban legends, provided a voice of reason when Helen Lyle, a graduate student researching the Candyman, opines that he’s real. However, Michael Culkin played him as a man who knows that he knows more than everyone around him, like a Stephen Fry shorn of his humility. We can believe Fry reciting Candyman’s name into a mirror five times just to prove he doesn’t exist, but we wouldn’t want to punch him in the face and rip off his rat-tail, which we surely want to do to Purcell. He’s the only character to return here because he provides a natural bridge between the films. We’re three years on and he’s touring in support of a book on the Candyman; the presentation he gives at his book signing is a solid primer that brings new viewers quickly up to speed.
His appearance here also links us directly to Ethan Tarrant, who initially appears to be a deranged fan, a believer in the Candyman who prophesies that Purcell will be murdered next, but who quickly becomes far more. You see, New Orleans is Daniel Robitaille’s home turf, even if he mysteriously ended his days in Chicago, and the Candyman’s previous victim was Tarrant’s father, Coleman, another believer who had gone to Purcell for help. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see where we’re going here, especially if I tell you how posh the Tarrants are. The name is pronounced with an emphasis on the second syllable, Coleman was an attorney with credible aspirations of serving on the Supreme Court and his widow’s name is something as mundane as Octavia. The family even brought up their children in the ancestral mansion, a former plantation called Esplanade; they’re high society in the Big Easy, even if little Annie Tarrant works as an art teacher at St. Vincent’s, where most of her young students are coloured and poor.

And here I have to wonder if something I couldn’t help but notice was deliberate or not, as it seems important. The obvious goal is to set up Annie, a product of generations of privilege, as socially colourblind, caring deeply about all her students, whatever their heritage. This, of course, connects her with Robitaille, who dared to love a woman of a different colour. The catch is that the script doesn’t seem to follow suit. Annie’s principal is African American and clearly a good man too, but what’s his name? We’re not told. The white cop who believes Ethan is the Candyman killer is Det. Ray Levesque, but who’s that African American lady working with him? The credits tells us she’s Pam Carver, but the film doesn’t. I assumed she’s his superior officer, but we’re not told that either. When Matthew, one of Annie’s students, vanishes, she tracks down his father; the credits tell us he’s Rev. Ellis, but people only call him ‘the Reverend’. Is this subconscious racism or a clever device to lessen characters of colour by denying them names?
I may be way off base, but it feels to me like the scriptwriters watched the first picture, failed to understand what it was about and assumed that its success was due to the many African American characters appealing to a new audience for horror films, so wrote the sequel with that in mind. In other words, it looks consistent but doesn’t play that way because it’s really just a slasher with the monster from Candyman. Even if that’s true, as I believe it is, there’s enough of substance that bleeds through from the first film to the second to make it a worthwhile view anyway. Some of the best things about Farewell to the Flesh revolve around the mythology of the Candyman and the rest tie either to Kelly Rowan, who plays Annie Tarrant with a power that echoes Virginia Madsen in the first film, and the city of New Orleans, which is rarely a poor location for a movie but one which here provides strong contrasts of carefree carnival and poverty-struck projects, two worlds that never seem to touch.

Rowan isn’t a busy film actress; her prior feature to this was, ironically, Hook four years earlier, in which she played Peter’s mother. She’s far better known for her television work, with substantial runs in Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years, Perception and The O.C., the latter of which won her a PRISM award for her authentic depiction of a recovering alcoholic. She’s very good here too, even though Annie isn’t remotely as meaningful a character as Helen Lyle, her equivalent in the first movie. She grounds the character magnificently and, if Tony Todd gives the film its soul, Rowan provides its heart. Of course, that leaves the city of New Orleans to portray its guts, an appropriate role for a city which felt to me like a living being when I visited it last. That’s almost two decades ago now but I can still taste the air and feel the vibrancy of the place. Walking down streets in the French Quarter, it felt like people were born in the streets, lived out their lives and eventually died right there where they began. That’s an appropriate location for this picture!
As the film begins, we’re three days away from Lent, which means two days from Mardi Gras, the climax of the carnival period in the Crescent City, which will have been building for two weeks. It’s also the climax to our movie, appropriately enough, given the religious and historical significance of the date. Lent is a period when many Christians remember the forty days which Jesus spent fasting in the desert through fasting themselves or through other forms of self-denial like giving up something they enjoy. Given that people didn’t historically have the technology to preserve proscribed food until the end of Lent, they ate it instead by Shrove Tuesday, which I knew in Protestant England as Pancake Day but natives of Catholic Louisiana know in French as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. It seems almost obvious to use such a day, in which the whole city is indulging its appetites during the lurid atmosphere of a vast carnival, as the backdrop to the killing spree of a supernatural murderer.

Sadly, the story isn’t as integrated into the carnival as deeply as we might hope, so it serves more as a background than a location. Fortunately, that background is explored in interesting ways, such as the provision of a carnival DJ, the King Fish, broadcasting on WBOV, to guide us through both the season and the feature. Sometimes he’s talking about the carnival, sometimes the Candyman and sometimes both at once, such as when he explains the film’s subtitle: ‘carnival’ is Latin for ‘farewell to the flesh’, another nod to the fasting of Lent, in which many give up meat, but also a nod to the deaths at the Candyman’s hook and his own plans, as we discover on Mardi Gras. He’s an endearing presence, courtesy of the smooth Cajun tones of Russell Buchanan, a singer and actor who’s found a new career as a political blogger with a sense of humour. ‘Yes, the movie was met with mixed reviews,’ he says of his big flop, Rhinestone, ‘Some critics thought it was bad and some thought it was worse. But, dammit, I was funny!’
And I got a lot deeper here than I intended for a film that surely aims to be a slasher. Whatever reason the scriptwriters conjured up to explain the success of Candyman, they weren’t so obtuse to realise that many watched it for its death scenes. There are more of those here and they’re agreeably bloody; the King Fish surely echoes the audience when he introduces another song with, ‘This goes out to the man with the hook!’ My favourite kill, beyond the satisfaction of watching Dr. Purcell get his at the beginning, was when the insertion of the Candyman’s hook through an entire body prompts a spurt of blood onto the face and into the mouth of Annie Tarrant. It’s icky but stylish. That’s the same scene where Annie scratches the killer’s face in anger and bees come out. That effect still impresses me, even though the bees in the flashback scene to Daniel Robitaille’s lynching are beyond awful. Bizarrely, a few of the death scenes underwhelm, such as the one given to the best known actor in the movie, Veronica Cartwright.

And, no, that’s hardly a spoiler! Cartwright plays Octavia Tarrant, haughty mother to Annie and Ethan, so the odds on her demise were so low from the very outset that bookies wouldn’t have taken any bets. If you think that’s a spoiler, you should avoid reviews forthwith! Anyway, she’s decent in a relatively insubstantial role because she sneaks in the sort of nuance that only good character actors can find; I wonder if Kelly Rowan paid attention because she does the same thing. The only other actor to manage a similar accomplishment is Matt Clark as a black market dealer called Honore Thibideaux, as Cajun as that name suggests even though he’s not even a Southerner, hailing from Washington, D.C. These character actors were sidelined far too much in this film, in favour of more screen time for Tony Todd; the picture suffers for that surface approach and would have been more successful had it shown less and explained more through the talents of supporting actors like Cartwright and Clark.
For those inquisitive about this franchise, check out Candyman first. Once you realise how underrated that film is and how it really doesn’t need any further explanation, you can make a choice as to whether to follow up with this or not. If you do that and enjoy it anyway, then there’s a third in the series that you’ll want to finish up with. It’s Candyman: Day of the Dead, released straight to DVD in 1999 and, as you might expect, it exploits a holiday too, beginning on the eve of Día de Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. It features Tony Todd, of course, because it wouldn’t be easy to replace his tall, imposing frame and calm demeanour, but it adds the Playboy centerfold and Baywatch regular, Donna D’Errico, and appears to take the racial angle in a Hispanic direction which doesn’t appear to make any sense on the face of it. I’ll check it out anyway, just to see, but its reputation isn’t even as good as this film, let alone the original Candyman. Daniel Robitaille hasn’t resurfaced in the 21st century yet and that’s probably a good thing.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hello, Hal —I just happened upon your review and wanted to thank you for the “endearing,” “smooth” and “sense of humour” references you made about me and my other me, King Fish. Critics are usually mean to narrators. But you weren’t, and I just wanted to say thanks. I read your comments over and over. Is that needy?

Russ Buchanan