Candyman: Collector's Edition (Scream Factory) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
Among the essays, articles, and reviews I’ll be sharing on this podcasting site, I also plan on publishing re-edited versions of some of my DVDActive.com Blu-ray reviews more or less as they originally appeared. These will not always coincide with the theme of the month.
When Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) hears about Candyman (Tony Todd), a slave spirit with a hook hand who is said to haunt a notorious housing project, she thinks she has a new twist for her thesis. Braving the gang-ridden territory to visit the site, Helen arrogantly assumes Candyman can't really exist ...until he appears, igniting a string of terrifying, grisly slayings. But, the police don't believe in monsters, and charge Helen with the crimes. And the only one who can set her free is Candyman. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
The early ‘90s were a turbulent time for cinematic horror. The genre had exploded during the ‘80s with a series of formulaic hit franchises and an emphasis on newly minted gore FX that frightened moral groups, especially when coupled with the home video boom’s easy access to truly disturbing underground/foreign content. Studios were embarrassed by the riches wrought from a decade of Friday the 13ths and Nightmares on Elm Street and frightened by MPAA rating clampdowns, so theatrical content slowed, leaving American horror fans clamouring to uncover underground and foreign releases to fill the vacuum. Until Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) opened the floodgates to a new brand of postmodern slasherdom, viable mainstream options were mostly limited to the stylish serial killer movies spawned from Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991). At the risk of sounding like those ridiculous studio heads that insisted on calling these films “psychological thrillers,” the better example of slasher methods being taken beyond the simple joys of scares and gore and into the realms of ideas and allegories would be Bernard Rose’s Candyman, released in 1992. Furthermore, Rose’s film might well be the best studio-released horror movie of the entire decade.
Based on The Forbidden by Clive Barker (from volume five of The Books of Blood; Time Warner Books, 1985), Candyman is a sobering portrait of a poor minority community in the years following the Reagan and Bush administrations, even taking time to tie problems back to urban zoning after WWII. It’s brilliantly acted, artfully constructed, and, though it has aged well, it is still anchored to the specific fears and fashions of its era. And, like most great allegorical horror and science fiction, the film doesn’t require the audience to fully understand its meaning in order to enjoy it. It’s more than willing to work on a genre level and, to that token, it comes loaded with pant-wetting scares and an inescapable sense of dread. Unlike Scream, which pedantically picks apart ‘80s horror rules, Candyman pays homage to its traditions, such as the villain’s trademarked weapon to his tragic backstory, which is told again and again as an urban legend (the plot device of a supernatural killer needing to maintain its legendary status in order to gain power was reversed two years later in Craven’s pre-Scream postmodern slasher New Nightmare). It elevates the popular slasher motifs (oh no, not the ‘e’ word!) and applies them to the terrors of the real world, rather than making fun of them and confining them to the safe constraints of a theater screen.
These motifs are inherent in Barker’s original story, specifically the urban legend elements, but the connections weren’t immediately obvious until Rose adapted the short subject into an American-set feature film. The change from Barker’s abandoned British buildings to the rundown, real-world Cabrini-Green Chicago housing project is probably the most important adjustment. It would initially appear as a means to placate American audiences, but actually serves to strengthen the original story’s theme of classism with additional themes of historical racial injustice and gentrification. Rose’s lyrical visual textures are also very different from Barker’s typically raw descriptions. The film doesn’t shrink from violence, but it’s not obsessed with the minutiae of pain and revulsion, like Hellraiser (1987). However, while it avoids that level of macabre perversion, Candyman remains a true-blue Barker adaptation, because it captures the author’s infatuation with darkly romantic relationships. It’s simple enough to mimic the extreme sadomasochism seen in Hellraiser, but even Barker himself struggled to impart the disturbing love his characters had for each other. The sequences in which the Candyman seduces Helen into being his victim and his cohort are achingly sexual without any actual vulgarity, verging on genuinely romantic.
Coming out of the ‘80s, studio executives were determined to make every successful horror film into a franchise, so sequels were inevitable. The first sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, benefits from a continuation of the title character’s mythology, supplied by Barker himself, who acted as co-screenwriter alongside Rand Ravich and Mark Kruger. The legend is moved from Chicago area project housing to New Orleans, allowing future award-winning director Bill Condon to soak the frame in baroque Southern Gothic. Condon fails to achieve any solid scares, but the backstory flashbacks are so well-executed that it’s easy to forget that they don’t actually appear in Rose’s original film. The second sequel, Turi Meyer’s Candyman: Day of the Dead, relocates again to Los Angeles, where the Candyman haunts and kills Latin American characters. It’s not particularly good, but at least it maintains the basic themes of oppressed minority communities.
Considering its near-universal critical and cult appeal, Candyman’s treatment on home video has been particularly disappointing. Here in the states, Columbia Tristar put out a barebones DVD, followed by a pretty disappointing DVD special edition. Blu-rays were released in Europe, but the 1080p transfers were effectively upconverted SD transfers. Finally, after all these years, a boutique label has wrestled the US home video rights from whoever was holding them (I suppose it was still Sony) and released a remastered, well-preserved, extras-heavy Blu-ray. Scream Factory’s box art toutes that the new transfer is “a new 2K restoration from a new 4K scan of the original negative, supervised and approved by writer/director Bernard Rose and director of photography Anthony B. Richmond.” Not only that – they’ve also included the option to watch the unrated version of the film or, rather, the UK 18 version, which has never been available on North American home video. The differences are slight (as seen here), but it’s great to have the option.
As tends to happen lately, both Scream Factory and Arrow Video ended up with access to the same 2K restoration of the the same 4K scan and have released very similar Blu-rays in North America and the UK, respectfully. I do not have access to the Arrow disc for a direct comparison. The best I could manage was to search out samples from other websites and use my imagination. The images available from our old friend caps-a-holic.com are similar enough to my own to assume that this is a typical Scream v. Arrow situation, where the transfers are essentially identical, but Arrow’s authoring is a smidge better, creating slightly less compression and producing better, tighter grain texture. Ignoring any comparisons, the Scream transfer sports much stronger detail than the old upconverts and none of the sharpening artifacts. There’s a touch of smudge and bleeding in wider shots, but nothing out of the ordinary for a medium-budget film from this era. Colors are richer than SD allows, including warmer skin tones, cleaner edges where vivid hues intersect, and softer gradations. The few seconds of uncensored footage seen in the unrated cut are a smidge grainier and more washed-out than the rest of movie.
Both cuts of Candyman come fitted with their original 2.0 stereo mixes alongside a new 5.1 remix. All tracks are presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. While I normally prefer original soundtracks, in this case, the remix honors the original intent and doesn’t overload the rear speakers with unnecessary directional elements. The aural palette is a bit thin by design and by virtue of the fact that it was mixed in pre-digital mix era. Due to these facts, the centered dialogue, and improved bass, I spent most of my review time listening to and enjoying the 5.1 track. Of course, we can’t discuss Candyman without praising its brilliant, haunting symphonic score. Minimalist composer Philip Glass’ music had previously been utilized by arthouse directors and documentarians with only a few exceptions. Michele Soavi adopted parts of Glass’ six-movement chamber work Glassworks (namely “Floe”) for The Church in 1989, but, otherwise, Candyman was the first time a filmmaker noticed how well his style fit a horror aesthetic. Unfortunately, excepting the first sequel, this was also among the only instances of a Glass horror soundtrack. The music is the most extensive aural element and the uncompressed quality of the track really boosts the impact of the already very loud organ work, as well as the delicate piano and vocals of the repeated main theme.
Disc One (Theatrical Cut):
Commentary with writer/director Bernard Rose and actor Tony Todd – The first of two new commentaries sees the director and star returning to the film about a decade after they recorded their first commentary and both reiterating and reexamining various aspects of the film. The track begins with a bit where Rose ‘summons’ Todd, then gets down to business, chatting about the film, the restoration, their personal lives, and the careers of just about everyone involved with the film.
Commentary with author/critics Stephen Jones and Kim Newman – While it’s great to hear Rose and Todd’s updated comments on the film, I was personally looking forward to this critical discussion with Jones, the author of various Book of Best New Horror collections, and Newman, author of Nightmare Movies: A Critical Guide to Horror Films (Bloomsbury USA, 1989/update 2011). Both commentators know Barker personally and have extensive knowledge of the man’s career, as well as all adaptations of his work, and cram their track with a bevy of literary and cinematic information (though Jones is a bit too attached to the original story to entirely approach the movie on its own merits).
Disc One archival extras:
Commentary with Rose, author Clive Barker, producer Alan Poul, and cast members Tony Todd, Virginia Madsen, and Kasi Lemmons – The original group track is charming, but very busy and the information within is covered better throughout the new director/star track and second disc interviews.
The Movie Crypt podcast commentary with Rose – This track is moderated by filmmakers Adam Green & Joe Lynch and gives Rose yet another chance to delve into the movie’s themes.
Sweets To The Sweet: The Candyman Mythos (23:49, SD) – A decent retrospective featurette fronted by interviews with Rose, Barker, and actors Madsen, Todd, and Lemmons.
Clive Barker: Raising Hell (10:46, SD) – Further retrospective with the author/executive producer.
The Heart of Candyman (7:07, SD) – 2014 interview with Todd, who discusses the legacy of the Candyman character.
Bernard Rose's storyboard reel (5:22, SD)
Trailer and TV spots
Disc Two: Unrated Cut (all new featurettes):
Be My Victim (9:47, HD) – Todd discusses being cast, developing the character, other preparation, working with bees, and the racial/cultural components of the film.
It Was Always You, Helen (13:11, HD) – Madsen offers an updated perspective on her casting experience, being hypnotized for parts of the film, performing with Todd, and Glass’ music.
The Writing on the Wall (6:22, HD) – Production designer Jane Ann Stewart shares amusing anecdotes about the set decoration and construction.
Forbidden Flesh: The Makeup FX of Candyman (8:02, HD) – Special makeup effects artists Bob Keen, Gary J. Tunnicliffe, and Mark Coulier each recall the various challenges they faced on the production, such as the tale of a religious blacksmith refusing to sell them a hook they’d commissioned.
A Story to Tell: Clive Barker's The Forbidden (18:39, HD) – Literary critic Douglas E. Winter, who interviewed Barker at the beginning of his career, discusses the author’s Books of Blood collections, his transgressive talents, The Forbidden as a story, the key differences between the story and Candyman, and Rose’s unrealized concept for a Midnight Meat Train adaptation.
Urban Legend: Unwrapping Candyman (20:41, HD) – Bram Stoker and NAACP Award-winning author/educator Tananarive Due and her husband, award-winning screenwriter/sci-fi writer Steven Barnes team up to break down the racial/cultural elements of the film from the point of view of black writers/intellectuals/individuals. This includes both praise and criticism of the white filmmakers’ approach to the themes, the breadth of black cinema in the early/mid-’90s, the historical context of racial relations during the era, and how to remake Candyman as a black movie for black audiences, instead of a black movie for white audiences. This and the critical commentary on the first disc are the crown jewels of this collection.
Reflection In The Mirror (9:48, HD) – Kasi Lemmons gets her chance to reflect (ha ha!) on her experiences as a filmmaker, writer, and, particularly, an actress who scored a number of important supporting lead roles during the ‘90s, including Silence of the Lambs and Candyman.
A Kid In Candyman (13:36, HD) – DeJuan Guy, who plays the little boy, Jake, rounds out the interviews with a kid’s-eye view of the audition and filmmaking processes.
There’s so much going on in Candyman that a single rewatch and review doesn’t cover the broader historical aspects (for instance, Candyman’s origin tying back to the Civil War), the various feminist angles (Helen’s gender is rarely directly referenced, but is always vital), the role of cultural representation (Helen puts herself into danger in large part because she takes her white privilege for granted and her sacrifice ends the film with an uncomfortable white savior theme), or the implication that the title villain is merely a representation of violence, rather than a personified agent of violence. It’s not a perfect film – some of the supporting characters are weak (the cheating husband is a bit cartoonish, all things considered) and the editing could’ve been tightened – but it is a rich experience for a mainstream horror film, especially coming out of an era when studios were embarrassed by their genre output. Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray is a massive A/V upgrade on DVD and early European Blu-ray editions, and features a bevy of brand new supplements. The only folks that don’t need to upgrade are those that already bought the Arrow Video UK version of more or less the same collection.
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