Finding a feminist horror film is like finding your favorite candy in a collection of duds: You know they make them for trick or treaters, and you hope someone on you block bought them to give out. After a good dig, you find it. Huzzah!
That’s kind of the feeling I had at the Coolidge Corner Halloween Horror Movie Marathon I went to over the weekend. It’s always a good collection of movies, but not many that could be interpreted as feminist. Then, to my surprise, I found Candyman, my new favorite horror film—never mind that it came out in 1992.
The story of the Candyman is a popular urban myth in Chicago, and Candyman tells the story of graduate students Helen (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), who are writing their thesis on urban myths and come across the tale in different variations from different sources. When they start finding real crimes to tie to the legend, they reason that he is just a criminal like any other. Until that is, the Candyman comes to them.
There are many layers to this film, so let’s start off with the leads: Helen and Bernadette. Both are female graduate students, and Bernadette is a woman of color. Although her character is not as fully explored as Helen’s, we still get a good set of confident women out to solve a mystery that the film’s men are too afraid/too skeptical to be bothered with. There’s a great scene where Helen boldly tells off an old white professor who’s become an expert on the Candyman without ever going out into the field that they’re “going to bury” him.
The two friends clearly care for each other, enough so that the Candyman destroys their bond. Helen is married to a good-for-nothing professor, and (SPOILER-ISH!) eventually gets her revenge against him. Her tragedy allows her to live beyond the Candyman, beyond the men in her life.
Much of the movie’s dialogue centers on race and racial tension. The main setting for most of the events are at the Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green projects, a place Bernadette warns Helen not to go. When we hear of the brutal murder of tenant Ruthie Jean, we find out that her neighbor called the police multiple times, but they never came. The Candyman himself—the hook-handed slave whose artistic talent and love for a white plantation-owner’s daughter brought him torture and death—must himself be called multiple times (five, to be exact) in order to appear.
Because Helen does not believe in the Candyman (a figure of power and destruction) he must “make” her believe and restore the faith in “his followers (those who fear him).” There’s a psychological suspense when we begin to doubt reality—the moment when myth becomes fact. But while the movie is legitimately scary, it neither sexualizes its female leads nor milks its gore for maximum terror. never takes away from the horror aspect of the movie, which also gets points in my book for not milking the gore for its scares. Wonderfully playing against expectation, Candyman leaves you wondering where the story will go next, something missing in most horror movies.
Think “The Candyman” is your type of treat? Check out the trailer, and find it on Netflix now.