At one point in the early 80s Stephen King said, “I have seen the future of horror…and his name is Clive Barker,” and there has scarcely been a movie or book released since then with his name attached where the promoters haven’t milked that line. But just because the blurb at this point has become a bromide doesn’t negate the truthiness of the sentiment. Clive Barker is one of the few singular voices in horror and I hate the fact that every project of his seems to be an uphill battle.
There are few, if any, writer/film-makers who can craft stories as sensual and terrifying as he can. Clive Barker is certainly not the first or last film-maker to suggest the correlation between pleasure and pain, but his adroitness with the theme is what makes him stand apart. Of the many travesties that have befallen the genre the past decade (foremost: awful remakes [i.e. not to say that all remakes are awful—see Rob Zombie’s Halloween, or Carpenter’s The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), etc…]), the runner-up on my list is the explosion of torture porn story telling.
If I could destroy any franchise of the past ten years it would undoubtedly be Hostel (pretty much anything involving Eli Roth if we’re granting large wishes). Violence for the sake of violence is not visionary, no matter how many times you and your friends might insist in interviews sir. And eroticizing it is always a danger and must be tempered with theme and style. Cue Hellraiser and Candyman.
Of the list I compiled, only a few individuals managed to sneak in two films: Carpenter, Romero, Cronenberg and Barker. I think it says something when a person can bottle lightning not just once, but twice. And Barker has certainly contributed more to the genre, both written and filmed, than just these works, but I have to say if these two pieces alone were my legacy I’d still feel pretty pleased.
Hellraiser is a tour de force. I couldn’t give half a shit what you say about the cheesy animated effects in the last reel (and for the record, you snobs, Clive and his buddy got blitzed and did all of the animation in one weekend because that was the only way they could bring it in under budget, so that makes him an auteur or whatever), the storytelling is relentless. It’s one of the most twisted love stories ever put on celluloid. It’s a deconstruction of the nuclear family. It’s a bastardization of “father knows best”.
It postulates the very dangerous idea, “Hell is of your own making.” Another bromide, true, but when it’s not being used as a garnish to an otherwise simple article or plain conversation it is a fascinating concept. Pinhead states rather plain-Jane:
We are angels to some. Demons to others.
To me this is the core of what is so terrifying about the cenobites. They can grant your desires (e.g. in the third installment there is a character who has never been able to dream until she turns herself, body and soul, over to them), but their methods are matched by your own predilections and avarice. To wit, their darkness is matched only by the same found in our own hearts…and how many of us can truly come to reckoning with the demons we carry?
So, essentially, only the ones at peace with themselves, contented and understanding, could hope to face the Cenobites and not be ripped apart. In this sense we are our own unmaking. This is true both when dealing with jinn like demons and everyday life.
The duality of the Cenobites seems to me also to correlate with the film’s take on sexuality. It is an act of passion, true, but also of intense violence. Pleasure and pain. One of the most memorable sequences in the film is the montage of men Julia seduces. Every sexual encounter begins with giddy promise and they all end with blood on the floor. Furthermore, the initial encounter between Julia and Frank, the seed from which their love blooms, is itself fraught with violence. And once that door has been opened, it appears demure Julia cannot or does not want it shut.
Candyman, on the other hand, while extremely sexual as well, shifts the focus. Violence seems to happen because of the sex, but the relationship the two share is that of causality and not symbiosis. Candyman impregnates his secret beloved, is found out, and is horrifically destroyed. Trevor’s betrayal of Helen ultimately leads to his own undoing. Ted Raimi, in one of the best cameos EVER, playing the bad boy biker boyfriend, is left to pick up the pieces after his girl meets the legend. These are all gruesome and excellently executed, but this story does not want to retread familiar ground.
Candyman is essentially a tale about the power of mythmaking. Our universal need to give objects names is a dangerous tendency. What isn’t always realized though is once you name something, while you feel you own it, it just as much owns you. A political idea, religious concept, etc, once quantified and labeled by you becomes inescapable. Soon you see its influence and signature whichever way you turn when just a day before you saw nothing. That is who/what Candyman is: He is the formless thought now shaped, taken hold in your mind.
He exists and has power only because so many people agree that he exists and has power. He is neither animal, vegetable nor mineral—should all of humanity sputter out, he would go with them. He is an idea. Consider the great propaganda campaigns throughout history, cults, Oscar voting and you will see just how powerful and dangerous such an abstraction can be. Or as he puts it himself, “Why do you want to live? If you would learn just a little from me, you would not beg to live. I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people's dreams, but not to have to be. Do you understand?”
The film also flirts with some other dangerous implications: That everlasting life can be attained only in death, with martyrdom and the importance a flock’s faith is to the cause. While I would never compare Candyman to another prominent figure from history, he has certainly read the universal playbook and is running with it.
But part of why this film has such strong legs to stand on is that it has these very literary themes layered in with more real world ones. Some would argue, and with just cause, that the real horror of this film is the class disparity it shows. Keep in mind this movie was shot on real locations and using the people who lived there as extras. One of the productions vans had shots fired at it while filming. The design flaw with the medicine mirrors was discovered while researching the location and was indeed used in several real life murders. This is not exactly dressed up.
Helen criticizes her friend after she inventories her purse and says to her, “What’s with the arsenal? It’s only eight blocks.” Her friend replies that it is indeed a different world. Two buildings with the same design and layout, separated by a few blocks and a freeway, and they are unrecognizable anymore as twins. In a very real sense we all live in a different America. Is it that shocking that the people of this community revere and despise a character that is so merciless. He passes over those who stay true but strikes down the unfaithful and the interloper.
If anything it is the academic approach to the horror story that I respect so much. It’s almost a film in defense of itself and the genre. It’s one of the few movies to insist that these stories are real in the hearts of people and they warrant serious study and reflection and it’s safe to say they had a large part in shaping the trajectory of my thought on film. Horror films may want to tear us apart, but hopefully in doing so we closely examine the pieces.