In the Candyman Sequels Atmosphere Isn’t Evoked, It’s Appropriated

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Director Bernard Rose started his career off strong with a couple of deeply creepy works that evoke most of their strange horror thrills from a mood & a tone rather than explicit bursts of violence. Rose’s debut film Paperhouse, which we recently covered as a Movie of the Month feature, was especially striking in this regard, chilling me to the bone with its sparse dreamworld sets & Hans Zimmer score, despite its story more or less framing the film as a kids’ fantasy piece. I was so struck by Paperhouse that I immediately sought out Rose’s most recognizable work, Candyman (1992), to see how effective that same chilling  atmosphere could be when applied to a legitimate horror film. Candyman did not disappoint in that regard, deploying a lot of Paperhouse‘s same spooky sounds (now provided by Phillip Glass) & dreamworld settings to a bloody supernatural slasher about a murdered slave’s ghost with a hook for a hand who exists in a mirror dimension and is comprised entirely of bees. It was fascinating, one of the stranger horror films I’ve seen all year. It was so fascinating, in fact, that I was compelled to watch both of the film’s less-than-stellar sequels over the course of that same weekend, despite their dire adherence to the law of diminishing returns. Without Rose’s guiding hand the Candyman sequels tended to rely more on shocking violence and false alarm jump scares than genuine mood to evoke their genre thrills, which I suppose is to be expected. A trend they followed that did surprise me, though, was the way they continued to attempt the specificity of Rose’s atmospheric horror not through imagination in the screenplay process, but through borrowing from cultures that already had a mood-evoking atmosphere ready to go.

In the case of the first sequel, I found the atmosphere appropriation to be hilarious, because it happened to be set amidst a culture I live with daily. Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) is set entirely in New Orleans, the French Quarter specifically, and it bends over backwards to remind you of that setting every chance it gets. References to gumbo, chicory, voodoo, and hurricanes color every line of dialogue that can make room for them. A Dr. John-esque radio DJ archetype narrates the film with local turns of phrase absolutely no one will identify with like, “The banks of the mighty Mississippi are ready to spill their seed” in reference to potential flooding, and (I swear this is true) taunts the titular killer with the line, “This goes out to the man with the hook. Man, chill. Relax. Have some gumbo or something.” The film also can’t resist staging its slashings during Mardi Gras, of course, providing a colorful backdrop of weirdos in costumes to heighten the atmosphere of its bee-filled mirror realm killer’s less than seemly past time. As I tried to explain in my review of Les Blank’s wonderful documentary Always for Pleasure, the spirit of Mardi Gras is an elusive beast, one that’s frustratingly difficult to accurately capture on film. Much to my surprise, Farewell to the Flesh didn’t do all that bad of a job capturing Carnival, at least not as bad as I’ve seen it done in the past. Yes, the whole thing feels very sound-stagey and the festivities are set mostly at night instead of the daylight, which are common mistakes, but the film at the very least captures some of the puke-splattered grotesqueness & disoriented debauchery of the world’s best holiday in fleeting moments, so I’m willing to give it a pass there. What really makes me laugh about its New Orleans themed cultural markers is in the non-Mardi Gras details. For instance, the protagonist & Candyman’s blonde victim du jour at one point visits a snowball stand (which are typically housed in dirt cheap roadside shacks for those unfamiliar) that’s located blocks away from the St. Louis Cathedral in one of the most expensive-looking buildings in the Quarter. And, of course, behind a fake wall in this snowball stand, its apparent billionaire proprietor stocks a bunch of voodoo paraphernalia and information on the Candyman (who is revealed to be a local) that conveniently expands his backstory between the increasingly violent kills. It’s this kind of reliance on and misunderstanding of local color that provides atmosphere in Bernard Rose’s absence in these damned things that make the Candyman sequels such a misguided hoot.

The problem gets much worse in Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999). As you can likely guess from the direct-to-DVD sequel’s not-so-coy title, the film is set during a Día de Muertos celebration in Los Angeles. Farewell to the Flesh made a conscious effort to tie the Candyman’s lore into New Orleans’s slave trade history to justify its appropriation of Mardi Gras atmosphere. Day of the Dead just makes shit up as it goes along. The young girl from the last scene of the second film ages decades in a four year span and funds her adult artist’s life by collecting the paintings Candyman made while a living slave (paintings that look suspiciously like large department store prints of family portraits) and leasing them to galleries. Moving the story from New Orleans to the L.A. arts scene does little for the story except to provide excuses for setting the murders against a Latino community’s Día de Muertos celebration. The film’s depiction of that celebration looks an awful lot like the sound stage Mardi Gras of Farewell to the Flesh, except with sugar skulls and piñatas substituted for that work’s parade floats & plastic beads. The only attempt to tie it into the Candyman’s established lore is when the holiday is explained to be valuable because it “reminds us that death is sweet,” which is meant to recall the ghost killer’s cryptic catchphrase “Sweets to the sweet.” Otherwise, Day of the Dead‘s titular setting is just a shameless pilfering of atmosphere that it couldn’t create on its own, so it outsourced it from a culture where its story didn’t naturally belong. The local color of Candyman 3 is more or less a background afterthought, setting the stage for the film’s true bread & butter: ludicrous jump scares & gratuitous gore. The film was good for some occasional laughs: the goth gang that kidnaps the pouty supermodel artist protagonist is guilty of some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen in a film; when slamming back tequila, a Hispanic man shouts, “Oooh chihuahua!”; there’s a sequence where a nameless art groupie slathers her tits with honey as foreplay and is immediately swarmed by the Candyman’s killer bee army. It’s a far cry from the atmospheric horror Rose established in the first film, though, and it’s weird to think they’re at all connected.

Not much stays consistent in the Candyman franchise except Candyman himself. Actor Tony Todd portrays the titular killer in each film (it must be bittersweet to headline your own franchise and then be required to let bees crawl in your mouth every damn movie) and although his backstory expands, he largely remains consistent. By the third film, the spooky sounds of Phillip Glass and stylistic supervision of writer Clive Barker were long gone from the series, given way to soft, bargain bin hip-hop & nu-metal slasher cheapness. The Candyman continues to gaslight his prime victims by framing them for  horrific murders and I guess you could thematically tie them together by saying each entry follows an academic type who’s punished for skeptically investigating cultural superstitions in urban POC communities. Otherwise, the setting-hopping plays like novelty backdrops for the film’s increasing indulgence in shameless gore and an easy distraction from its decreasing interest in atmosphere. Personally, I found the Mardi Gras set shenanigans of Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh to be a campy delight, especially as the film tried to cram as many New Orleans-specific references as it could in dialogue where it most definitely did not belong. You’d have to ask someone who regularly celebrates Día de Muertos in L.A. if Candyman 3′s mishandling of that cultural setting is just as hilariously off (I’d be willing to bet it is), but what’s vividly clear is that both sequels traded the genuine terror of its initial atmosphere, provided by Paperhouse’s Bernard Rose, for the novelty of cultural atmosphere shoehorned into places where its story didn’t really belong. According to the Candyman sequels, when atmosphere can’t be sincerely evoked, it’s best (or at least easiest) to just borrow it from elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Paperhouse (1988) as a Warning Shot for the Atmospheric Horror of Candyman (1992)

When we were first discussing November’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, we were very adamant that the film didn’t entirely fall under the horror genre, despite the way it carried itself with a horror atmosphere. The film’s alternating dream world vs reality dichotomy lent itself to some horror genre hallmarks: an eerie score, a mutilated villain, an overwhelming sense of dread. Yet, the story was about a young girl exuding godlike control in a self-created dream space as a means of bucking against the health & home life helplessness she suffered in the “real world,” sometimes with the two realms meeting in unexpected ways. That’s not exactly the blueprint for the ghost stories, slashers, and monster movies we usually pin under the horror umbrella. Four years after Paperhouse, however, director Bernard Rose repurposed a lot of the dread-stirring techniques of the children’s film for something entirely different: Candyman. The supernatural slasher Candyman is certainly Rose’s most infamous film to date, but a lot of what makes it work as a bone-chilling, reality-disrupting horror can easily be traced back to the familial drama nightmare of Paperhouse.

Just like how Paperhouse distinguises between the natural world and the dream world of its protagonist’s crayon drawing, Candyman exists in two distinct spaces: in front of & behind the mirror. The killer from this Clive Barker-penned story is summoned in a mix of Beetlejuice lore & “Bloody Mary” urban legend shenanigans. After someone/anyone says “Candyman” five times in the mirror, the spirit of a brutally murdered slave with a hook for a hand and a body full of bees materializes to murder them. What’s brilliant about the way Candyman’s mirror realm is presented onscreen is that it partly exists as a physical space characters/victims can climb into through the back of medicine cabinets. This space exists both as a physical part of the building and as a dream world where the Candyman can hold hostages, sometimes infants, as bait to lure his more prized victims into full cooperation with his evil plans. The fantasy realm in Paperhouse works likewise. It’s physically represented in a crayon drawing the protagonist can manipulate while awake and as a dream realm she can only enter while asleep. The way one realm can affect the other in Paperhouse is also reflected in the way the Candyman frames his victims for murder while they’re under his spell, enacting a physical change in the “real” world while the protagonist is helplessly trapped in a supernatural one.

Besides their established dichotomies between “real” and fantasy spaces & the occasional crossovers that disrupt them, Paperhouse and Candyman also share a general sense of fairy tale storytelling. Paperhouse most notably feels like a classic fairy tale, following a young girl who can enter & change the world through her own drawings. Candyman, however, is specifically about the power of urban legends & myth making. It’s not too difficult to draw a line between traditional fairy tale folklore and the modern urban legend, particularly in the case of the Candyman’s legend, which includes supernatural detail in its mirror realms & its Biblically massive swarms of bees. The Candyman himself is desperately concerned with the strength and prominence of his own legend, focusing as much effort as possible on making sure people still believe in his fairy tale folklore as if his (after)life depends on it. As the series continues in its campier, less effective sequels, the Candyman even begins to somewhat reflect the intention of the eyes-scratched-out dream Dad of Paperhouse, specifically tormenting the living members of his family as part of his revenge strategy. By the third film in the series, his supernatural power is also revealed to be tied to a work of art, a self-portrait, which is even more of an encroachment on Paperhouse territory. Bernard Rose had no discernible influence on those diminishing returns ventures, but the fairy tale aesthetic & power he established in both Paperhouse & Candyman mirror each other close enough even without that connection.

There’s a lot to dissect in Paperhouse & Candyman‘s shared fairy tale narratives about dueling reality & fantasy realms, but it’s the way director Bernard Rose establishes a distressing mood in both films that truly ties them together. The menacing score from Hans Zimmer that makes so much of Paperhouse feel like a nightmare is recognizably echoed in Phillip Glass’s masterfully eerie work in Candyman. Both films turn cheap, cold sets into assets, distorting reality by making everything feel tactile, but off. The disorientation in how the two works distinguish between fantasy & reality similarly put the audience on edge. Paperhouse sets the table for a lot of the horror genre thrills Rose later pulled off in Candyman. Even though that latter work’s sequels pushed it into more traditional slasher territory, the film itself doesn’t ever feel like a strict horror narrative. Clive Barker’s writing style surely had an influence there, as his works like Hellraiser & Nightbreed never exactly fit into the traditional Jason Voorhees-type slasher box (despite Pinhead often being referenced in that context). Anyone who’s looking for standardized Candyman thrills where atmosphere is made secondary to violence & gore would likely find the most solace in that film’s less-than-stellar sequels. On the other hand, if the atmosphere & surrealism is what made Candyman feel special to you in the first place, Paperhouse demonstrates just how effective Rose can make that tone feel even with most of the horror removed. Paperhouse is remarkable in many ways that has nothing to do with Rose’s latter work in Candyman, but the film is still noteworthy as proof that his best known effort would still be horrifying even if it were completely removed from the horror genre.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the lucid dreaming fantasy drama Paperhouse, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet