is a small subgenre of suspense and horror films that doesn't get written
about very often: the fairly feminist dark fairy tale. There have been
several, but not that many, over the years (some of my favorites include Cat
People '82, In The Cut, Sorority
House Massacre, Alien3, Suspiria, The Haunting '63, Regarde La Mer/See the
Sea, Rosemary's Baby, When A Stranger Calls Back, and Ginger Snaps). But I
wanted to draw attention to two of the defining efforts in this subgenre,
Bernard Rose's Candyman and Neil Jordan's In Dreams.
Both are adaptations of literary works, Candyman taken from a Clive Barker
short story called The Forbidden, In Dreams derived from a Bari Wood
potboiler called Doll's Eyes (which is tangentially tied to the end result).
Both have strong female protagonists, a stylized and ghoulish sense of
story, interesting perspectives on the American mental health system, and a
relentlessness in the way that they assault the viewers' notions of safety.
Candyman was a hit, enough of one to spawn two sequels and an action figure,
while In Dreams was a big failure. The tastes
of audiences are difficult to second guess, but In Dreams kills a kid within
the first ten minutes, and there are few things that will mess with the
American moviegoing public more than offing a kid.
Both films deal with the concept of storytelling as part of the story they
tell; Candyman's Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a graduate student
researching urban legends who discovers that there is some truth to a tale
that had been told around Chicago for decades, while In Dreams' Claire
Cooper (Annette Bening), (despite being psychically linked to a killer),
writes and illustrates children's books. Both films have the feel of dark
fairy tales both in their use of traditional Grimm iconography (hooks,
apples, forests, fires, lost children, the natural world meshing with the
supernatural world) and in the way that they set up an Angela Carter-ish
legend of their own- an avenging female spirit righting the wrongs they
could not in life. These films are not, however, about shaktis-
creative/destructive female divinities who are a necessary part of the
cycles of life; rather these are the tales of human souls corrupted and
refined by the evil of the world into becoming something otherworldly.
The Candyman (Tony Todd) is the spiritual incarnation of a murdered man
named Daniel Robitaille, a spiritual death-dealer that urban legend has will
appear should his name be said five times in a mirror. Helen and her friend Bernadette
(Kasi Lemmons, from The Silence of The Lambs and director of Eve's Bayou)
are researching the historical details behind the Candyman legend, little
suspecting to what extent the Candyman will come to dominate their lives.
Adapter/Director Rose goes for the gusto with this film, combining horror,
gothic romance (notice that Helen's scenes with the Candyman are shot at a
softer level of focus than either of their scenes apart), and social
documentary (you can't help but learn about the racial-social structure of
Chicago just by watching the film) into a super-rich text.
Jordan's film is stranger, more somber, and mare hallucinatory in its
construction, depicting the ongoing violence committed by Vivian Thompson
(Robert Downey Jr.), a serial killer of young girls who was abused by his
mother and left for dead in a town flooded to make a dam. Vivian and the
Candyman both embark on a systematic campaign of destruction in the lives of
the female protagonists, unmaking their professional and social lives,
leaving them with nowhere to go but into the arms of the unknown. And
marriage is a venue that inevitably, these films say, ends in betrayal. Both
women are committed to institutions by their husbands, in both cases
unfaithful men, who (for Aidan Quinn in In Dreams) are at their wit's end
and, truthfully, doomed anyway, or (as Xander Berkley in Candyman) delighted
that their spouse's insanity ties up all the loose ends keeping them from a
In both instances, the women are rejected by society for their ties to the
supernatural. Claire's visions of Vivian's handiwork may in fact drive her
insane, but the simple fact that the psychiatric industry is set up on is
that when someone speaks
of supernatural (or, as The Haunting's Dr. Markway would say,
preternatural), it is time to remove them from society and medicate them.
Helen's situation is slightly more difficult, as a dog, (later) Bernadette,
and (even later) her psychiatric case worker all end up dead in a room where
she is the only person present. Both women's escapes from their respective
institutions leave them separate from their previous lives. What is really
refreshing about both Candyman and In Dreams is that neither film craps out
to be more audience friendly (for a contemporary example of this crapping
out, see Gothika).
In both instances, you reach a point where there is no way the main
character can win, locked away. Claire's psychic link to Vivian allows her
to witness his escape decades before, and she follows his path to make her
own way to freedom. Helen's escape is both more dramatic
and more symbolic as, confronted by her psychiatrist, she plays the only
card she has left. "I can call him," she says, and she does, as
Candyman shreds the psychiatrist and enables her to escape, even though at
that moment she is bound to him. The equivalent to the "I can call
him" scene for In Dreams is Claire's vision of her husband's death at
the hands of Vivian and their own dog. The natural world leaves the human
animal helpless at some point or another. What makes sense and what we have
accepted must be put aside, and it is this spiritual step that sets up both
women's eventual transformation.
Helen is now publicly thought to be a murderer, her husband is cheating on
her with one of his students (and the betrayal on Madsen's face as she sees the
repainting of her condo is palpable) and has signed her over to the state,
her best friend is dead (which also derails their graduate school thesis),
and the only channel of power left to her is that offered by the Candyman
and the hope that she can help save Anne Marie's baby. Claire has nothing
left but her sense of what is right. Her daughter is dead, her husband as
well, and even her dog has been turned against her. Only
the link between her mind and that of Vivian (and the young girl Ruby who is
his captive) gives her any sense of purpose. Both women have children to
save and nothing else to lose. And that is the thing that defines Candyman
and In Dreams; neither of these films are afraid of following their stories
to the logical end. Happy endings are not suitable options, just as in life.
The end result are two dynamite films that connoisseurs of horror and
fairytales should not miss. As a double feature, well, even better.
"What's blood," as the Candyman asks, "if not for
Copyright 2003, Jason Shawhan