Of course, the above title may sound rather redundant. It is difficult to think of a more self-conscious genre than the slasher film: not only have there been a plethora of obvious pastiches, but even the ostensibly serious Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises often poke fun at their own favorite clichés. Every film begins with a group of sexually active teenagers who must listen to the ravings of the obligatory toothless old man (or some other familiar harbinger of doom) before being promptly dispatched ingeniously (or not, depending on how cheap the SFX are) by Jason, Freddy, or whatever other relentless killer the screenwriter has created. The heavily formulaic nature of the genre has caused it to accrue as many critics as fans; indeed, it became commonplace in the eighties for older horror authors like Robert Bloch to unfavorably compare the new outcrop of slasher films with the traditional ghost stories and psychological thrillers of former eras.
One could argue, however, that it is within the very predictability of these films that their appeal lies. This familiarity causes them to feel more reassuring than unsettling; it is not only “the final girl” who will make it to the film’s credits – it is ourselves, the audience. The sequels sustain this sense of survival: we are familiar with the entire history of a certain slasher, all his quirks and traits, and no matter how improbable (or often contradictory) his sequel-spawned history may be, this knowledge gives us a further sense of security. Like a hardened explorer wading through familiar territory, we know that no matter how bewildering it might get for the unfortunates onscreen, whatever happens will still remain reassuringly familiar to us. Like fairy tales and urban legends, slasher films seduce their audience into a world in which routine sets of clichés and formulae are not only the commonplace fallbacks of lazy screenwriters but are actually embraced by the audiences themselves: a world in which Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees become modern bogeymen and in which every victim’s death is seen as a memorable milestone, hailed at once for the originality of its execution and the predictable place that it occupies in the film’s overall plot structure.
Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) is a different sort of slasher film, however; one that is self-aware but not comedic; a movie that explores the mythic space that urban legends and slasher tales inhabit, focusing on why these tales absorb our imaginations so deeply and suggesting that there is some mysterious draw even greater than the comfortable familiarity that these gruesome fairy tales have. Based on “The Forbidden,” a novella by British author Clive Barker, its titular supernatural antagonist resembles neither the wise-cracking Freddy Krueger nor the silent, masked killers in Friday the 13th or John Carpenter’s Halloween. Rather, Tony Todd plays the character of the hook-handed Candyman with an intense, seductive charisma, transforming him into a monster who functions both as a supernatural killer and as an almost allegorical embodiment of all that seduces and terrifies us in the slasher mythos, or even in horror fiction in general. Barker’s work both in literature (The Books of Blood, The Hellbound Heart) and in film (Hellraiser) constantly connects the twin emotions of terror and desire as two related impulses and the dynamic found in Candyman between the film’s heroine Helen (Virginia Madsen) and her terrifying antagonist is no exception. The most compelling moments in the narrative are Helen’s encounters with Candyman – those enigmatic interchanges in which he implores her to “be his victim” and asks “what is blood for if not for shedding?” The point of his appeal is that there is a certain glory in being counted as a legend: if Helen becomes a victim of Candyman, she will become – as he terms it – one of those tales “to frighten children, to make lovers cling closer in their rapture.” She will become immortal like him precisely because she, too, will become a legend of terror. To attain the status of legendry, “the blessed condition” as Candyman terms it, is perceived as a higher spiritual state, the cost of which is, in his eyes, far outweighed by the reward. She will no longer be merely a curious audience; she will, in fact, become a horror tale herself.
The beauty of Bernard Rose’s film is that it can be enjoyed in the same manner as any other slasher film, for like all the others, it charts the familiar territory of hook-handed killers, flattering us with our knowledge of grisly urban legends while delivering a healthy amount of gore and scares. But for those who choose to contemplate the titular villain’s mysterious seductions more deeply, it holds perhaps the key to what it is that makes many of us not only enjoy Horror but even wish to create our own tales of terror. Candyman is not only an avenging ghost: he is a legend, a horror story himself. Stories are immortal, therefore Candyman himself is immortal – and, moreover, being a legend as well as a ghost, he is an immortal being whom lovers and children both revere, fear, and yet all the same enjoy whispering of. Any lover of Horror can understand how this “blessed condition” could be perceived as quite seductive.
And, if the opportunity to unravel the philosophy of Horror is not enough to entice the reader to watch this film, then let me also add that the ending of this film gives an entirely new (and rather eerie) meaning to the common slasher film cliché of the “final girl”…