The squandered genius of writer-director Bernard Rose is a subject worthy of a documentary. After some steady work as a hired helmer in British cinema, Rose made his writing-directing debut with 1992's Candyman, a movie that, by all rights, should have been a forgettable B-grade chiller about a ghost who haunts a ghetto, but which I vividly remember seeing in theaters on a double-bill with Steven Seagal's Under Siege. Since I was only 14 at the time, I was very appreciative of Under Siege -- specifically Erika Eleniak's nude scene -- but I was absolutely terrified of Candyman, and remain so to this day. By the time Rose's second film, Immortal Beloved, rolled around, I was already a fan and fell for the lush, full-throated and historically absurd sophomore effort as much as I had for Candyman. Then came 1997's expansive, shot-on-location-in-Russia film adaption of Anna Karenina, starring Sophie Marceau, which took in less than a million dollars at the box-office, effectively ending Rose's Hollywood career just as it was beginning.
Should Rose ever be given entrance into the brass ring again, we can only hope his skills are still sharp enough to make movies like Candyman, which does so many things right I can hardly list them all. This is a horror movie that gets depressing right -- how many movies can hit that note? After you've seen it, you don't feel like you've had a "thrill ride" or a "good scare"-- you feel like the world is a grim, depressing and inescapably hopeless place. The plot: two sociology grad students at the University of Illinois, played by Virginia Madsen and Kasi Lemmons, decide to investigate a locally born urban legend figure known as Candyman (Tony Todd) -- say his name a few times in the mirror and he'll appear and gut you with his hook. Their research leads them to Chicago's Cabrini Green, a notoriously gang-infested housing complex that's sort of like a North Shore Compton, only scarier because it's comprised of dilapidated high-rise buildings with rotting walls and empty staircases that just scream out 'very bad things have happened here.'
Candyman, we learn, was the unfortunate son of a slave during his life and suffered a hideous and unjust death. When he starts to materialize in the film, it's very much as a specter, not as a boogeyman jumping from the netherworld into the real world with a fully-realized agenda and cognition of where he is and who he's chasing, like Freddy Krueger. Being a ghost, he's sort of stuck in a loop, repeating the same gestures and expressing the same thoughts over and over, giving one the impression that he could slide back out of existence as easily as he slid into it. In fact, he can't really exist at all unless he's invited into the world by someone who chooses to say his name over and over again, as the rules require. As Roger Ebert summarized in his review of the film back in '92, "he may literally be a product of the imagination." To have brought such a tenuous concept to life is an enormous achievement by not only Rose, but also composer Philip Glass and cinematographer Anthony Richmond.
One of the best things about Candyman is its subplots -- there's one involving a Cabrini Green mother who is understandably on the verge of losing it, what with trying to pay the bills while having a hook-handed ghost terrorize the neighborhood, and then there's an even better one that's almost just a series of hints more than anything else, but becomes more important later. That one involves Virginia Madsen's philandering husband and the student he's having an affair with behind her back. Bernard Rose 'fills the frame' as they say -- every single moment in Candyman is filled with some kind of tension or dread or depressing event. The atmosphere is so thick with pain and inner turmoil that the very existence of Candyman almost becomes redundant. Why doesn't he leave these poor people alone? Bernard Rose, wherever you are, I think your ten-year sentence in director's jail has been quite enough punishment. It's time to put aside the experimental projects and whatnot and come back to Hollywood. It's time to get back to the business of making movies again.