Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Sharon Ring
Before I began writing these posts I asked a few genre-friendly people to name monster / bogeyman icons from the last decade or so of mainstream horror cinema. The only two candidates who came up with any degree of regularity were Jigsaw from the Saw movies and Ghostface from the Scream films. This wasn’t particularly surprising. Horror movie tropes have gone through a good many incarnations since the early days of cinema: each generation has brought its own fears and troubles to the screen, each generation endeavouring to create new monsters that best illuminate the human condition at the time. The past decade has seen far fewer monster icons, the trends being more inclined toward unseen fears and a particular liking for more voyeuristic, surveillance and documentary-based film-making.
When Barker’s early films were hitting the cinemas, however, the slasher and stalker sub-genre was hugely popular. The modern trend for this kind of film had begun with Black Christmas (1974), though it was not the first acknowledged slasher movie; as far back as 1932 movies would occasionally take on the theme, more often than not attempting to tackle socio-political issues of their time concerning race and class. The turning point for slasher cinema came with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978. From here on in, horror cinema was rife with stalker bogeymen armed with hooks, knives, chainsaws and any other tool capable of delivering the killing blow.
This craze for deranged killers was, in part, the reasoning behind Barker calling Nightbreed a troubled movie. Though the novella had been primarily about its protagonist Boone and his relationship with Lori, and the film was directed to be more about the inhabitants of Nightbreed, much of the actual marketing for the film concentrated on Cronenberg’s character, Decker. Morgan Creek’s attempts to turn Nightbreed into a slasher film, with one executive at the company saying, “‘If you’re not careful, some people are going to like the monsters…”, showed a distinct lack of understanding of Barker’s unique vision of the world of monsters.
Far more sympathetic to Barker’s vision was the writer and director of Candyman, Bernard Rose. Rose approached Barker with a view to shooting one of his short stories, The Forbidden being a particular favourite of Rose’s. He was keen to highlight the social issues Barker had put into the original short story and, where the story was set in a rundown Liverpool housing estate, Bernard, in order to gather the required funding to make the film, changed the setting to a housing project in Chicago, Cabrini Green. This wasn’t an invented housing project, either. Cabrini Green was (most of it has now been demolished) for many years one of the most feared housing projects in America and at one time had the highest murder rate per square foot of land in the entire world. Almost all the exterior shots and stairwell scenes at Cabrini Green were shot on the actual estate; the production team had to negotiate with the project gangs in order to film at the location and many of the extras you see milling around the hallways and stairs are the gang members of that time.
Urban myth is a major theme in both the short story and the eventual film. Rose’s choice of location for Candyman allowed him to document both his interest in disenfranchisement and urban decay, and also the fundamental need of people living in such communities to create myths and mores which serve to bind them as a community and act as a warning to those from outside their environment. The film’s protagonist, Helen, and her friend, Bernadette, are studying urban myths for their doctorates. Helen’s husband, Trevor, has one scene where he is teaching a roomful of college students about urban myth, calling them, “our unselfconscious reflection of the fears of urban society”.
After Helen and Bernadette hear about the Candyman story being linked to Cabrini Green they travel to the project to check out stories of a local murder attributed to him. Again, Rose took elements of Cabrini Green history to push the Candyman myth. In the film the murder of Ruthie-Jean is said to have happened as part of a design flaw in the building of the apartments. By removing the bathroom cabinet and pushing through the cabinet in the adjoining apartment, the murderer was able to climb into Ruthie-Jean’s home and kill her. This was an actual design flaw in the real Cabrini Green buildings, a flaw which had allowed a murder to take place some years before the film was made.
As with all the best urban myths there is a back story to the world of Candyman. Before he was Candyman the killer mythologised by the Cabrini Green tenants was known as Daniel Robitaille, the son of a slave who had grown up in polite society. Working as an artist, creating family portraits, Daniel met and fell in love with the daughter of a landowner. When the woman became pregnant with Daniel’s child, the landowner paid a group of men to torture and kill Daniel, the final act of Daniel’s punishment for crossing the boundaries of race and class to scatter his ashes across Cabrini Green. Everything needed to create the Candyman myth is present in the telling of Daniel’s story: a tragic love tale, the breaking of ‘the rules’, the sawing off of his right hand (to be replaced by a hook, essential slasher tool), being covered in honey (‘Sweets to the sweet’), being stung to death by bees (bees feature prominently in later scenes between Candyman and Helen), the funeral pyre and, finally, the scattering of his ashes to cement Candyman’s eternal connection with the land on which Cabrini Green stands. Candyman revels in his own mythology, telling Helen, “I am rumour. 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.”
The three films I’ve covered in these posts are all strong love and seduction stories. In Hellraiser we have the story of Frank and Julia; in Nightbreed we have Boone and Lori’s story; and in Candyman we have the legend of Daniel and his original lover plus the seduction tale of Candyman and Helen. The theme of seduction is, perhaps, most overt in this last film. Daniel becomes a mythical killer, the slasher monster of the movie, because of love but he must be invited into the world of each victim for that killing to take place. The empty apartment covered in graffiti, the razor-laced candies, the stories of death and fear are all the means by which Candyman is both reviled and revered by of the Cabrini Green residents. Several times he asks Helen to surrender to him, to be his victim. Asking for surrender is his means of asking for complicity in the act, reflecting his desire to be worshipped by the residents of Cabrini Green, and especially by Helen, who has lessened him in the eyes of his “congregation”.
The religious subtext is equally strong in Hellraiser and Nightbreed. The ascetic qualities of the Cenobites, who are all a part of the Order of the Gash, and the lost tribe mentality of the Nightbreed, who worship a deity called Baphomet, are comparable to Cabrini Green’s worship of Candyman. The Cenobites are governed by rules set by The Engineer, chaining them to the machinations of the Lament Configuration. The Nightbreed have survived into modern times because of their adherence to laws set down by Baphomet. The residents of Cabrini Green have, through over a century of rumour and fear, created a minor deity of their own, complete with his own rules of reverence and summoning, transforming a murdered lover into an eternal bogeyman.
Transformation is at the heart of much of Barker’s fiction. In a South Bank special on Barker, aired in 1994, he said, “I usually paint people in some transformed state or other. Either they’re on their way to being transformed or they are transformed.” I’d say this is true no only of his written work but also of the adaptation of his work from prose to cinema.
In Hellraiser we have a quartet of transformed creatures whose calling is to transform the flesh of pleasure-seeking humans. We also have Julia transforming from unhappy wife to love-struck killer as well as Frank’s transformation from flesh to a beating heart under the floorboards then back to flesh. In Nightbreed many of the Breed are able to transform at will, showing their more human faces at times, turning to smoke or demon at others, their protean flesh unbound by the laws of the naturals. There is also Boone’s transformation from natural to Breed and Decker’s seesawing between trusted doctor and messianic murderer.
In Candyman the transformation takes the form of deification. Rather than leave the viewer hanging on until the end of the film to discover the history of Candyman, it’s only thirty minutes into the narrative when Daniel’s brutal torture and murder is related to Helen. The creation of the Candyman myth is the story of how both gods and monsters (entities with far more similarities than differences) are made and it is told with the unhidden pleasure of making us, as with the Nightbreed, care about the monster. Candyman, in turn, transforms Helen, making her both monster and legend as he tells her, “Our names will be written on a thousand walls, our crimes told and retold by our faithful believers.”
These three films, and the original stories on which they are based, represent much of what makes Barker’s take on monsters so very special. Starting with Hellraiser he creates confusion over who we are meant to see as the monster, even creating a sense of ambiguity and alluring mystery around the flesh-tearing Cenobites. In Nightbreed we move on to a more open siding with the monsters; our sympathies are deliberately steered in their favour as we are shown that sometimes the real monsters exist in our own world, in the very people we believe we can trust. Finally, in Candyman, we’re shown that not only do monsters exist in our own world but we act as their creators through our own monstrous behaviour; we give birth to the very things we fear the most and then feed those fears through myth and storytelling.
We are, perhaps, a little bit in love with monsters, even jealous of their abilities and dismissal of the usual rules of society. As one of the Nightbreed says, “To be able to fly, to be smoke, or a wolf… To know the night and live in it forever, that’s not so bad. You call us monsters but when you dream, you dream of flying and changing and living without death. You envy us and what you envy…”
[With thanks to Phil and Sarah Stokes. Their website has proved an invaluable resource for the writing of these posts.]