Archive for the “Spooky Month” Category

Halloween, 1981 ed, Curtis Richards
Today’s entry courtesy Mike Sterling

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Bernard Rose’s Candyman seems, at first glance, an odd choice of film for a “folk horror” review. There’s nothing expressly pagan, nor even neopagan, about the film, and divorcing the film version from the housing estate setting of Clive Barker’s original short story removes even the thin veneer of Britishness that many films of the type exhibit. But to be brutally honest, there’s nothing really “pagan” about most proper folk horror, either. The paganism that exists in those films and stories is a modern interpretation of a pagan past cobbled together from folk tales and legends. And what Candyman is, at its core, is a film about the power of folk tales and legends, as expressed by the modern, “rational” world version of the fairy tale, the urban legend. In that sense, Candyman, like the best works of the genre, is dancing on the same stage but to its own music.

Helen Lyle is a graduate student doing research on urban legends when her professor husband gives his students a lecture on the same subject, tarnishing her research pool. By a happy coincidence, she learns from a custodian at the college that “Candyman”, a hook-handed “Bloody Mary” figure who kills those who say his name five times in a mirror and frequent subject of the stories she has been collecting, killed a woman at the Cabrini Green housing projects. Helen and her research partner go to investigate, where Helen discovers a strange shrine to the Candyman in an abandoned apartment and they speak with the neighbor of the murdered woman. After an obnoxious colleague snidely mocks Helen because he had already written extensively on the Candyman myth, including uncovering its origin, years earlier, Helen returns to Cabrini Green to find a new angle on the story, stumbling into exposing the murderer, a drug dealer who had adopted the trappings of the Candyman in order to scare the Green residents into silence. Soon, though, a figure claiming to be the real Candyman begins stalking Helen, claiming that her actions have caused people to stop believing in him, and that he must kill in order to win back his believers. Helen finds herself framed for several murders and a kidnapping and is incarcerated in a mental hospital, before agreeing to become the Candyman’s victim in exchange for returning the kidnapped baby. In the end both Candyman and Helen are killed in a fire set by the residents of the Green, and the power of belief and myth turn Helen into a new murderous legend.

There’s a lot of the usual Clive Barker tics at work here, particularly faux-transgressive splatter-punk musings about pain and pleasure being linked and erotic fascination with bodily injury, but those are actually the least interesting aspects of the story. What I find most compelling is the material that is handled almost as an aside, despite forming the core of the story, which is how the film deals with the legacy of American racism. Candyman was created by an act of racist violence, and Helen’s world and the housing project are symbolically linked-both buildings are built from the same plan, but a freeway was constructed to keep the project separated from the respectable/white part of town, so Helen’s building was converted into condominiums-and it is only when a white woman is assaulted on the grounds that the police bother to arrest a man that they know is a murderer. But apart from these acknowledgements of racism, there’s also something fundamentally exploitative about what Helen is doing. She’s a white woman exploiting the stories and tragedies of the black community to get ahead in her field. And what eventually destroys Helen is that selfish desire to put herself ahead, to not be “content with stories” but to become part of one. Her tragic mistake is in thinking that she’s the hero, but her actual transformation is in going from victim to villain. She seeks to exploit the past, and only ends up furthering the legacy of destruction.

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While the most obvious and usual aspect of what goes into a “folk horror” film is some sort of pagan aspect, as I’ve mentioned before that largely limits the scope of the genre to Western Europe. And while there is a neopagan tradition in American horror that relates quite nicely to folk horror, it still leaves out a lot of material. For me, one the more compelling thematic elements of the genre is not so much the Celtic trappings and doodads, but the themes of the old ways coming into conflict with the modern, rational world and the old ways triumphing, or at least severely calling into question the strength of the modern world. Though it’s not necessarily an obvious candidate for inclusion into the list of films falling within the genre, I think Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter brings up many of the same issues while incorporating elements of pre-Christian American native religions without getting into the problematic and potentially offensive “Indian burial ground” trope.

The Last Winter opens with a PR film touting a partnership between American oil companies and native tribes to reopen an experimental well in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The head of the base camp, Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman), has just returned from a meeting with the company chiefs to discover that the onsite environmental monitor, James Hoffman (James LeGros), has been on the site for several weeks already. Not only is Hoffman not happy with the amount of permafrost melt he is observing, but Hoffman is sleeping with Abby Sellers. Despite a strong implication that Abby is only sleeping with Hoffman as a form of corporate espionage, the political and sexual conflict between the men fuels an ongoing antagonism that heightens the physical and mental deterioration of the crew members who have come into contact with the experimental well. Hoffman is convinced that the combination of drilling and melting permafrost has released “sour gas”, a prehistoric poison, while the native crew members scare the white folk with stories of the Wendigo. That oil is, in a sense, merely the remains of creatures that used to rule the world, is a ghost metaphor that frequently occurs to the crew. After several bizarre deaths and accidents, Hoffman and Pollack set out to a nearby ice road camp searching for help, only to discover that the strange events and deaths are not limited to their camp, and that night both are attacked and apparently killed by prehistoric spirits. The next day, Abby wakes in an abandoned hospital in a nearby town, sees a news report of global devastation occurring, and walks out to meet her fate.

Fessenden’s film mostly works as a particularly effective apocalyptic eco-horror parable, and good performances and fantastic cinematography drive that home, much better than the more than slightly heavy-handed debates on conservation versus American exceptionalism that Pollack and Hoffman engage in. And while it doesn’t fit the broad strokes of the folk horror genre, the film does heavily suggest that the events we see are the natural consequence of not only ignoring the “old ways” but of actually exploiting them in a disrespectful way. While the film makes no bones, eventually, as to the supernatural nature of the events that unfold, it does play cagey over what the exact nature of the “spirits” that bring about the end of the world are; whether they are wendigo or the ghosts of prehistoric beasts. I also especially like that the film acknowledges the notion of sacred spaces for Native American religion but avoids the racist “burial ground” trope that conflates those sacred spaces with evil. In that sense, the film almost works as something of a post-colonial riff on the themes behind folk horror; that it is the failure of the “civilized” white man’s world to acknowledge indigenous people’s understanding of their land that destroys the land.

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Into the Pit, Warner Lee

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