INTERVIEW / The sweet smell of excess: Bernard Rose has an oral fixation: Kevin Jackson talked to him about the appetites behind his new horror film, Candyman

Bernard Rose
Saturday 13 March 1993 01:02 GMT

Here is your starter for 10: where would you find the following well-known phrase or saying: 'Out of the strong came forth sweetness'? Yes, absolutely right: on a tin of Lyle's Golden Syrup, underneath the drawing of a recumbent lion (more than recumbent, dead) surrounded by a swarm of bees. And for another five points, where does the. . . well interrupted, Pembroke: it is, as I'm sure you all knew, Judges 14:14 - 'Out of the eater came forth meat, And out of the strong came forth sweetness'. Finally, what connection, apart from the generic idea of sugaryness, do that tin and those verses have with a slick new horror film by the name of Candyman?

Answer: quite a few, really. First of all, there's the name of its heroine, Helen Lyle (played by Viginia Madsen), which was going to be Helen Tate until someone pointed out the uncomfortable echo of Roman Polanski's wife Sharon Tate, the victim of a real-life monster. Then there are the many similarities between the film's villain and the story of Samson, from which the image of the lion and the bees is taken. Samson lived at a time when the children of Israel had been delivered into the hands of the Philistines; Candyman, born in America in the 19th century, was the child of black slaves.

Samson dismayed his parents by taking a Philistine wife, pausing only to slay the young lion whose carcass then bred bees and ran with honey; Candyman outraged bigots by his love for a white woman, and was murdered by being smeared with honey and staked out for the killer bees. And so on. Even these few details should be enough to suggest that there are some rum things going on in the crannies and nooks of this spooky thriller, which arrives in Britain next week bearing a couple of minor festival awards and around dollars 30 million in box office receipts.

The real clue to Candyman's more incongruous notes is not so much the Bible as the quintessential Britishness of the Tate & Lyle lion, since - despite its Chicago setting, all-American cast and financing and even a score by Philip Glass - the film is the brainchild of two youngish expatriate Englishmen, the horror novelist Clive Barker, who also acted as Executive Producer, and the director Bernard Rose (more sojourners in the land of the cinematic Philistines, snobs might say, though Rose, who remembers the pasting his last British film Chicago Joe and the Showgirl took at the hands of our press, would want to argue about the true location of Philistia).

In some respects, the release of Candyman over here is timely: it might just reap some critical benefit from the wave of mingled jubilation and ruefulness which has greeted the strong British showing in this year's Oscar nominations. On the other hand, the film is not just eerie, but leering in its violence - Candyman has a sharp hook for a hand and the fact that he's made of ectoplasm doesn't seem to stop him slicing his way through human bone and sinew like Jason, Michael, Henry, Hannibal and all the other too, too solid slashers of the Eighties and Nineties. He is just the kind of demon, in short, to give Mr Major nasty dreams and supply fresh ammunition to the Hollywood-is-Driving-Us-Psycho school.

Bernard Rose is, predictably enough, scornful about those who create scares about movies rather than petrify audiences with them. 'One of the things I like about making horror films is that there's a certain amount of freedom about them - people don't have to hug and kiss each other at the end, and say 'I love you Mom', it doesn't have to have a positive message. You hear people saying movies should be responsible; I think they should be irresponsible. It's always seemed to me monstrous arrogance that people are going to see your movie and come out the better for it. I'd rather they came out worse.'

An uncomfortable quip to make in this nervy climate, no doubt, but also a fair reminder that a lot of the agonisers about screen violence haven't yet paid much attention to how far distinctions should be drawn between realistic horror stories of the Portrait of a Serial Killer type and tales of the uncanny such as Candyman. Fortunately for Rose's career, other pressure groups do seem to draw such distinctions. When Candyman was in pre-production, its backers began to grow uneasy about the possibility that making a film about a black monster would be seen as racist.

'I had to go and have a whole set of meetings with the NAACP, because the producers were so worried, and what they said to me when they'd read the script was 'Why are we even having this meeting? You know, this is just good fun.' Their argument was 'Why shouldn't a black actor be a ghost? Why shouldn't a black actor play Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lector? If you're saying that they can't be, it's really perverse. This is a horror movie. . .' '

The NAACP judgement now looks rather shrewd, and not simply because Candyman has proved to be very popular with black audiences. Apart from the fact that he is undead and has an unpleasant way with a hook, the Candyman really has quite a few of the attributes of a Positive Role Model. Played by the imposing Tony Todd, he is not only dark, but tall and handsome; a (literally) tortured artist; and a hopeless romantic, very much in the mould of Gary Oldman's Dracula.

Candyman's African ancestry and the ghetto townscape he haunts - the Cabrini Green housing project - were introduced to the original scheme of Clive Barker's short story 'The Forbidden' when Rose set about adapting it. The setting of 'The Forbidden' is Barker's home town, Liverpool, and, as Rose puts it 'the Candyman there has a much less explicit back story (the screenwriter's term for events that take place before the film begins), he just turns up. The first thing I did was to substitute a racial element for the English theme of class.'

Rose has, however, not simply retained the short story's main gimmick but worked out a new set of variations on it. 'The Forbidden' and Candyman both concern anthropologists who are investigating urban myths of the Vanishing Hitchhiker or Poodle in the Microwave variety, and discover the myth of the Candyman, a spook who will come and kill you if you look into a mirror and speak his name five times. Rose spent some time collecting such myths - Candyman's hook is a nod to one of the best-known, about the couple who find said implement embedded in the side of their car after a narrow squeak on lover's lane - and constructed his screenplay as a virtual anthology of the most popular ones.

'Every major sequence in the film is based on one of these myths - the line I most regretted losing from the screenplay was about a certain well- known film star and a certain furry rodent, which has no basis whatsoever in fact, but it had to go. There's the one about the person who is in the bonfire when it's lit, there's the whole branch of urban mythology about people who have been eaten from inside by bees or spiders or earwigs, there's the idea of looking into the mirror and invoking something by speaking its name, there are all the ones about retribution for unfaithful husbands or wives - cement in the car or whatever.

'What all this really goes to prove is that the tradition of oral storytelling is very much alive, especially when it's a scary story. And the biggest urban legend of all for me was the idea that there are places in cities where you do not go, because if you go in them something dreadful will happen - not to say that there isn't danger in ghettos and inner city areas, but the exaggerated fear of them is an urban myth.'

At any rate, Rose and his crew experienced few problems when they went location shooting in Cabrini Green during daylight hours - 'Saturday night might have been dangerous'. Rose even goes so far as to say that the business of filming Chicago was much easier than filming in England, 'where if you want to shoot in the streets you have to get the personal permission of the Queen'. Moreover, the architectural history and town planning of Chicago play quite a significant part in the film's plot, which is why it opens with an extraordinary aeriel camera sweep across the city. 'We did that with an incredible new machine called the Skycam, which can shoot up to a 500mm lens with no vibration; you've never seen that shot before, at least not done that smoothly.'

All those 'dynamic' cityscapes and co-operative local authorities add yet more incentives for Rose to continue working in the States, where the lucrative prospect of Candyman 2 is already being dangled before him - though there is, he says, a strong possibility that his next project could involve a return to the old country.

In the meantime, the case of Candyman is yet more proof that the late British film industry is enjoying a hectic afterlife in Hollywood, and we can take a few crumbs of comfort from unearthing the buried hints of Englishness that pop up even in Rose's Chicago show. A rude joke about Colin MacCabe of the British Film Institute, for example ('Have you read the latest MacCabe?' 'Yes, it's absolute rubbish'), or the way in which its heroine has been photographed in the posture familar to anyone who knows Millais's portrait of Ophelia. It's because of Gertrude's funeral speech at the poor girl's funeral in Hamlet, you see: 'Sweets to the sweet'.

Candyman opens next Friday.

(Photograph omitted)

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