Over the last few months multiplatform distributor 88 Films has added two memorable, and potentially controversial, horror sequels to its expanding range of new releases. The first of these, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh was Bill Condon’s divisive follow-up to Clive Barker’s iconic tale of obsession and revenge from beyond the grave, while the second is Katt Shea’s critically maligned 1999 teen thriller The Rage: Carrie 2. Although these films are radically different in terms of their themes, tone and iconography, both are emblematic of the ways in which horror franchises were expanded, reimagined and revitalized during the 1990s.
Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (Dir. Bill Condon, 1995)
When I was a child, The Candyman was an urban legend. The film itself had acquired a legendary status in playground conversations about the scariest, most indelibly blood-soaked movies currently lining the shelves of our local video rental store. Children would confess to, or boast about, having seen it; stealing copies from parents and older siblings. Those who hadn’t seen it were left to imagine the abject excesses of its gruesome eviscerations. Second-hand accounts of the film’s grotesqueries proliferated amongst children whose cousins or neighbours had purportedly seen the film. At the same time, the Candyman himself had entered the realm of childhood myth. It was whispered at recess, between games of tip-the-can, that those brave enough to mutter his name five times while standing before a mirror could summon the vengeful, hook-handed spirit himself. Much like the invocation of Bloody Mary, I was too afraid to try it. Yet, for all the fear he generated in our young minds, the story of the Candyman is nothing less than a tragedy on a grand, even operatic, scale. In the original 1992 film (directed by Bernard Rose), we learn that the restless, brutal spectre of the Candyman haunts Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects in an attempt to avenge his own brutal murder at the hands of a racist nineteenth-century lynch mob. Based on a short story by Clive Barker, The Candyman is a unique entry in the corpus of mainstream horror cinema. Its ostensible antagonist is neither a soulless monster nor a sadistic mass murderer. Rather, he is a complex and nuanced figure whose violent acts are a symbolic echo of America’s historical racism and the legacy of slavery. Like many works of African-American fantastic fiction (think Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred or Toni Morrison’s Beloved), The Candyman presents the trauma of slavery and racist violence as so incomprehensibly vast that it eschews realistic representation and can only be expressed through works of fantasy in which the world as we know it is radically disrupted and reality ruptured in increasingly disturbing ways.
Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh was released in 1995, and it seems strange that such a singular, haunting tale would produce a sequel at all. Unsurprisingly, the sequel was largely derided, and it is generally considered to be an inferior regurgitation of the original film’s major themes and plot points. However, despite some unnecessary reiterations of narrative structures and character archetypes from its 1992 predecessor, Farewell to the Flesh is nevertheless an atmospheric exploration trauma and revenge. Like its predecessor, the film effectively employs an unsettling score by Philip Glass, while the incomparable Tony Todd resumes his role as the eponymous villain. Although directorial duties have been passed to a new filmmaker, the filmmaker in question is Bill Condon, who would later direct the stunning horror biopic Gods and Monsters (1998), and his handling of the material is more than capable. One of the most controversial deviations from the Candyman is the sequels relocation from urban Chicago to the dense, humid environs of New Orleans. Jettisoning the Cabrini-Green setting that was so integral to its precursor certainly seems like stripping the film of its heart, as the marginalisation and pervasive inequality generated by early 1990s urban ghettoization provided an essential parallel to the more overt, violent racism experienced by the Candyman at the end of the nineteenth century. However, the relocation to the deep South is ultimately effective: it allows the film to delve further into the legacy of antebellum slavery, on a thematic level, while also enabling Condon to exploit, on a visual level, the carnivalesque decadence of the city’s infamous Mardi Gras celebrations. The film is very much bracketed by carnival preparations and there is a sense of inevitability as New Orleans awaits both a threatened rainstorm and the debauchery of its annual Fat Tuesday licentiousness. Throughout the film, a largely unseen, Bacchus-like radio DJ reminds the citizens of the Big Easy that they are on the cusp of an orgiastic release: carnival is coming, the last depraved respite before the strictures and fasts of Lent, and the order of the world will be inverted, chaos will reign. Connecting the carnival preparations to the brewing storm, the DJ – broadcasting under the pseudonym Kingfish – informs his listeners that the banks of the Mississippi are “ready to spill their seed”.
This sense that something dark, some repressed desire, is fermenting in the antique, moss-strewn streets of old New Orleans is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film. Condon utilises his location wonderfully, dredging up the ghosts of the Mississippi and casting the mansions of the opulent Garden District as sinister monuments to the city’s dark history. As such, Farewell to the Flesh retains The Candyman’s preoccupation with racial inequality made manifest as spectral violence. New Orleans, deep in the American South and close to the plantations of the Caribbean, has a long and excessively brutal connection to the slave trade, and in Condon’s film the legacy of slavery is palpable in both the declining ghettos inhabited by a largely African-American underclass and in the resplendent mansions of city’s elite. The Candyman’s origin is reimagined for this new film and its new context. Rather than being the son of a free, and wealthy, African American businessman, as he was in the original film, he is here depicted as the child of slaves. Still a talented artist, he falls in love one his subjects, the daughter of an affluent landowner. When their affair is discovered, he is tortured: his painting-hand brutally severed and replaced with a hook, his body smeared with honey and ravaged by bees. The violence of his death is excessive, sadistic and almost beyond belief, but in reality, slaves were regularly tortured as punishment for various transgressions. Those who tried to escape sometimes had digits amputated as a punitive measure. The violent death that spawned the Candyman legend is therefore representative of a too-often unacknowledged history of an abuse and oppression.
While the most obvious manifestation of the historical horrors that refuse interment is the Candyman himself, it is clear from the outset that New Orleans is a city defined by racial inequality and tormented by barely contained memories of slavery. In the opening scene, necessary exposition – a recap of the first film – is provided by a rather disposable visiting academic, Professor Purcell (Michael Culkin). As part of a successful book tour, Purcell visits New Orleans to speak about his latest book on the Candyman. In the first moments of the film, we see him – a white academic, speaking to a predominantly white audience – and emphasising his belief he that the Candyman is nothing more than an urban legend. Essentially, he mocks a belief that is vital to African American folkloric traditions. There is an immense chasm between Purcell and the people whose culture he has profited from. Likewise, later in the film, when a small African-American boy named Matthew (Joshua Gibran Mayweather) goes missing, a police officer expresses relief that the child’s disappearance will mean one less murderer or drug dealer to contend with.
It is in this divided city, this swampy enclave haunted by the horrors of history, that the Candyman manifests, one spectre among many. As always, Tony Todd plays the vengeful spirit with a pathos that somehow exists naturally alongside a grandiose and imposing demeanour. With his origin rewritten, the Candyman’s new object of obsession is Annie Tarrant (Kelly Rowan), a schoolteacher whose wealthy father (Michael Bergeron) was murdered years before and whose alcoholic mother (Veronica Cartwright) is battling cancer. Somewhat predictably, Annie is revealed to be a descendant of the child born to the Candyman and his long-lost love – a “twist” that recalls the first film’s suggestion that protagonist Helen Lyle was the reincarnation of the antagonist’s lover. Although this aspect of the sequel is a clear rethread of the original Candyman, it does make sense within the context of the film and its focus on the lingering trauma of slavery. Annie’s relationship to the Candyman is known by her mother who refuses to acknowledge or accept that her family line was born out of a union between a white woman and a black slave. Instead, this instance of historical miscegenation is hidden away, a terrible family secret secreted in a locked drawer, buried beneath forgotten treasures and ancient mementos. When Annie confronts the Candyman, he tells her, explicitly, that he is a “reflection of their hatred and evil”. While later, during an argument with her mother, Annie implores the older woman to acknowledge her history and the torment of her murdered ancestor, screaming, “You can’t just wash him away with a bottle”. The implication here is that just as Annie’s family, who were themselves slave owners, needs to acknowledge their own ancestry, so too does America need to acknowledge the repressed truth of its own racist history. For if such historical horrors are buried away, secreted, ignored, they will always return in violent and disturbing ways. Trauma so immense cannot simply be forgotten. In the climactic scene of the film, the immense, turbulent Mississippi bursts its banks, and both Annie and the missing child Matthew almost drown in an abandoned slave quarters housed on the grounds of Annie’s ancestral home. The implications here are apparent and beautifully rendered. Like the surging river, those historical horrors that are concealed beneath the surface will burst through, sweeping away the defences we have built to keep them buried. Annie and Matthew are almost swallowed up by the unbearable weight of history.
Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh is, undoubtedly, a reworking of the original. There are obvious similarities between both films: the narrative structures have undeniable parallels; similar characters appear in both, and certain events are repeated with minor alterations. In spite of this, there is something fundamentally alluring about Farewell to the Flesh. There is keen sense of thematic unity. The film focuses on the horrors of slavery and America’s failure to acknowledge its historical trauma; and these themes reverberate throughout the film, echoing through narrative, characterisation and iconography. It is also a wonderfully atmospheric film. As mentioned previously, Condon exploits the eerie antiquity of New Orleans to present us with a city haunted by the past.
88 Films have created a stunning Blu-ray package. The film looks spectacular and the special features are comprehensive. Alongside a beautifully presented limited-edition O-Card slipcase on the first print run, there is also a collector’s booklet by film journalists Dave Wain and Matty Budrewicz (again on the first print run only). There is also an informative audio commentary by director Bill Condon, as well as interviews with actors Tony Todd and Veronica Cartwright and the original theatrical trailer.
The Rage: Carrie 2 (Dir. Katt Shea, 1999)
It is impossible to discuss Katt Shea’s 1999 teen horror film The Rage: Carrie 2 without raising the question of why Brian De Palma’s atmospheric and visually innovative adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel would ever need a sequel. The story of bullied teenager Carrie White psychically dispatching her tormenters and razing her high school to the ground in a spectacular conflagration of flames and anger is self-contained; it is a strange, sorrowful anomaly. The sequel takes place over two decades later and is a clear attempt to capitalise on the revival of teen horror that came in the wake of Scream (1996) and its various imitators. The film’s connection with De Palma’s Carrie is relatively tenuous: it focuses on the convenient figure of Carrie White’s previously unrevealed half-sister Rachel (Emily Bergl), herself a powerful telekinetic, and her attempts to navigate a tumultuous home and school life with the aid of guidance counsellor and original Carrie survivor Sue Snell (Amy Irving). Beyond this, the film is simply the story of a young girl whose psychic traumas and pubertal upheavals manifest as the ability to move objects with her mind. The Rage could easily be a contemporary reimaging of Carrie, or an isolated tale of adolescent torment. The connections to the 1976 original eally only serve to set the film up for a host of unfavourable comparisons to a work that is not only revered as an icon of ‘70s cinema, but is also a regular focus of academic analysis for its portrayal of embodied femininity as a source of abject terror.
The Rage is a strange film, in many ways. It clearly attempts to trace a similar narrative thread as that followed by its predecessor: Rachel is the daughter of a fanatically religious mother, her home life is abusive, and she is tormented in school. Yet, at the same time, the film shies away from the visceral horrors of the original film. Rachel’s mother is committed to an asylum early in the film and while her foster parents are neglectful, and occasionally violent, the hysterical excesses of Carrie’s monstrous mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), are absent from the film. Instead, Rachel’s home life is an unpleasant, yet comparatively standard, cinematic rendition of the American “trailer trash” milieu. Likewise, De Palma’s Carrie, like King’s original novel, was overtly preoccupied with the trauma of menarche and featured not only an overt onscreen representation of menstruation (a subject that is still taboo for many contemporary filmmakers), but utilised images of blood throughout the film as a visual reference to menstrual seepage. Carrie was a film grounded in the horrors of the adolescent experience, the upheavals of bodily and hormonal transformation, and the anxiety inherent in navigating the world through a body that seems awkward, unruly and fundamentally metamorphic. In The Rage the horror of puberty has been excised. The film feels clean and sanitised. At the same time, The Rage fails to match the visual innovation of De Palma’s original, with its slow, and decidedly voyeuristic, opening tracking shot and creative use of split screen to depict Carrie’s psychic abilities during the film’s grotesque climax.
Yet, while The Rage is a fundamentally flawed film, it nevertheless makes some interesting statements about class and gender. While the original film focused on a horrifically abused, socially maladjusted teenager attempting to free herself from the oppressive control of her violently fanatical mother, the sequel’s protagonist has something akin to a normal adolescence. Although her foster parents are sometimes violent and certainly fail to show the girl any affection, she does, nevertheless, have some support structures. The typical ‘90s unpopular teen – think She’s All That or Ten Things I Hate About You – Rachel is effortlessly beautiful and understated with an affinity for alternative rock and a circle of oddball friends. Unlike the original film, it seems somewhat odd that, like her half-sister, Rachel will eventually be driven to murderous revenge. Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) suffered horrific abuse and alienation, while Rachel, despite the difficulties she endures, has a supportive social infrastructure around her. She is not socially maladjusted or naïve in the same way as Carrie, and so the grandiose violence she enacts doesn’t seem like an a natural crescendo to a life lived in pain and loneliness. However, while Rachel’s social integration ultimately makes her descent into madness and murder seem rather incongruous, it is this very sociability that allows the film to make some interesting, and surprisingly relevant, observations about sexuality, class disparity and rape culture.
Rachel’s experience of high school, although characterised by bullying and exclusion, is also enriched by her close friendship with fellow social pariah Lisa (Mena Suvari). In the early part of the film, Lisa dramatically commits suicide by leaping from the roof of the school after discovering that the popular football player to whom she lost her virginity had bedded her as part of an elaborate game of sexual scorekeeping. Disturbingly, this aspect of the film was actually based on a real-life case from the early ‘90s where a group of Californian high school boys known as the Spur Posse were discovered to have used a point system to track of sexual assaults they committed, often against young girls. At the time, police refusal to prosecute the boys, many of whom were popular athletes, drew considerable public condemnation. For a film which seems to exist primarily as an attempt to cash in on the mushrooming late ‘90s horror craze, The Rage is surprisingly sensitive in its treatment of the subject, and the film explicitly condemns the acceptance of sexual assault and exploitation in contemporary culture. Indeed, this condemnation of sexual assault is enfolded within a broader condemnation of aggressive masculinity, as the game of sexual one-upmanship played by members of the football team is presented as an extension of the violent competition demonstrated on the field. There is also a clear sense throughout the Rage that sexual violence is not simply connected to issues of gender inequality – the inevitable product of a society that demonises expressions of female sexuality while simultaneously encouraging sexual aggression amongst men and boys – but that it is also inextricably bound up with class and social standing. In one scene the boy who slept with and then cruelly rejected the underage Lisa is arrested and questioned about the sadistic game. His father – a prominent lawyer – reminds officials that his boy is implicated alongside the sons of the most affluent families in town. Unsurprisingly, the young man is released, and the case is dropped because “boys will be boys.” Rape culture is depicted in The Rage as a ubiquitous and inescapable force. The aggression of entitled young men is nurtured and encouraged, while the trauma experienced by young, often working class, women is seen as mere collateral in the violent, sexually aggressive process of male maturation. In a later scene, Rachel is followed and surveyed suspiciously by a haughty shop assistant in an exclusive cosmetics store, while her wealthy classmate is treated with kindness and respect, earning the freedom to pocket a tube of expensive lipstick unobserved by the pervasive gaze of the elitist saleswoman.
The manner in which The Rage explores rape culture, as well as the intersection of misogyny and classism that allows this culture to flourish, is surprisingly nuanced. Significantly, the film is helmed by a female director, Katt Shea (the creative force behind ‘90s late-night favourite Poison Ivy). Shea’s direction deftly foregrounds a female perspective, and for a horror film grounded in the experience of feminine adolescence, this is an important point of view. Indeed, it is clear that in a number of scenes, Shea intentionally subverts the male perspective of her predecessor, De Palma. Perhaps one of the most famous scenes in Carrie is the slow, voyeuristic opening sequence in which the camera tracks towards the naked Sissy Spacek, slowly and sensuously running her hands over her body as she stands under a steam-enveloped shower. Shea rejects and ultimately undermines the male gaze through which the original film is focalised by presenting numerous scenes of eroticised male nudity, and one locker room sequence wherein overt male nudity clearly signals an inversion of De Palma’s erotic shower room scene from the 1976 original.
In many ways, The Rage: Carrie 2 is a far more interesting film than a haphazard sequel to a 1970s horror classic has the right to be. It certainly has its failings: the violent climax in which Rachel mirrors her half-sister’s brutal telekinetic rampage seems sudden and incongruous considering Rachel’s comparatively well-adjusted social life, and Shea’s attempt to signal the girl’s use of her psychic powers by shifting to monochrome whenever Rachel unleashes her telekinetic abilities lacks the jarring effect of De Palma’s split-screen technique. Yet, despite its myriad of conceptual and aesthetic problems, The Rage is a surprisingly engaging follow-up to a cinematic classic that demonstrates some interesting thematic continuities. Where De Palma’s Carrie centres on the trauma of menarche and the unimaginable horrors of pervasive abuse, Shea’s competent sequel explores a traumatic loss of virginity and the ubiquity of rape culture. Although The Rage lacks the creativity and visceral brutality of the original, it is nevertheless an intriguing exploration of the horrors of adolescent femininity filtered through an explicitly female directorial perspective.
The 88 Films Blu-ray release presents the film in crisp high definition, and the disc comes loaded with amazing special features, including audio commentaries from director Katt Shea and director of photography Donald Morgan. There are also some fantastic bonus features such as an original theatrical trailer and an alternate ending. Although, my favourite thing about this Blu-ray package is the beautiful artwork that features on both the limited-edition slipcase and the interactive menu.