Part of my goal with Terminal Device, as I suggested in this earlier post and others, is to consider mainstream film images of upper-body amputees. Some of these images derive from horror films; the hook-wearing monster is arguably iconographic in the genre. I’m operating on a few assumptions in my critique, based on viewing as many films as I can that feature one-armed characters, from Howard Hawks’s Tiger Shark (1932), to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013 ).*
My basic assumptions are: with some important exceptions (like William Wyler’s intricate, humane, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)), upper-extremity amputees are generally portrayed as villains; many of these characters’ terminal devices are hooks; often these hooks are more or less impractical for anything other than impaling people; the villains are cartoon-like in their simplicity, flatness and narrative role, even if the film is live-action.
Some of these basic assumptions are confirmed in Bernard Rose‘s horror film, Candyman (1992). Amputee as bad guy: check. Amputee as homicidal maniac: check. Impractically large, unwieldy, non-opening—and therefore no good for clasping things—hook: check. Add in this fact; like Tee Hee in To Live and Let Die, the villain in Candyman is black. In the world of stereotypical cinema villains, that constitutes double jeopardy!
So yes, the makers of Candyman are guilty of indulging in cliché. But while confirming these assumptions of stereotype, the film also ‘troubles’ them, to put it academically. Indeed the film and Candyman, the character, trouble them in complex, highly intriguing ways. As a whole, and among other things, the film adds up to a meditation on the persistence of racial injustice, the ‘horror’ of miscegenation, sex and its paradoxical linkage of pleasure with pain/ death (“Be my victim…” as an invitation both to congress and to immortality), and the hook as explicit stand-in for the phallus. This, dear reader, is one weird, wild and wooly film that operates with a dream-logic to create its own, very particular world.
Oh, it also involves bees. I think this is a thematic element that isn’t necessarily completely worked out or successful, but it does underpin an amazingly frightening, deeply repulsive yet fascinating lovemaking scene; a unique, truly and utterly nightmare-like, tour de force. As a New York Times critic said of the actors in this scene, the wonderful lead, Virginia Madsen, and her nemesis/ lover, Tony Todd, “whatever they were paid, it wasn’t enough.”
I was honestly, pleasantly surprised by Candyman. I count it among the best works in the oft dismal, one-armed-guy film canon (I can readily name the ones at the low end of my scale too, possibly starting with Spielberg’s execrable Hook). Candyman is a film grounded in sometimes strange, wonderful performances. Its look is at times classic cinema-worthy; there are close-ups of Madsen lit with a soft-focus intensity that evoked memories of von Sternberg‘s work with Marlene Dietrich. And Candyman sounds fantastic; score by Philip Glass, anyone? If you can stomach a bit of the violently gory in your cinematic diet, I highly recommend it.
Coda: Apparently there are a couple of sequels that create what became a Candyman franchise. I haven’t seen them. Neither of the two follow-up films was directed by Bernard Rose, nor were they shot by Candyman director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond. The second film, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, features a score by Philip Glass, however. I wonder whether the sequels succeed in troubling the hook-wearing-villain stereotype as the first film in the franchise does?
*I could certainly program a One-Armed-Guy Film Festival that would last at least a week or three, but I’m open to suggestions about any titles that I might have missed.