Featuring a selection of highly anticipated films, the 2020 BFI Film Festival presented online premieres as well as screenings in cinemas around the UK.
See our look at some of the films featured at this year’s festival
– click on the film title to see our review.
An absorbing watch, with standout central performances and an evocative sense of place and time.
A coldly pristine examination of violence and identity, POSSESSOR tells its story with slick confidence, featuring excellent performances and an arresting visual palette.
Relic blends the haunted house with body horror, in an unnerving story that gradually builds to a tense and emotional climax that stays with you long after the film is over.
Though not a biopic in the traditional sense, with a compelling performance in the title role the film captures the spooky, dreamlike atmosphere of Jackson’s writing.
BFI Film Festival 2020 trailer
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean
Words – Nathan Scatcherd
Considering his lineage, it’s no surprise that Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor adheres to certain adjectives: nightmarish; gruesome; visceral and yet strangely delicate, its explosions of violence and corporeal horror all the more unsettling for their intimacy. A coldly pristine examination of violence and identity which cribs perhaps too liberally from the senior Cronenberg’s work, Possessor nonetheless tells its story with slick confidence, featuring excellent performances and an arresting visual palette.
Andrea Riseborough is Tas, an assassin who gains access to her targets through possessing the bodies of those closest to them. Working under her enigmatic handler (Leigh), Tas is assigned a job which involves her possessing the body of a young man (Abbott) in order to take out his girlfriend and her mega-rich corporation-owning father (Bean, playing a complete bastard and obviously having some fun with it).
What follows is an insight into an apparently long-brewing personal disintegration; Tas regularly becomes other people and, as such, gradually struggles to be herself. She rehearses how to engage in small talk with her husband and young son; she obsessively analyses her target’s speech patterns ahead of the possession, to more effectively ‘be’ them for a while. Identity is an unstable, slippery, easily fractured thing, and as various complications arise on the job, Tas and the man she has possessed begin to battle for psychic dominance.
Much of the film is a two-hander between Riseborough and Abbott, and both are excellent, conveying much with a change of posture or rearrangement of facial expression. As the film is increasingly swallowed in gory sci-fi horror weirdness, their performances elevate too, becoming all the more unhinged and manic. The cast is fairly small and not a single bad performance is given, but the two principle leads are particularly deserving of attention here.
Possessor skilfully creates an air of seething tension and dread, occasionally punctuated by wince-inducing violence and sequences of fleshy, hallucinogenic horror which feel ripped straight from Videodrome. This is perhaps the film’s biggest issue; as entertaining and well-crafted as Possessor is, watching the film I ultimately couldn’t escape a nagging sense that it is – stylistically and thematically – very similar to the output of the elder Cronenberg. It’s like watching an excellent tribute band who has meticulously studied every facet of their inspiration’s work… but they’re still not quite the real thing. Perhaps, considering the film’s plot, this is appropriate; the spirit or psyche of the father working through the son.
Highfalutin conjecture aside, Possessor is solid, creepy, beautifully composed but ultimately unsurprising. It’s certainly worth the time of any self-confessed body horror/dark sci-fi fan (and no doubt someone’s eventual gateway into said interests), but offers little in the way of surprises. This year, maybe that’s actually something to be thankful for.
Director: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti
Words – Carly Stevenson
The first thing to note about Shirley is that it is not a biopic. At least not in the traditional sense. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley focuses on a fictitious scenario involving American novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and a young couple named Fred and Rosie Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman).
The premise is as follows: Shirley’s husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) invites the Nemsers to stay in their home for a short period while Fred settles into his new teaching post at Bennington College, where Stanley works as a professor.
The film opens with a shot of Rose reading Jackson’s notorious short story ‘The Lottery’ on the train journey to Vermont. Aroused by the macabre tale of civic barbarism, Rose initiates a bathroom rendezvous with Fred. A signal that, beneath her veneer of politeness, Rose is not a conservative housewife. Their fervent lovemaking serves as a sharp contrast to the sterility of Shirley and Stanley’s relationship. Plagued with bouts of depression and writer’s block, Shirley spends hours in bed chain-smoking while Stanley openly pursues other women. He looks after Shirley when she takes a bad turn, but he also infantilises her and relentlessly critiques her work.
Throughout the film, Shirley is presented as co-dependent and volatile. Her only sources of excitement seem to be drinking excessively and misbehaving at social gatherings. At first, Shirley is hostile towards the Nemsers and she conspires with Stanley to make their lives difficult. However, as time passes, she comes to rely on Rose and the two women form an unlikely attachment. Intrigued by Shirley’s writing process, Rose attempts to help Shirley research her new novel, which is inspired by the disappearance of a local girl.
Shirley is set almost entirely within the domestic sphere. There are a few woodland and campus scenes, but for the most part, we are confined inside the house. This location clearly reflects the stifling expectations imposed upon women during this period. Like Shirley and Rose, the audience are hemmed in and forced to endure the monotonous scenery.
Elisabeth Moss gives a compelling performance in the title role. Even when Shirley behaves in a way that is manipulative and callous, we never lose sight of her vulnerability. What is less compelling is the ways in which the film leans into stereotypical notions of neurotic female genius. For some, the name Shirley Jackson is synonymous with the idea of morbid and ‘unhinged’ female creativity (see also: Jackson’s contemporary, Sylvia Plath). It is true that Jackson was reclusive (the word we often give to people who don’t suffer fools gladly); it is also true that she struggled with mental ill health; but she also raised four children whilst earning a living as a prolific writer – a feat that is curiously missing from this portrait.
Nevertheless, the film captures the spooky, dreamlike atmosphere of Jackson’s writing well. Rose resembles the haunted women of Jackson’s novels and her crisis at the end of the film is presented as a kind of epiphany rather than a tragic spiral into ‘madness’. In very different ways, both Shirley and Rose eschew the rigid gender expectations of the time and emerge with a greater sense of their own agency.
Director: Natalie Erika James
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Words – Daniel McMonagle
Nothing is more harrowing than experiencing the death of the ones we love. Relic, the feature debut of Australian-Japanese director Natalie Erika James, blends a haunted house story with body horror to delve into themes of death and decay.
Relic follows a mother and daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and Sam (Bella Heathcote), who set out to take care of Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) in her countryside home. At first, Edna is nowhere to be found and Kay and Sam gradually realise that something is very wrong with her. The house has become dilapidated, walls are leaking and rotting, alarming post-it notes are scattered around the house and ominous pounding noises can be heard through the walls.
After a failed search party, Edna finally appears, but she is unable to explain where she has been or why she has suddenly developed a mysterious mark on her chest that starts to grow and spread to the rest of her body. From this point, we are slowly immersed in a world of portentous shapes, creeping mould spores and images of decomposition.
Robyn Nevin expertly performs Edna’s transformation from frightened and confused elderly woman into a violent and unpredictable creature who seems to possess unnatural physical strength. Sam is a warm and likeable character and Bella Heathcote gives a compelling performance as Edna’s grief-stricken granddaughter, but it is Emily Mortimer as Kay who stands out. Mortimer’s performance accurately captures the distressing emotions felt by anyone who has had to witness a loved one become a stranger.
Relic is a slow-paced, unnerving mood piece that gradually builds to a tense and emotional climax. The art and production design are a worthy highlight: grotty interiors mixed with eerie diegetic sounds evoke a nauseating sense of place that oozes gothic atmosphere. Edna’s home doesn’t make geographical sense and the hidden corridors, contracting walls and creaky rooms create a pervading sense of claustrophobia throughout. Water constantly leaks and drips, the walls bang and fold into themselves and black mould spreads rapidly as Edna’s condition worsens. The cluttered, volatile and darkening house serves as a visual metaphor for Edna’s deteriorating mind.
There are echoes of Hereditary (which was released whilst Relic was being written) in this intergenerational horror. The film also shares similar themes with The Babadook – in particular, the way in which mental illness is depicted as a type of possession. Moreover, there are echoes of David Cronenberg’s early body horror films, particularly The Brood.
Relic is ultimately an exploration of what we inherit from our families and how we process grief, a metaphor for diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. The bond between the three generations of women make the ending unusual for a horror film as it moves from terror to empathy, climaxing with a final scene that stays with you long after the film is over.
The BFI Film Festival is the UK’s premiere platform for welcoming international storytellers, featuring a selection of highly anticipated films.
Taking place October 7th – 18th, this year’s festival will be its most accessible ever, presenting over 50 online premieres as well as screenings in cinemas around the UK, offering audiences a unique chance to engage with the festival in different ways.
See the cinemas across the UK taking part in this year’s festival here:
With some truly standout films coming in 2020, see our pick of 5 films to see at the festival and beyond…
The latest feature from Brandon Cronenberg (son of revered director David Cronenberg), Possessor is a sci-fi horror-thriller which garnered widespread praise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Following the elite, corporate assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), as brain-implant technology allows her to take control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets.
While she holds a special gift for the work, her experiences have caused a dramatic change in her, and as her mental strain intensifies, she begins to lose control, as she soon finds herself trapped in the mind of a man whose identity threatens to obliterate her own.
From director Chloe Zhao, whose feature film The Rider stood out as one of the best films of 2018, Nomadland explores life outside conventional society.
Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern (Frances McDormand) packs her van and sets off on the road exploring life through the vast landscape of the American West.
Adapted from the 2017 non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder – Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film features real nomads Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells as Fern’s mentors and comrades in her exploration of the vast expanse of the Western United States.
Director Bassam Tariq’s debut fiction feature, stars Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Star Wars: Rogue One), drawing from his own musical background and British-Pakistani roots to deliver a personal performance in a film about a fierce MC on the cusp of a major tour and commercial success, whose dreams of global fame are cut-down by an autoimmune disease.
A sharp examination of cultural heritage, identity politics, family and the impact of physical illness, Mogul Mowgli is an honest evocation of the British-Asian experience.
The Opening Film for this year’s BFI Film Festival, ‘Mangrove’ from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, Widows, Shame) is the true story of the Mangrove 9, a group of Black activists who were arrested for leading the protest and changed British history by taking a stand against racial discrimination.
The Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill doubled as a community centre for Black Londoners, as police brutality and harassment intensified, the Mangrove also became a site of resistance, leading to a historic protest against police harassment.
‘Mangrove’ is one of five Small Axe films by Steve McQueen.
From Francis Lee, director of the phenomenal God’s Own Country, Ammonite is the Closing Film for this year’s BFI Film Festival.
In the 1840s, acclaimed palaeontologist Mary Anning works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis.
As Mary is entrusted to care for a young woman dealing with a personal tragedy, she clashes with her unwanted guest, as the two women inhabit utterly different worlds.
Yet despite the differences in their social spheres and personalities, the two discover they can each offer what the other has been searching for, as they develop an intense relationship altering both of their lives forever.
See the full programme and browse through this year’s feature films here:
screening details can be found on each title page.
The entire BFI Film Festival Short Film Programme will be free to watch on BFI Player, you can see the programme here:
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Himesh Patel
Words – Daniel McMonagle
2020 has been one of the cruellest years for cinema on record. Unlike many films rescheduled, shelved and sold off to streaming services, the latest feature from Christopher Nolan is too big and expensive to go straight into the digital land of video on demand. With the ongoing pandemic, Tenet has been seen as the film to save the reopening of cinemas…
Fortunately, Tenet exceeds expectations and delivers everything audiences could want from a film of this magnitude. Returning collaborators such as cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley have crafted what looks and sounds like the most “Nolan” film experience yet. With bombastic scenes running back and forth, we follow the unnamed protagonist played very charismatically by John David Washington, accompanied by Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, as they try to prevent the start of World War 3 by a Russian Oligarch played with absolute venom by Kenneth Brannagh.
Time has always been one of the principle themes of Nolan’s films. With Tenet, he explores the concept of time running back and forth on itself as the protagonist is thrust into a world where the future can communicate with the past. Like a lot of key time travel plots, the characters get to explore past events they previously experienced. Reverse footage never looked so exciting than it does here as explosions invert and bullets fly back whilst character motivations and plot twists are unveiled in a non-linear fashion due to the nature of time travel.
Nolan’s films have often been criticised for their heavy reliance on exposition. However, Tenet is actually less exposition-heavy than its closest relative film Inception. We are thrust into events along with the characters and are forced to pick things up as the plot charges along. Razor sharp editing and a propulsive score by Ludwig Goransson ensure a relentlessly up-tempo pace.
Nolan has always expressed an interest in the Bond movies, and we have previously seen hints of this with Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy. Tenet is as close to a Nolan ‘Bond movie’ as we’re ever likely to get, he has taken everything that’s great about James Bond such as globetrotting exotic locations, high stakes plotting and action scenes and given them a science fiction twist. The film is set against the backdrop of some truly outstanding scenery that IMAX takes maximum advantage of. As far as the action scenes play out, this is Nolan’s best work yet. Tenet is full of shoot outs, chases and espionage, all helped by a complete reliance on practical effects.
On first viewing, the plot may seem convoluted and, at times, difficult to follow. However, Tenet is undoubtedly the best movie-going experience of the year that demands multiple viewings.
Director: Lisa Rovner
Narrated By: Laurie Anderson
Words – Natalie Mills
“This is the story of women who hear music in their head. Of radical sounds where there was once silence.”
A full sensory experience, Sisters with Transistors tells the stories of ten women, and how each shaped the future of electronic music, fittingly narrated by Laurie Anderson – composer of the avant-garde classic O Superman.
Our eyes are treated to some incredible analogue technology; the knobs, tape reels and computer screens that make up these women’s worlds, while we’re also shown the workings of their instrumentation. We’re awarded a mind-blowing soundtrack; from Clara Rockmore playing a theremin as gracefully as a violin, to Delia Derbyshire’s creation of the Dr Who theme, and Suzanne Ciani unleashing her synths on The David Letterman Show.
As a woman working in tech, the daughter of a “lady pianist”, and a fan of Fever Ray, I was touched by the film’s subject, being drawn to how electronic music allows you to become faceless. There is much to sit back, listen to and enjoy in Sisters with Transistors, but you’re left with a sense of injustice.
Archive footage, including experimental music videos and old BBC broadcasts, is cut together with contemporary interviews with surviving musicians. It’s as though we’re being told a secret history, and you feel sad for not recognising some of these extraordinary women’s names. The film opens with the voiceover, “The history of women has been a story of silence” and by the end, you understand exactly how electronic music can be used as a tool for female empowerment.
Despite each of the ten composers’ stories being very different – from mathematicians and sound engineers, through to artists and classical musicians – they’re universally drawn to the DIY aspect of electronic music. Being the undeniable sole creator, they have total control over everything they produce.
“The machine doesn’t write the music. You tell the machine what to do and the machine is an extension of you”, explains Laurie Spiegel, creator of Music Mouse software for Mac. She recalls of how she was told she couldn’t become a composer – “Composers were old dead white men”. The pioneers in Sisters with Transistors share of how they were underestimated or ignored, with French composer Eliane Radigue even telling how someone said it was good to have her in the studio because “she smelt nice”. It’s disheartening, and seems a world away from a scene where artists of today like Grimes have space to thrive.
We’re shown of how historically, people were suspicious of electronic music, whatever your gender. It was considered “diabolical” in France, and music made using computers was snubbed by counterculture as belonging to the realm of banks and offices. Bebe Barron’s (together with husband Louis) unearthly score for 1956’s Forbidden Planet was credited as “Electronic Tonalities”, as it wasn’t considered music.
Some of the standout footage is the oldest; seeing equipment being used “creatively” for the first time. We witness Daphne Oram, a sound engineer during WW2 and one of the founders of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, drawing onto magnetic tape to create sound. We meet mathematician Delia Derbyshire, who arranged the Dr Who theme in 1963, educating BBC viewers on sound wave shapes. She was presented in the guise of a teacher, more than as a creative force. Her iconic sounds did a lot to dispel distaste for electronic music. Despite influencing artists such as Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers, she died “unsung” and burnt out.
Inspired by the eerie wails of air raid sirens (still holding a feeling of mystery on how they produce their sound), these British women were convinced that electronic music was the sound of the future. After all, many of the first computer coders were women, as it was considered barely a step above typing, but then as coding became more valued, it became seen more as a “male” role.
“Outspoken gay feminist” Pauline Olivernos felt wildly ahead of her time; we see her and her friends even create sounds using bathtubs and cardboard tubes. There’s a real sense that electronic music is for everyone. Her article “And Don’t Call Them “Lady” Composers” is still a fascinating, angry read.
Enigmatic sound artist Maryanne Amacher’s house is packed full of wires and technology – “it was in breathtakingly bad condition” someone comments. An absolute rejection of the homemaker stereotype, she seems focused on nothing but the overwhelming noises she’s creating in her space.
Fearless, charismatic Suzanne Ciani explains, “I play the synthesizer in the same way somebody else would play the cello”. Teaming up with the female writer of The Incredible Shrinking Woman, she created its entire soundtrack. Ciani reminded me a lot of my mother – beaming over a keyboard, charming everyone within a mile’s radius with sound.
Whether it was creating compositions for “helping people”, or making listeners experience an altered state through strange frequencies, Sisters with Transistors makes for some great playlist inspiration. Even if electronic music isn’t your cup of tea, the technology, equipment and processes used are amazing to behold. It’s impossible to cram in everything about these ten composers into one film, and it’s similarly difficult to fit everything into just one review.
Whether you’re interested in technology, feminism or electro (or even none of the above), Sisters with Transistors is a must-watch addition to music history. You’ll be desperate to stroke a synth afterwards.
clip from Forbidden Planet (1956)
– reveal of the monster from the Id.
Score composed by Bebe and Louis Barro
Director: Alison Ellwood
Featuring: Charlotte Caffey, Belinda Carlisle, Gina Schock, Kathy Valentine, Jane Wiedlin
Words – Natalie Mills
“People automatically assume that we were probably put together by some guy, but we did it all ourselves.”
The Go-Go’s made history as the first all-female group to write their own songs, play their own instruments, and release a No. 1 album.
This compelling documentary is a collage of archive footage, nostalgia-triggering 80s photos, and individual interviews with all involved. You see The Go-Go’s start as a bunch of misfits in the L.A. punk scene; now they laugh that it didn’t matter whether you could play your instruments – “if you were terrible you were cooler”.
They reminisce about playing at The Masque – a small punk rock club in Hollywood – and joke about their three-song set, “two of those were the same song”.
It’s the angry, punk rock Go-Go’s rather than the poppier, girlier incarnation most fans know and love that really excites here. The idea of starting an all-girl group in a male-dominated punk scene, rocking the no-shits-given attitude of The Eyes’ “Don’t Talk to Me” is thrilling. Go-Go’s the 80s pop group seemed a mile away from the punks “people used to cross the street” from, but their biggest crowd-pleaser at gigs “We Got The Beat” was undoubtedly a pop song, so change was on the cards.
After a tour with Madness and The Specials in London (and having boyfriends in both), and getting some serious hate from The National Front, they garnered a large volume of interest. Then with a change of bassist and the hit single “Our Lips Are Sealed”, they finally got signed.
All seems rosy for a while; you see how fun it was creating videos for MTV, and hear how Sting brought them champagne as they overtook The Police in the album charts. It was a hectic schedule of photoshoots, continual gigs and band practice; you start to see the cracks in their exhaustion from touring and the “difficult” second album. Add to this, Charlotte (the writer of their hits), started to isolate herself. We learn that she was fighting a heroin addiction.
Despite the water-skiing in tutus of the “Vacation” video, being a Go-Go gets progressively bleak, and by the third album, they’re falling out. Belinda and Gina feel unappreciated in that they don’t get paid as much as songwriters Charlotte and Jane, while Jane never forgets being told – “What makes you think you’re good enough to sing a song?”.
After a brief stint without Jane, Charlotte and Belinda break up the band, citing, “She’s the voice and I write the hits”. Some of the 5 band members don’t speak for years. It gets very toxic.
Members describe being in The Go-Go’s like being “each other’s best friends and also each other’s worst enemies”, and also “fucking sisters who stab each other in the back”. Ellwood’s interviews with the “classic” quintet show a complex, not entirely wholesome mix of personalities. There’s cruelty behind the 80s sweetness, intense friendships breaking under the pressure to make it big.
We also hear from original bassist Margot (dumped for hating the move from punk to pop) and their manager Ginger (dumped in favour of a corporate, mostly male agency), who comments “anyone with any integrity wouldn’t stick around”. The more they strayed from their roots, the further you stray from The Go-Go’s.
This is undeniably a captivating documentary, they’re having such a great time it’s impossible not to want to be in their gang.
Photos of them as “The Clown Family”, sniffing lines of cocaine (there are a LOT of drugs) and giving birth to Jane, all feel bittersweet. Stories about them unsuccessfully trying to get arrested in a water fountain for a video, and Charlotte being kicked out of Ozzy’s dressing room, would be hilarious if not for also feeling kind of sad.
The 80s nostalgia and girly, coke-fuelled sleepover vibe of The Go-Go’s may be particularly enjoyed by fans of the hit-series GLOW, but there’s more than that here – a genuine lesson in music history.
Director Alison Ellwood’s standout documentary lays bare the story of the pioneering New Wave band, from their origins in the 70s punk scene, to selling out arenas with their upbeat pop, to inevitable disintegration over drugs, artistic differences and clashing egos.
With its International Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020, this documentary is due for release later this year.
Director: Bernard Rose
Starring: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, DeJuan Guy, Marianna Elliott, Ted Raimi, Ria Pavia
Words – Oliver Innocent.
Touted as the heir to the throne of Stephen King, Liverpool-born horror novelist Clive Barker came to prominence in the mid-1980s with his short story collections, Books of Blood. These stories were both lyrical and explicit, frequently blurring the lines between the erotic and the horrific.
This predilection for the merging of pleasure and pain would reach its apotheosis in Barker’s directorial debut, Hellraiser (1987), based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. There had been film adaptations of Barker’s work before such as the B-monster-movie romp, Rawhead Rex (1986), however Hellraiser marked a turning point. Bloody, sexy and iconic, Hellraiser opened the floodgates.
While Hellraiser metamorphosed into a never-ending franchise juggernaut, Barker returned to directing duties with the misunderstood commercial and critical failure, Nightbreed (1990). Then came Candyman.
Adapted and directed by Bernard Rose, Candyman – based on Clive Barker’s The Forbidden from Books of Blood – retains that unmistakable Barker feel at the same time expanding into new territories. The most notable change from the source material is the transposing of the setting from Liverpool to the Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green. Rather than a mere cosmetic change, this shifts the story’s focus entirely. Where The Forbidden looked at the British class system, Candyman examines the divide between black and white America.
The legend goes that in the late 19th century the titular ‘Candyman’, an artist and son of a slave, fell in love with a landowner’s daughter he was hired to paint, whereafter she became pregnant. The furious landowner instigated a lynch mob who ran him down, sawed off his arm and smeared him with honey so he would be swarmed by bees, before burning him on a pyre. His ashes were scattered over the site where the Chicago housing project would later be built.
Over the years an urban legend developed surrounding the hook-handed ghost of the Candyman; if you say his name five times in front of a mirror, he will appear behind you before splitting you from groin to gullet. The film follows Helen, a university student studying the legend, as she gets drawn deeper into the world of the Candyman more than she could have ever imagined.
Candyman captured the zeitgeist of the early 1990s with its examination of the dichotomy between black and white America. This was a time when hip hop was rapidly gaining both popularity and credibility – artists like Public Enemy and Ice Cube rapped about ghetto life, racism, and the political and social issues affecting African Americans at the time. These same issues were portrayed in cinema in films such as 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1991’s Boyz n the Hood. Horror often addresses the fears, anxieties and issues of the time so it’s no surprise a film like Candyman emerged a year after Boyz n the Hood, looking at race relations through the lens of horror. What is surprising (or unfortunately for many, not so), is how relevant Candyman still is.
With its depiction of a black man lynched by a white mob, housing projects and gang violence, Candyman feels more prescient than ever amidst the Black Lives Matter protest movement. It almost seems fitting (though for reasons which stem from tragic incidents) that Candyman is due to return in a “spiritual sequel” to the original film. It’s even more pertinent that the upcoming sequel has been developed by a black female director, Nia DaCosta, and black filmmaker Jordan Peele whose previous horror thrillers, Get Out and Us, also comment on race, class and identity.
Along with this new blood, some of the original cast are due to return including the original Candyman himself, Tony Todd. Appearing in numerous genre films before and after, it’s Candyman that remains Todd’s defining role. He ensured the character would go on to become a horror icon with his commanding presence, eloquent speeches and deep baritone voice. The hook for a hand and chest full of bees didn’t hurt either.
The Candyman could have easily become a Blaxploitation monster single-mindedly haunting a white woman. Todd elevates the Candyman above this. He’s a tragic, romantic figure with a yearning for living on as a legend because his own life was forcibly taken from him. His desire to be with Helen because he believes she is the reincarnation of the love he lost his life for transcends the stereotype of the black monster’s lust for a white woman.
Virginia Madsen’s Helen similarly differs to the standard horror heroine. She’s a married graduate student focused on her studies, rather than the usual single naive ‘final girl’ or the party loving horny teen. This makes her descent even more tragic as the Candyman seeks to take everything from her so she can be with him forever. Madsen really shows her range with this performance, from the confident, hard-working Helen at the film’s outset to the driven to hysteria Helen of the final act.
Helen’s investigation into the legend highlights another important aspect of the film; it doesn’t forget to be scary. The examination of race relations adds to the horror rather than distracting from it, something that could have easily happened had the adaptation fell into less confident hands. Writer-director Bernard Rose ensures there’s an uncomfortable tension as Helen explores the housing project and encounters a group who think she’s a cop – this culminates in a harrowing encounter in a toilet where she’s beaten up by a gang of men – it’s the flipside to Candyman’s encounter with the white lynch mob. Here it is Helen, a white middle-class woman, who is the outsider.
The supernatural element of the legend is also expertly handled. A riff on the Bloody Mary legend, the drawn out saying of Candyman into a mirror, punctuated by his sudden appearance is a truly terrifying image, amplified by Philip Glass’s iconic, haunting score.
Much like the legend of the Candyman himself, the story of the film has grown in the years that have followed, now feeling more relevant than ever before.