In the previous “Dead Air” columns, I focused on Klaus Schulze’s soundtrack written for Gerald Kargl’s heavily stylized serial killer film, ANGST (1983), Fabio Frizzi’s score for Lucio Fulci’s 1981 surrealist absurd masterpiece THE BEYOND, and Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s excellent score for Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). For this, the fourth entry I will focus on minimalist composer Philip Glass’ score for the supernatural horror film CANDYMAN (1992) directed by Bernard Rose.
“Be my victim, be my victim.”
It is difficult to discuss the film CANDYMAN without its source material from Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden,” featured in the fifth volume of his Books of Blood. Published in 1985, “The Forbidden” combined the terror of the council estate (British government-run housing complex), the origins of urban legend and sheer terror. “The Forbidden” begins with a description of a British council estate, derelict and decrepit, a site of abjection and debasement dripping in graffiti which is what drives our heroine, Helen, to the origin in the first place in pursuit of her research. Overtime she befriends a local, who informs her of the local legend of Candyman. The more Helen searches for the legend the more he begins to manifest himself, until eventually taking Helen’s life.
In the film CANDYMAN the first major shift is the location, from the British Council Estate to the American Housing Project; the second is in the mythological Candyman being a black man in the film. Shifting it from the British council estate, where the lore was set much more in class awareness, to the American housing project shifts our gears to not only class but race. The film version of the Candyman character is black and is a son of a former slave. He is as a respected artisan until an interracial love affair brings the lynch mob who cut off his painting hand, smear him with honey that bring bees that sting him to death, and then the mob burns his body on a pyre. The Candyman’s ashes are strewn where the site of Cabrini Green would eventually be built on Chicago’s north side. This has always made CANDYMAN stand out amidst horror films to me; it had some ideas and was trying to be deep and address some sort of social concern, however flawed—it really is about Helen and white victimhood in the end.
Perhaps one the most interesting decisions in the production of CANDYMAN is the involvement of American Minimalist composer Philip Glass to compose the haunting score. Glass was a founding figure—along with Terry Riley, John Adams, and Steve Reich—of incorporated repetition of phrases, phase shifting, or even focusing on the process over the end result of music. For CANDYMAN Glass used a curious blend of instruments: music box, chorus, piano, and organ generating a series of haunting modular systems. Patterns of chords repeat, loop over each other, and echo. It’s a record one can listen to with no knowledge of the film. But there is another reason I would suggest Glass was considered and ultimately proved a perfect match for this film. His first soundtrack was for the Godfrey Reggio experimental film KOYAANISQATSI (1982), a garland of scenes depicting life out of balance; atomic explosions, spaceship lift offs, cities, etc., and even the destruction of one of the most notorious housing projects in America—Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, which was designed by Minoru Yamasakai, who also designed the Twin Towers. In KOYAANISQATSI, Glass composed an ominous looping piece with brass and woodwinds over the historical footage of the housing projects’ demise. If we consider the altruism of the intent in government housing and its eventual deterioration. Glass was a good choice and was at home with the location of CANDYMAN’s horror.
“You were not content with the stories, so I was obliged to come”
Bernard Rose was not the first to attempt to interpret “The Forbidden” to film. The first was Clive Barker in a ten-minute film from 1978. But it is Rose’s film that injects these deeper layers of social and political commentary. CANDYMAN was not even the first depiction of the Cabrini-Green housing projects on film, GOOD TIMES would depict it decades before on television. Almost thirty years after the destruction of St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe, filming on site in the notorious Carbini Green housing projects of Chicago elevates what Rose wanted to accomplish.
Philip Glass’ layered score adds to this commentary by being from another world—or of even being another world. Helen is, after all, a sociologist. Glass did not provide a traditional melodic score, nor was the music direction very contemporary; there are no slasher synthesizers. Instead, Glass composed a timeless multi-faceted gem. Take the main thematic track “It Was Always You Helen” with its crystallized piano arpeggio and the combination of voices; there is a sense of no-place, no-time to it. In many ways Glass, who in interviews tends to disparage the film, provides a further rung on the ladder that has many viewers returning to the film. It is not just the location, the social concern about urban decay, or racist folklore, it is this brilliant score as well.
The destruction of Pruitt-Igoe and the dissolution of modern architecture’s utopian idealism is an important movement in the history of post-war art: cinema, music, visual art, writing, etc. The tacit surrender of the ideals of modernism and the built environment—where it was supposed to forge communities, organization over chaos, etc.—opens the gateway for post-modern ideals. The last building of Cabrini-Green was demolished in 2011, approximately two decades after the film was released. Of course, there are multiple sequels, and even Glass returns in Part II, but none quite capture the strange dark beauty of CANDYMAN.
“I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing”