Today’s picks are both masterworks of psychological horror that both tell very different yet distinctly American stories
October is here once again, which means all things spooky, creepy, and outright horrifying are currently making their way into the homes of millions of people – through their screens, of course. All Halloween aficionados know that this is the month where we attempt to watch as many horror movies as we can, marathoning as much blood and guts as anyone might be able to stand (or delight in). It may as well be a sacred tradition.
In that spirit, Knotfest has called on our very own Ryan J. Downey as well as resident film critic Nicolás Delgadillo to put together two individual lists of vital Halloween horror picks for every day of the month. The wide variety of macabre favorites range from classics to more obscure cult films and feature zombies, demons, serial killers, vampires, and monsters of all kinds from all different eras.
Today’s picks are both masterworks of psychological horror that both tell very different yet distinctly American stories: One set in the projects of Chicago and the other in a small West Virginian town.
‘Candyman’ (1992) Directed by Bernard Rose
Tony Todd’s portrayal of the title character in 1992’s Candyman put him in the pantheon of remarkable, iconic, pop culture cinema slashers alongside Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees, Chucky, and my personal favorite, Freddy Krueger. With his hook for a hand, exposed ribcage and innards underneath his coat, and always accompanied by a swarm of bees, Candyman became both instantly recognizable and beloved by genre fans the world over.
Sadly, the film’s two sequels were bad, the second sequel somehow even worse than the first. But I’d argue that the 1992 original, directed by Bernard Rose, is an absolute masterpiece, top to bottom.
Loosely based on a short story by Hellraiser creator Clive Barker called The Forbidden, Rose’s movie replaces Liverpool with Chicago, specifically the Cabrini-Green housing project. (Kanye West included Cabrini-Green in his “Homecoming” music video. Curtis Mayfield lived there as a teenager.) Graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) visits Cabrini-Green while researching an urban legend specific to the area, about a figure called the Candyman.
The legend claims that anyone who says the name “Candyman” into a mirror five times will summon the tortured spirit of an African American artist, a man murdered by a white mob in the early part of the 20th Century. The artist fell in love with a white woman whose portrait he’d painted. The mob cut off his right hand, smothered him in stolen honey to attract a swarm of bees, then burned his body, all on the spot where the Cabrini-Green projects arose.
Say his name five times into a mirror and the Candyman will appear and kill you.
Todd is magnetic as the Candyman. He’s terrifying but sympathetic; murderous but romantic. Like antihero vampires and other monsters in literature, he fixates on a modern woman, beckoning her to join him in immortality, with the haunting, repeated request: “be my victim.”
Rose, who adapted Barker’s story into the screenplay, layers gothic flourishes and noirish sensibilities atop the supernatural tale, which explores social, economic, and political themes, without shying away from the shocks and scares the horror genre requires. (Unfortunately, the 2021 soft reboot/semi-sequel abandons Rose’s atmosphere, mood, and visual style.)
Vanessa Williams (New Jack City), Kasi Lemmons (The Silence of the Lambs), and Gilbert Lewis (Pee-wee’s Playhouse’s first King of Cartoons) deliver strong supporting roles.
Candyman didn’t launch a Freddy-sized franchise, but like the original A Nightmare On Elm Street, it’s a perfect, self-contained movie, with much to say on multiple levels. I love it.
‘The Mothman Prophecies’ (2002) Directed by Mark Pellington
Based on the 1975 book by John Keel, The Mothman Prophecies is one of the most unsettling and eerily captivating takes one could possibly do concerning one of America’s greatest cryptids. The story follows Keel’s real-life experiences as he investigated the mysterious events surrounding Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966 and 1967, where the people of the town reported seeing a terrifying winged creature as well as other strange phenomena.
As Keel (played by Richard Gere) gets deeper into the bizarre and chilling case, his growing obsession begins to turn his reality upside down. The film is masterful in the way it genuinely gets under your skin and freaks you out with relentless and disorienting psychological scares. Keel receives bizarre and threatening phone calls, has incredibly spooky things happen to him in the town, and the most distressing part of it all is just how much he can’t put together what exactly is even going on.
Part psychological horror, part monster movie, part alien movie, part government conspiracy thriller, The Mothman Prophecies is an often overlooked bit of genuine cinematic terror, but it one thousand percent worth your time. Some things, like the strange events that ended in very real tragedy for Point Pleasant, are impossible to truly comprehend, and no film depicts that feeling of dreadful insignificance better than this one.
Knotfest 2021 Halloween Horror Coverage: