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Forget the big guy with the meat hook. ``Candyman,' from Tri-Star Pictures, is a horror film in a truer sense of the term, obliging physical menace to play second fiddle to the more resonant horrors of alienation and irreparable loss.

It has its shock value, assuredly: Wouldn't do for a Clive Barker adaptation to play things too inconspicuously. But the point of this formidable American Gothic is to reinvent the traditional notion of death-as-romance along relevant present-day lines.Barker, the Liverpool-born storyteller whose tale ``The Forbidden' is the basis, serves here as executive producer, with writer-director Bernard Rose as Barker's key interpreter. Rose, whose ``Paperhouse' (England; 1988) is a rare instance of psychological integrity in horror cinema, has thoroughly Americanized the story - setting it in a sewer of poverty where evil flourishes and human decency struggles to survive.

The Candyman is one of those urban legends - like the ``choking Doberman' yarn or the snake-in-the-fur-coat episode - that sustain the thread of oral folklore from prehistory to the present day. The story goes that the Candyman's human self suffered an unjust demise, and his spirit has haunted the site ever since. Speak his name five times while gazing into a mirror - and look out.

The setting is a Chicago tenement slum, where an adventurous Ph.D.-to-be named Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) dares venture in search of the lowdown on the Candyman myth. The horrors of real life - from barbaric gang members to the very stench of the place - make the Candyman (played by regal-looking Tony Todd) look genteel by comparison. His response to a playful summoning suggests that he has more than the usual ill treatment in mind for Helen.

The Candyman, in turn, becomes the film's core of nobility, whatever his rap sheet of atrocities. Helen has little to lose in her real world, where a philandering husband (Xander Berkeley) and belittling, male-supremacist supervisors threaten her success.

This savvy variant on the ``Dracula' myth is customary with Clive Barker, whose breakthrough stories of the last decade find him playing variations on the classic motifs - Poe and the like - to which he owes his interest in such literature.

The Candyman's spiritual seduction of Helen progresses unpredictably to a harrowing climax, compromised by a rather pat tag-ending that seems mundane in light of the film's dazzling imaginative flights. Todd, an actor of commanding presence, conveys a wealth of tangled emotions with little dialogue, and Virginia Madsen makes a convincingly reluctant object of the creature's cruel affections.

Especially nice support comes from Kasi Lemmons, as Madsen's research partner, and television comedy player Vanessa Williams as a real stereotype-buster: a hard-working single mother trying to survive slum life.

``Candyman'\ Rating: R (For violence, language and mature themes)\ Theaters: Litchfield, Circle 6 and Janus in Greensboro


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