It's payback time for a paedophile in this smart girl-bites-boy slasher flick that has had some audiences wincing|
by Mark Kermode, The Observer, published on Sunday June 18 2006
The last time a British film-maker attempted to invert the man-tortures-woman traditions of the slasher genre, his film was banned from video by the BBFC. Admittedly Ray Brady's Boy Meets Girl (1994) was no masterpiece, its scenes of freshly microwaved limbs more risible than radical. But the antagonism which it provoked in the chief censor suggested an antipathy to the subject matter rather than the content. Much has changed since, and today the BBFC doesn't even bat an eyelid at films like British ad-grad David Slade's Hard Candy, a tale of girl bites boy which has been rated 18 for 'strong, sadistic violence'. Yet the reaction of young male American audiences who howled at scenes of visceral emasculation suggests that those old taboos are still alive and kicking.
Hard Candy begins in worrisomely leering mode, as 'Thonggrrrl' is groomed by 'Lensman' in an internet chatroom, computer keys clicking with skin-crawling salaciousness. A meeting is arranged, where middle-aged photographer Jeff ensnares 14-year-old Hayley with talk of Goldfrapp bootlegs and lures her back to his swanky LA apartment. The walls drip with advertising images of nubile adolescents, and the conversation is littered with phrases like 'keep teasing me like that, you're gonna drive me crazy'.
So far, so creepy, as rising star Ellen Page's coquettish ingenue duly plays Lolita to Patrick Wilson's slimy Humbert. Hayley knows better than to 'accept a mixed drink from a strange man', but it's Jeff who becomes unexpectedly intoxicated, emerging from a drugged sleep to discover that his dreams of underage flesh have mutated into an avenging nightmare. 'Playtime's over,' Hayley taunts. 'It's time to wake up...'
What follows is a sardonic (rather than sadistic) celluloid fable in which Little Red Riding Hood grabs the woodman's axe and sets about turning the big bad wolf into a sacrificial lamb. A subplot emerges about a missing girl, providing nominal context for the neutering horrors involving an ice-pack, a scalpel, and a medical textbook detailing the male scrotum. The real battlefield, however, is verbal, with Brian Nelson's razor-sharp script spewing out scabrous barbs about the commodification of teen sexuality, all spikily delivered by the admirable Page. When Jeff pleads with Hayley that turning him over to the police will ruin his career, she tartly retorts, 'Didn't Roman Polanski just win an Oscar?'
Providing a running commentary on her own DIY 'preventative medicine', Hayley quips that 'they teach girl scouts to bake cookies, but this is really useful'. When Jeff insists that his photographic portfolio includes work for environmental groups, she mockingly applauds his success as 'a voyeur and a conservationist'. At times, the satirical grand guignol evokes the painful hilarity of Takashi Miike's Audition, with its quotable piano-wire pay-off 'and now... the left leg!' But the heart of Hayley's anger is far from funny, encapsulated in her bald statement that, 'Just because a girl is able to imitate a woman does not mean that she's ready to do what a woman does.'
There's a tricky balance to be maintained here between horror, comedy, and socio-sexual satire, and Slade, in his feature film debut, generally proves himself up to the challenge. The visuals are seductive, with a bold painterly palette clearly defining the emotional temperature of each scene, cool blue detachment gradually giving way to blood-red flares. Crucially, Slade plays his hand close to his chest, constantly catching the audience off-guard as he flirts knowingly with generic convention.
Very little is what it seems, right down to the nuts and bolts of the set-pieces. Even when things start to fall apart as the action inevitably cranks up in the film's latter movements, neither Slade nor Nelson bottle out on their commitment to Hayley and her twisted mission.
On a performance level, Hard Candy is hard to fault. Page, who can currently be seen communing with mutants in X-Men: The Last Stand, is clearly a star in the making - an actress whose youthful looks disguise a real grown-up talent. The ease with which she negotiates the tonal twists of Nelson's script is commanding, and it's largely due to her empathic performance that Ellen becomes neither a cipher nor a caricature.
Patrick Wilson, meanwhile, makes an equally impressive fist of playing the stricken predator, providing an eye-opening display of the thespian talent he kept so well hidden in the lousy big-screen adaptation of Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. There's real bravery involved in committing to such a role, and Wilson deserves plaudits for taking it like a man.
Hard Candy was an award-winner at the Sitges Film Festival, where future horror hits often find a home, but it deserves a wider audience than genre buffs for whom gore is the draw. It's smart, funny, and (despite that censors' warning) surprisingly visually discreet. Some scenes may leave you doubled-up, but the overall effect is, as the saying goes, better than a kick in the balls.