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`CONSENTING ADULTS’ AND `CANDYMAN’ START INTERESTINGLY BUT PLUNGE INTO LUDICROUSNESS

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Thrillers and horror are sadly represented by a pair of new films in town Friday, both of which start off interestingly then rapidly go downhill.

- "CONSENTING ADULTS" boasts a high-profile pedigree, with director Alan J. Pakula ("Sophie's Choice," "Presumed Innocent," "All the President's Men," etc.) guiding stars Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mas-tran-ton-io. But the story is ludicrous and gets steadily less believable as it proceeds, so that in the end the audience will probably won-der what in the world these stel-lar talents saw in this material.The focus here is on Kline, as a workaholic composer of TV ad jingles. He is vaguely unhappy with his life and his wife and co-worker Mastrantonio feels cloistered and shut off from him. (They have a daughter, away at college, who is merely a device instead of a character.)

When a new couple (Kevin Spacey, Rebecca Miller) moves into the neighborhood, Mas-tran-ton-io doesn't even want to meet them. "I know how you feel about neighbors," Kline apologizes after reluctantly accepting an invitation to visit - but it isn't long before the couple next door has become so close to them that the foursome is doing all kinds of recreational things together. And Mastrantonio is beginning to feel that her marriage has come alive again.

Kline, meanwhile, has been ogling Miller from their first meeting and it's apparent that a tryst is in the making. Spacey, established early on as a chance-taking, living-on-the-edge kind of guy (by virtue of cheating an insurance company and riding his bicycle into the path of an oncoming truck), not only approves, he'd like to swap wives and spend a night with Mastrantonio.

For a time, this causes a rift between Kline and Spacey. When Kline refuses to talk to Mas-tran-ton-io about it, she encourages him to make up with Spacey. So, he does - by joining in with them as they sing Christmas carols in the yard.

Naturally, Kline decides to go for the wife-swapping - without telling Mastrantonio! He and Spacey pass each other in front of their homes the middle of the night, headed for each other's respective bedrooms - and the next day, Kline is accused of murder!

What happens next is probably best left unsaid, for the benefit of those who want to find out for themselves. But suffice it to say that the implausible plotting, the idiocy of it all, piles so high that even the most accepting moviegoer is likely to wince.

Worse, Kline's character is so dumb that he makes every wrong and stupid choice imaginable, so that it's impossible to identify with him in the least.

Especially flabbergasting is the film's ending, with a penultimate scene that is utterly preposterous and then a jokey ending that confirms the film's cynicism about families, neighbors and friends.

What filmmakers need to remember when doing a modern take on Hitchcock is that the Master of Suspense had a sense of humor throughout his films so that he could wink at the audience when his plots went a bit too far. If you are alternately tense and laughing you can forgive a lot.

But "Consenting Adults" is so sterile, so earnest and dispassionate in its presentation (with Hallmark card cinematography and epi-gram dialogue) that unintentional laughter is the general response. Worse, it has so much contempt for the intelligence of the audience that people will probably leave the theater in disgust.

"Consenting Adults" deserves its R rating for violence, sex, nudity and profanity, though none of it is excessive or lingering.

- "CANDYMAN," bolstered by a haunting Philip Glass score and atmospheric handling by writer-director Bernard Rose, is a lurid horror yarn (loosely based on a Clive Barker story, "The Forbidden") with a unique premise. It also has a white heroine and a black monster, which has been construed as racist in some corners.

Virginia Madsen stars as a woman debunking urban legends for her graduate thesis (calling Jan Brunvand!) - until she runs into one that is real. Supposedly, if you look in a mirror and say "Can-dy-man" five times, a hulking black man with a huge hook in place of one hand appears to cause no end of murder and mayhem. (He also breathes asthmatically and speaks in Darth Vader tones.)

Naturally, Madsen gives it a try - and, naturally, Candyman (Tony Todd) appears. But instead of simply killing her, as he does with so many other victims, Candyman declares his love for Madsen - simply because she didn't believe in him when she called him. And to prove his love for her . . . he frames Madsen for a series of murders. Right.

The film tries to paint Can-dy-man as a victim who, a hundred years earlier, was wronged, tortured and killed in an area that is now a Chicago slum. He apparently returns when summoned to get revenge.

In this manner, he is something of a Freddy Krueger and as the film progresses and the old creative-killing motif takes hold, it becomes even more like the "Night-mare on Elm Street" pic-tures.

The problem with modern-day movie monsters, aside from their films being drenched in far too much blood and gore (which is plentiful here), is that there doesn't seem to be any logical history for the monsters' existence - or any rules to play by. How does this guy choose his victims? What is his modus operandi? It's all pretty random.

And how can he be killed in the end? He can't, of course. Otherwise, how could we have "Can-dy-man II"?

As to the question of whether the film is racist . . . in the filmmakers' defense, it should be noted that the film has several sympathetic black characters in support. But you do have to wonder why Candyman falls in love when he meets a blonde after brutally murdering the many black women who have been his earlier victims.

"Candyman" is rated R for considerable violence and gore, along with nudity, profanity, vulgarity and sex.