CANDYMAN (1992)

  • Director: Bernard Rose
  • Writers: Bernard Rose, based on the short story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker
  • Starring: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Kasi Lemmons, Xander Berkeley, and Vanessa Estelle Williams
  • Where to Watch: Stream with Cable Subscription (with ads) on SyFy app, Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Candyman has, at its core, a very basic concept about urban legends, which could easily be a fairly run-of-the-mill slasher movie. That movie has, in fact, been made, more than once. What elevates it beyond that material are a few key choices: first, to set the movie, not in the lily-white settings of Halloween’s midwestern small town or Friday the 13th’s idyllic summer camp, but rather in projects in Chicago. It steers into this idea further by having its central, ghost killer (Tony Todd) be the son of a slave from the late 1800s, brutally murdered for his romance with a white woman. And that is where the second key factor comes from: this is sort of an extremely twisted love story, between the killer and Helen (Virginia Madsen). Most slasher movie killers are little more than remorseless forces of nature. Candyman will brutally murder you with his hook, but he is also seductive. He is more Phantom of the Opera than killing machine.

Madsen stars as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, working on a thesis about Bernadette with her friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons). Though Bernadette, who is African-American, warns her not to go, Helen chases a story into Cabrini-Green, a real-life inner city housing project in Chicago, and almost immediately gets in way over her head. She spends the second half of the movie suspected of several murders, repeatedly screaming her head off, and getting haunted by the Candyman, who supposedly appears and murders you if you say his name five times into a mirror. We eventually gather that he sees her as a replacement (or reincarnation?) for his dead lover.

The setting and the issues explores at times in this movie are the brainchild of the director, an Englishman named Bernard Rose, who may actually have benefited from not quite understanding the territory he was wading into. The movie is based on a short story by the prolific horror writer, Clive Barker, whose works also served as the inspiration for Nightbreed and Hellraiser. However, Barker set the original in his native Liverpool, exploring issues of class. If Rose had kept this, I doubt Candyman would be particularly remembered. Instead, the movie spawned two direct sequels, with a third, “spiritual” sequel, written by Jordan Peele, originally set for release this October (it has, of course, been delayed). 

Another big part of the movie’s success is Tony Todd, the hulking, deep voiced figure who plays the titular villain. At the time, he was best known for playing Klingons on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He said his friends were skeptical of the role, because of “the number of times he would be required to be stung by bees.” I would also be skeptical of this. Todd instead negotiated into his contract that he would receive an extra $1,000 every time he was stung, and ended up receiving an additional $23,000. Madsen, meanwhile, added to the dream-like quality of many of the later sequences by agreeing to be hypnotized prior to each scene in which she played opposite Todd. I’m not sure what this actually means in practice, but it makes a good story.

Rose stated that he wanted to just tell a story set in the “ghetto” in which the residents are seen as normal people dealing with the same problems white people have during movies, among them getting the heck murdered out of them. Gangs and drugs are mentioned briefly, but clearly not the point of any of this. Rather, the movie is more interested in the nuances of its setting. Helen is attacked, and in the very next scene identifies her attacker in a police lineup. Then she can be heard complaining to Bernie that several people were murdered in Cabrini-Green, but one white lady gets attacked and they turn the place upside down. 

In fact, there really was a murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy in the Chicago projects, only about five years before this movie, in which a poor woman was murdered by an assailant who entered her crappy apartment through a hole behind the women’s bathroom mirror. If you watch the movie, you can see how this likely served as a heavy inspiration for the story. I mentioned that Rose may not have fully understood what he was biting off here. He would later recount a story of a long meeting with representatives of the NAACP, who expressed concern with the movie’s themes. Rose pointed out that he thought it was racist to say that a Black man couldn’t play Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. Which is true as far as it goes, but what Rose seems to fail to grasp is that people from marginalized groups tend to get limited opportunities to tell stories about themselves. Each portrayal of that group has to do a bigger lift to represent a bigger number of people. Any Indian-American who has been called “Slumdog” a million times can tell you that much. And yet, I do think that in the end those concerns are not borne out by the actual movie, though perhaps for reasons other than what Rose thought at the time. For one, we do get a greater sense of the culture and society in these projects than just murders and gangs. And Todd’s performance brings a humanity to this character far beyond what he could have been in less capable hands, a stereotypical thug.

Somewhat randomly, Candyman’s score was composed by Phillip Glass, considered by some to be the most influential classic composer of the past fifty years. Glass was early in a long side career of composing movie scores, which included an Oscar for The Truman Show in 1998. He later noted that because of Candyman’s enduring popularity, he received a big check every year that paid for one or two symphonies.  Kasi Lemmon, meanwhile, who plays Bernie, went on to a good career as a director that’s still on its way up. Her most successful movie to date, Harriet (a biography of Harriet Tubman), came out just last year, and her lead actress, Cynthia Erivo, received an Oscar nomination.

Candyman is a deeply weird movie (why are there bees? Because it’s cool, I guess), that made a limited splash at the time, but it has had far greater staying power than many of its contemporaries. I think this is because it tells a fundamentally different story from many slasher movies, and also because it has a different feeling to it. Though the viewers have not been hypnotized like Virginia Madsen, we do get the feeling that something, inexorably, is not quite right here. But maybe that’s what we’ve been looking for all along.

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