Candyman (1992) - A couple weeks ago I was listening to a rather drunken episode of Killer POV podcast, they were drunk not me. In that episode @RebekahMcKendry was praising Candyman as one of her all time favorite horror movies. At the time I thought "Candyman? Really?" I knew the film existed but couldn't really say I had any recollection of it at all. Lead Tony Todd has become a horror icon but the convention industry has made many horror actors more popular than one would expect. Still Rebekah's enthusiasm for Candyman made me put it on my review list. The question is how can someone who loves horror movies have missed this film for so many years? Well maybe not missed, one of the reasons for starting this blog was to document where memory fails. 1992 was a time where my wife and I had just had our daughter Joy (now a brilliant law student) and we were very into our own family experiences, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that I just never saw this movie. Still in watching it recently I had this strange feeling that I had seen it before. The imagery is definitely somewhere in my addled brain. Viewing this film was a great experience. It is great to be surprised by good horror and when it is horror that has been around for twenty plus years even more so. I watch a lot of older horror and have substantially filled in the gaps of my horror viewing family tree. Revisiting this film is like reconnecting to that cousin who you have great rapport with but only see at family reunions.
Candyman created the first black horror icon in Tony Todd's growling desire filled portrayal of the titular character. In an interview with director Bernard Rose the Independent newspaper the story is shared of how in pre-production the backers of the film grew uneasy about whether a black "monster" would be seen as racist. Rose said in that interview 'I had to go and have a whole set of meetings with the NAACP, because the
producers were so worried, and what they said to me when they'd read the
script was 'Why are we even having this meeting? You know, this is just
good fun.' Their argument was 'Why shouldn't a black actor be a ghost?
Why shouldn't a black actor play Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lector? If
you're saying that they can't be, it's really perverse. This is a horror
movie. . .' ' ' Luckily for us all, the backers fears were relieved and we now have this character in the halls of iconic horror villains.
There is so much done right in this film, starting with the basic setup. Instead of making a film about an urban legend writer/director Bernard Rose from a short story from Clive Barker creates a story about how urban myths are created and become part of the society they spring to life in. Rose takes the story out of the Liverpool setting of the Barker story and moves it to America. Wanting to appeal to a larger audience but also a setting where some social commentary can take place. In this case the setting is the infamous Chicago housing project Cabrini Green where, in the film murders perpetrated by a gang member have spiraled out in the telling to be the doing the Candyman. The origin story of a the character is he was slave who loves a white woman and when the wealthy land owner discovered their relationship he cut the arm off the slave and shoved a hook in the stump, covered him in honey, threw him into the bee hives and then burned him to death. That story is later connected to the deaths in the urban prison that was Cabrini Green. Even though the murders in the housing project were not his handiwork but crimes of gangs Candyman was attributed them. That myth is exactly what Helen and her thesis partner Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are researching. It is their doorway into the plot and deciding to go to the housing project as part of that research puts them in danger of a physical rather than metaphysical nature.
Beyond just the story of the myth is the question of whether belief in a myth can bring it to life. William James in the 1890s argued in "Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking" lectures that belief in God's existence may actually depend upon our belief in his existence. His ideas seem to be building off St. Thomas Aquinas but I digress. The idea that something can come into existence because of peoples belief in it is a founding block of religious thinking so it is not a stretch to bring this idea into a horror film. Using urban legends an already accepted set of stories as a connector the film allows us to accept the Candyman as a boogeyman. It uses the Bloody Mary urban legend, to summon Candyman by repeatedly calling his name in a mirror to summon him into our world. It uses the bonfire legend where someone is trapped inside the pile of debris when the fire is started, and again from the interview with Rose in the Independent "...And the biggest urban legend of all for me was the idea that there are
places in cities where you do not go, because if you go in them
something dreadful will happen - not to say that there isn't danger in
ghettos and inner city areas, but the exaggerated fear of them is an
It is also about the relationship
between the Candyman (Tony Todd) and Helen (Virginia Madsen) that goes
beyond hunter and hunted. At its heart it is a deranged love story that
plays out in a horror setting. Not just a supernatural killer and a
victim, Helen needs to summons the Candyman and he needs her to desire
her fate as victim. Some later scenes between them are full of sexual
energy subtle and not so subtle as the Candyman tries to seduce Helen
into being his victim. Structurally this relationship is set up well also. Helen is a grad student who is married to her professor husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley) so she was a student that he seduced and married. Early in the film we see the obvious signs that Trevor now is having an affair with a new younger student. He will not be coming to save her and when shit hits the fan for Helen. Trevor only sees it as a convenient way of freeing himself of the relationship. The back story of Candyman also has the element of his love for a white women. (Who in the mural looks remarkably like Helen.) So when he attempts his seduction of Helen she is a woman without the hope of her marriage coming back together. Think about how the dynamic would have changed if she and Trevor were deeply in love with each other. How her acceptance of the Candyman's efforts would be completely resisted instead of the almost acceptance she shows in the scenes.
The film is stark and menacing in its urban setting with the early danger coming from people and not the Candyman. Set in Chicago at the infamous Cabrini Green housing development the location is a character in the tale. Cabrini Green known for the crime, gangs and disrepair became the poster child for how not to provide housing for the poor. It's boarded up towers covered inside and out with graffiti convey the hopeless situation of residents that exposition could never equal. Challenging for sure to film at the location but worth the effort in effect. Tony Todd talked to Daniel Schweiger,
Fangoria, No 117, October 1992 about the shoot. "I tried to come there with no expectations, but I
still felt fear. Anybody who didn't belong there was subject to danger.
The cops told me to keep my eyes on the rooftops for snipers, and then
I ran into a black woman and her two children. They were hustling back
from the grocery store before it got dark, and thought the film
security people were cops. She asked us when we were going to clean
the projects up, which really got to me."
When the storyline takes a turn where the innocent seem guilty the film really takes off. The body count although not large for a slasher type film is what I would call appropriate to the plot. There is a cool little slight of hand when the Helen wakes covered in blood in the bathroom of Cabrini Green resident Ann-Marie (Venessa Williams). We see the dogs severed head on the floor and then Ann Marie freaking out at the blood covered crib of her child. At this point she sees Helen and freaks out about her baby. As the police arrive to find Helen holding a knife. I thought at this point that she had killed the baby. It was a clever deception and then when she is at the police station we learn the baby is just missing, completely the viewers relief.
This is a great story and a wonderful film, of course it is recommended and I am purposely leaving out as many plot points as possible. If you have had your head in the sand on this film like I did take the time and watch it. It is available on Netflix so easily obtained.
Odds and Ends
- Smoking on screen was a thing in 1992, oh how things have changed in twenty years.
- Another couple things that set the films time period were the antiquated answering machine at Helen's place. The fact that there were no cell phones and that her camera ran out of film.
- Roger Ebert loved this movie when it came out. I don't remember him as someone who often said nice things about horror movies but her then may be an exception. His review.
- The epic soundtrack by Philip Glass alone should make this a classic.