CULT CORNER: Candyman (1992)

“From the chilling imagination of Clive Barker” comes the 90s answer to Freddy Krueger. Is Bernard Rose’s Candyman an underrated horror classic?

Who made it?: Bernard Rose (Director/Writer), Alan Poul, Steve Golin, Sigujon Sighvatsson (Producers), Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Propaganda Films.

Who’s in it?: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons.

Tagline: “We Dare You To Say His Name Five Times.”

IMDb rating: 6.5/10.

“I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom! Without these things, I am nothing. So now, I must shed innocent blood.”

– Candyman

There’s the possibility that 1992′s Candyman was the first mainstream horror film to deal with urban legends as a driving force of its plot. These campfire porky pies, which are passed verbally from person to person, are very rarely rooted in fact. Take the oft-told story of alligators in the sewers, for instance. Or how about the escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand? The terror here takes his shape from those whispered cautionary tales you pray are fiction.

Noted horror novelist Clive Barker had harnessed the strange allure of modern mythology for his short story “The Forbidden,” taken from the macabre Book of Blood collection. Flush after directing 1987′s Hellraiser, an adaptation of his own “The Hellbound Heart,” Barker’s work was a hot commodity. “The Forbidden” fell into the hands of British director Bernard Rose (Paperhouse), who transposed the story’s Liverpool setting to inner-city Chicago. The change scarcely seemed to matter – this is the rare horror movie that could play out in any city of the world.

The film follows tenacious student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), who is writing what she hopes will be a groundbreaking thesis on urban legend. Her research takes her to rough housing project Cabrini-Green, which is gripped in the fear of a mythical hook-handed slasher known as “Candyman,” a vengeful spirit who appears if you say his name five times in a mirror. Soon, Helen realises that there might be more to this story than meets the eye, as the bodies rapidly begin to pile up around her.

Candyman gets a lot of things right, and is a distinguished member of the late 80s/early 90s slasher craze. As with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Rose delights in presenting us with a non-corporeal killer who can appear at will. But it isn’t enough to have another fanciful horror icon to off the supporting characters; Candyman succeeds because it presents its world as realistically as possible. Take Cabrini-Green – it was a genuine housing project in Chicago that told more than enough real-life horrors. The fact that the production filmed there gives these scenes an authenticity that pulls you in. We become invested in Helen’s research because we recognise the fears of our everyday lives, all the while knowing that the answers will bring her nothing but pain. We can only sit in discomfort as her snooping awakens Candyman’s power, and there is something ironic about a monster who is willed into being.

We also care because of Madsen’s engaging performance as Helen. Far from a shrieking damsel, she is a brave and resourceful lead who gains the audience’s sympathy. She’s certainly the most dimensional character in the film, who is saddled with a cheating husband (played with typical smarm by Xander Berkeley), and sure-to-be-killed partner (Kasi Lemmons). Candyman is as much about Helen as it is its title bogeyman, especially when she becomes implicated in the murders. This seems to be Rose suggesting that maybe she has taken her research too far, and that the Candyman is just a story after all. But this is an unnecessarily convoluted aspect of the film that is more or less thrown aside in the conclusion.

That’s about as far as my criticisms go with the film, as its such a sumptuously-shot and performed thriller. Rose directs with grace, always blurring the line between myth and reality. His sense of mood is also boosted by Philip Glass’ wonderful score. The combination of pianos, organ and a vocal choir reinforces the film’s loftier pretensions, as well as giving the story a peculiar romanticism. So artful is the first act of Candyman that we’re rather taken aback when the gore kicks in. Oh, and the splatter crowd certainly get what they came for, too. This is one killer who really puts his all into slitting you down the middle.

As Candyman, Tony Todd is the archetypal movie monster, and more so than Freddy, Jason and Micheal, calls back to old standards like Frankenstein’s creation, Dracula and the Wolfman. We are meant to pity him. As regaled in a morbid back-story, Candyman was once a well-to-do black artist who was viciously murdered for sleeping with a white woman. Todd embraces the racial undercurrent and produces a tragic figure we understand as much as we fear. More than any other compliment that can be paid to the film, it is the fact that Rose created a villain who could stand alongside those classic monsters that makes the film a modern horror gem.

Candyman was released at the height of the Rodney King riots in LA, which might not have been the best time to unveil a horror movie with an African-American as the killer. Yet the timing did little to affect the box office and the film became a modest hit. Success in horror means sequels and Rose was immediately contacted about a follow-up. He wasn’t enthusiastic but managed to pen a screenplay that the producers rejected. Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) was directed by Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters), and saw Todd’s apparition attending Mardis Gras. He would also haunt LA in the straight-to-video Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999), but both films are vastly inferior to the original and do little to move the mythology forward.

Over twenty years later, Candyman stands tall as one of the premium genre films of its time. Intelligent, thought-provoking, and relevant to our society’s latent fears, it manages to make the slasher movie an intellectual exercise as well as a gory slice of populist entertainment. Plus, its pretty disturbing at times. If you’ve ever been able to say his name five times in a mirror, then you’re a braver soul than me…

Best Scene

Well, I guess she’s not crazy…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)

  • Eddie Murphy was considered for the title role.
  • Virginia Madsen claims to have been hypnotised for the scenes in which she encounters the Candyman.
  • The architecture flaw of the medicine chests and people being able to sneak in, is something that Bernard Rose discovered in his research for the film and there was actually a series of murders that were committed this way.
  • The bees were bred specifically for this movie. They needed to make sure that the bees were only twelve hours old so that they looked like mature bees, but their stinger wouldn’t be powerful enough to do any real damage.
  • Philip Glass was asked by Rose to compose a score for his film. Glass accepted and wrote a “gothic” score for chorus and pipe organ. The final version of the film was a disappointment to Glass. He felt that he had been manipulated. What was presented to him as a low budget independent project with creative integrity became (in his opinion) a low budget Hollywood slasher flick. As a result, Glass witheld his consent for the release of the recordings of the score for years, until 2001.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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