All October long, we’re celebrating HORROR with a series of retrospectives on our favorite scary movies. Welcome to A Very Porkchop Halloween!
Written By: Ryan Long
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review is broken up into sections. The first section is spoiler free and provides a synopsis of the first part of the film; the remainder of the review assumes you have already seen the film, so proceed with caution.
“The point of a horror film is not a big budget. The point of a horror film is transgression and fear, and there’s something very powerful if you can frighten people, particularly at a certain age in their life, in their early teenage years, they’ll never forget it. They’ll carry that with them.” —Bernard Rose, screenwriter/director of Candyman
The Writing On The Wall: A Short Synopsis
Chicago in 1990s America. Towering luxury condos housing well-off urban professionals share the skyline with the high-rise projects of Cabrini-Green, * where the residents are imprisoned in a virtual hellscape pervaded by poverty and crime. In reality, these two places are barely a mile apart. Economically and culturally, they might as well be separated by the Grand Canyon.
Straddling these two disparate worlds is Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a graduate student completing her thesis on urban legends. A chance encounter with two cleaning women at her university leads her to the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, where there are have been persistent rumors of gruesome murders committed by someone known as the “Candyman”. Eager to prove herself to her college professor husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley), Helen ventures into Cabrini-Green with her fellow grad student, Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons). There, they discover the walls covered with unique graffiti including a colorful slogan which reads, “Sweets to the sweet”. Helen and Bernadette explore the empty apartment of the most recent murder victim and find a crawl space behind the bathroom mirror. Helen enters to investigate and finds a monstrous wall sized portrait of a black man’s head, his face contorted in an angry scream, his mouth serving as the entryway to the room. Directly beneath this ghastly sight, Helen finds a pile of candy left for some unknown purpose. Enclosed in each piece of candy is a razor blade.
Exiting the apartment, the two women meet and befriend one of the Cabrini-Green residents, Anne-Marie (Vanessa A. Williams), a young woman raising an infant. After getting past her initial distrust, Anne-Marie tells a tale of the night her neighbor was killed, and how she could hear the screams through the walls. She tells Helen and Bernadette that she called 911, but nobody ever came. Later that evening at a dinner with her husband and one of his academic colleagues, Helen is told the tragic story of the Candyman’s origins.
Helen eventually returns alone to the projects to document the hidden room with her camera. She stops by Anne-Marie’s apartment to speak with her, but a young boy named Jake (Dejuan Guy) informs Helen that Anne-Marie is not home. Helen prods the boy for information on the murdered resident, but Jake refuses to talk and explains to Helen that if he does, he believes the Candyman will come to get him. Helen tries to assure Jake that the Candyman is not real, but Jake is steadfast in his belief. Helen then asks Jake to take her where the Candyman resides, so he leads her to the public restrooms located on the Cabrini-Green grounds. While outside the restroom, Jake regales Helen with yet another tale, this one of a mentally retarded boy who was found in the bathroom with his genitals mutilated, supposedly by the Candyman. Helen enters the facilities and finds the slogan “Sweets to the sweet”, this time written in feces, with an arrow pointing the the final stall. She opens the toilet in the final stall only to find it filled with honeybees. Helen starts to exit the bathroom when an imposing individual appears before her with a longshoreman’s hook held in his right hand, claiming he is the Candyman. Helen realizes he is a local drug dealer and tries to bargain her way out, but the man and his gang beat her bloody and leave her lying on the bathroom floor, where she is found by Jake.
The action picks up at police headquarters, where a battered Helen picks her assailant out of a lineup. The detective working the case tells Helen about her attacker’s violent history and attributes the recent string of murders to him. Helen meets Jake in the lobby, who is angry about Helen going to the police and still believes the Candyman will take revenge on him. Helen explains that the Candyman is just “a story, like Dracula or Frankenstein. He’s not real.” Jake hesitatingly begins to believe Helen.
Some time later, Helen returns to the university, her injuries mostly healed, and is eager to resume her research. It is at this point that the real Candyman (Tony Todd) appears to her, claiming that Helen’s undermining of his legend obliged him to appear. Helen’s world is turned upside down as the Candyman begins to lay a grisly trail of carnage at her feet and she is accused of committing murder. But what Helen does not realize is that her part in the legend is bigger than even she could have anticipated, and that Candyman has his own designs for her…
“Believe In Me”: Making Candyman Reality
Candyman began its life in the form of a novella written by the famous English horror/fantasy writer Clive Barker in 1985 for inclusion in his well-known Books of Blood anthology. In this story, a graduate student studying graffiti at a dilapidated council estate in Liverpool gradually becomes enveloped in the myth of a hook-handed killer known as “the Candyman” who supposedly haunts the grounds. Barker’s writings would become a hot show business commodity the following year when Hellraiser (1986) hit cinemas, introducing horror audiences to otherworldly pleasure-seeking beings called Cenobites, the leader of whom would go on to become a horror film icon affectionately known as “Pinhead”. While in L.A. in 1990, through a mutual agent Barker met Bernard Rose, a director and fellow Brit who had made a feature in 1988 which Barker admired called Paperhouse. Rose wanted to do a socially conscious horror film as his next project; he brought up the idea of adapting Barker’s story, and Barker approved, agreeing to act as executive producer. Thus the legend began…
Any talk about the strengths of Candyman as a film must begin with its leading man. From the beginning of his involvement with the project, Bernard Rose, who would serve as both writer and director, had an actor in mind for the title role whom he had seen co-starring with John Lithgow in a little known TV movie called The Last Elephant (1990). That actor, Tony Todd, had been knocking around Hollywood for a few years in supporting roles in projects such as Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), with his most prominent role having come as the male lead in the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. A classically trained actor who retained a love of Shakespeare, Todd’s unique screen presence, command of language and his deep distinctive voice—more on that in a moment—were a perfect fit for the poetic, elegant menace of the title character. With his offbeat good looks, Todd was handsome enough to believably enthrall Helen in the character’s more romantic moments, while unnerving enough to truly frighten the audience when required. Deeply invested in the role, Todd rewarded Rose’s faith with an iconic, committed performance. **
Although the sci-fi and horror genres have received much flak over the years for often relegating female characters to sexist damsel-in-distress roles, it can also be argued that these same genres—in the hands of filmmakers interested in deconstructing those stock female stereotypes—offer talented actresses some of the most complex, multifaceted roles out there for women. It was in this vein that Rose offered the role of Helen Lyle to actress Virginia Madsen (Dune , Highlander II: The Quickening ), who had been a friend of Rose and his wife Alexandra when they first discovered the Clive Barker story that inspired the film. The original idea was for Rose to direct his wife Alexandra, who was also an actress, in the role of Helen, but after she became pregnant the role was offered to Madsen, who made the most of her opportunity. In Madsen’s hands, Helen is smart, driven and capable, yet insecure in some fundamental way. She longs to be accepted among her husband Trevor’s academic peers, but denies the plain truth of his philandering. She is strong-willed enough to travel into a dangerous neighborhood to conduct her research, but she is also somewhat easily manipulated, first by Trevor, then by Candyman. In short, she is a flawed, well-rounded character which, for an actress working in the horror genre, is a rare gift indeed. Madsen matches Todd well in her expressive capacity; for all of Candyman’s otherworldly allure, watching Madsen as Helen is no less compelling.
Rose uses every cinematic trick in the horror film manual—jump scares, flash frames, unusual angles—to make Candyman feel like a uniquely unsettling film, and he mostly succeeds, employing such techniques tastefully and judiciously enough that each occurrence feels fresh instead of clichéd. Rose and editor Dan Rae (Immortal Beloved , Rasputin ) combine their efforts to bestow the film with a hypnotic rhythm, punctuated by jagged bits of clinical hyper-realism (e.g., Helen photographing the hidden room at Cabrini; scenes set at police headquarters or the psychiatric facility). Every part of Candyman works towards building the feeling that the world is not quite real, and that includes the masterful score by avant-garde composer Philip Glass. Glass’ work for the film is intricate, evocative and haunting. In its grander sections it sounds like the lost background music of a deranged 19th century carnival (roughly contemporary with the period in which the title character was alive), complete with freakish delights and macabre visions. And yet at the heart of it is a simple piano melody that plays like a lullaby written for a stillborn child.
Perhaps most impressive is the innovative sound design by Nigel Holland (Braveheart , Batman Begins ), used to great effect from the very first post-title scene. The film proper begins by feeding off of the primal fear of honeybees, filling the world (and the screen) with their inhuman droning buzz as Tony Todd’s voice—which sounds equal parts lulling and abrasive, like slates of granite sliding against each other—promises unspeakable horrors to come. Todd’s voice, one of the film’s secret weapons, seems to come from everywhere and nowhere each time his character speaks. Candyman’s victims suffer horrific fates as they are dismembered, disemboweled and decapitated, but the sound work enables the filmmakers to save time and money on typical horror movie gore; graphic, dreamlike imagery works hand in hand *** with visceral sound effects to the point where more carnage is heard and felt offscreen than actually depicted, leaving the viewer’s imagination to do the dirty work. In a film where much of the horror is psychological, it’s a brilliant conceit, making the watcher complicit in bringing the legend to life.
Rose’s literate, thoughtful script marries Barker’s original exploration of the old hook-handed killer trope to that of the Bloody Mary legend, adding both some cinematic value and narrative convenience with the use of mirrors as a summoning device. He also carefully builds anticipation for the appearance of the title character, who doesn’t show up in complete form until roughly halfway through the film’s tight 99-minute running time, and aptly floats into the picture as if walking out of a dream. This is not a killer who stalks relentlessly, á là Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers; he doesn’t have to. Candyman saunters; he seduces. And Helen, his would-be victim, responds almost willingly. This is a film that explores several ideas; indeed, in a way, Candyman explores the very idea of ideas; **** that is to say, the power of belief to bring ideas to life. Is it really a malevolent entity committing these brutal acts, or is it Helen? Ultimately, the film seems to decide that the question isn’t all that important. Helen believes Candyman is real and the community believes he is real; hence, he is real, whether originally a product of her imagination or not. For her part, Virginia Madsen’s increasingly unhinged performance seems to suggest that Helen might in fact be capable of such acts, and the film gives plenty of hints to that end. Check the look in her eyes as she confronts her unfaithful husband Trevor after escaping from the mental hospital. Chilling.
“Be My Victim”: The Racial Politics of Candyman
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: America has a troubling racial history.
It could easily be assumed that something explosive was in the air in early ‘90s America. Candyman was released in 1992, the same year as the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. riots. It was a watershed moment for race relations in America. Tensions over systemic racism and police brutality boiled over into the streets (sound familiar?); at the same time, artistic portrayals of the African-American experience were undergoing a cinematic resurgence, with Spike Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing (1989) hitting theaters three years prior, and John Singleton’s Boyz In The Hood (1991) having been released the year before. The time was ripe for genre films that presented racial conflicts in a relatively honest manner. The best horror films at their heart have a tendency to address social issues in their subtext, i.e. George Romero’s Dead movies; Candyman removed them from subtext and placed them front and center, not unlike a giant face screaming out of a wall.
In doing research for this entry, I re-read “The Forbidden”, the original Clive Barker short story upon which the film is based. Although I had read the story before, I was shocked to be reminded how much of the plot of the film is contained within the original story. The exploration of class issues, along with urban legends and their representation of humanity’s very real capacity—and need—for violence, are all present in the novella. But in a stroke of genius, Rose and Barker mutually decided to relocate the setting of the story from a sordid council estate in England to Cabrini-Green, a real-life inner city housing project in the American city of Chicago, notorious for its criminal activity and squalor. *+ Where he had no origin in the Barker story, Candyman’s legend is given a compelling history in the film, set at some point in the late 1800s. Born the son of a slave who later became a wealthy freedman, Candyman**+ was raised as an educated, cultured artist who later tragically fell in love with and impregnated the daughter of a wealthy white landowner. For this love, he was chased by an angry mob through what later became Cabrini-Green to an apiary, had his hand cut off and replaced by a hook in a grotesque mockery, and was tortured to death by bees after being slathered with honey…all in sight of his lover. *+++
It was only fitting that such a powerful entity should be born out of such pure love, and such abject hatred. By placing the story in the context of America’s bloody, haunting racial history, this version of the hook-handed maniac goes from merely chilling to having a believable potency—and indeed, a measure of sympathy that most horror villains don’t get. ***+ This new origin and the decision to root the story in real-life horror lends urgency and a chilling logic to the forces that drive Candyman’s tortured ethereal existence. What is one murderous phantom compared to the specter of racism in America? In making the character’s origin based on an incident of murderous racial hatred (which was precipitated by an instance of interracial love), the themes of the story—the power of imagination, the fear and allure of the unknown—are wedded to and mirrored by the African-American experience, in a society where black people are simultaneously feared and admired, hated and loved by their former captors and present neighbors.
The socioeconomic plight of the inner city African-American community looms large over the story, giving the film an underpinning in reality. Rose is careful to avoid stereotyping the ghetto residents, painting them as real people living in a nightmare. More perceptively, he is careful not to judge their collective belief in something so seemingly ridiculous as a malevolent hook-handed spirit haunting the projects, tacitly framing their belief as a necessary evil. After all, when you’ve got Candyman roaming through your walls, living in squalor and dodging bullets and drug dealers during your daily life doesn’t seem quite so terrible. The film also isn’t shy about examining the racial hypocrisy concerning the treatment of Cabrini-Green, which at the time of its existence was practically connected to affluent downtown Chicago. As Anne-Marie tells Helen and Bernadette, the residents of the projects don’t see white people come through there too often, and the ones that do come through—mainly cops and social workers—aren’t too friendly. In a canny bit of dialogue, when Helen later in the film hears that the police went in and shut down the entire complex to find her assailant after she was attacked, she bitterly muses that a white woman being attacked in the projects provoked a greater law enforcement response than any of the black residents who were savagely murdered. Then, of course, more observant viewers can draw their own conclusions about the preferential treatment Helen receives after her first murder arrest, treatment that most African-American suspects certainly would not receive.
The opinion that Candyman is a racially progressive horror film is by no means a universal one; as with most things concerning the topic of race, opinions can be as varied as the skin tones of those who hold them.****+ Helen ultimately coming off as a white savior is an arguably valid interpretation; after all, she does save Anne-Marie’s baby from the bonfire and seemingly saves the “poor, benighted black folk” by sacrificing herself. In the film’s troubling ending, we see that Helen has even usurped Candyman in legend; she has taken his place as the one who is whispered about in the corridors of Cabrini, the one whose story is drawn in murals on the walls. Finally, in death, she is able to pay back her double-dealing husband for all of his betrayals. Leaving aside the worrying implications of a downtrodden African-American congregation living in mortal fear of a white woman, the ending—which is undeniably satisfying for Helen’s character, even as it makes her seem kind of petty—supplants the most interesting character, a black man, in his own freaking movie. As a viewer of color, it is all too easy to watch this series of events unfold and think, “Shit! Black people can’t even have the afterlife!”
However, the filmmakers evince enough sensitivity and nuanced understanding that one is inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, if Helen is indeed the reincarnation of Candyman’s true love, then perhaps he would not begrudge her his place in immortality. Because after all, if she lives on, then a part of him will go on too.
“We Must Be On Our Way, You And I”: Conclusion
Candyman’s reputation as a film has only grown with time. It received excellent reviews (particularly for the horror genre) when it came out, and it remains a high watermark for intelligent psychological horror films. ****++ Still, I can’t help but feel that the picture has not yet received its full due. As a horror icon, Candyman—perhaps due to his sheer intelligence—has not reached the storied heights of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Pinhead and others. He will always have a place in history as perhaps the most prominent African-American character in horror—with all due respect to Blacula—but as much as I hate the idea of watching the movie again, or I’m given a nasty jolt whenever I randomly encounter an image from the film on a movie page—I have to say, he deserves to be bigger. He should be everywhere. The original is that good; the sequels—particularly the third entry starring Donna D’Errico, of Baywatch fame—did the character’s standing no favors. A proposed third sequel, to be written and directed by Bernard Rose, has been rumored for years.
At this point, I need to thank Dan for allowing me to write this essay for PCE. When he first broached the idea of me writing something on a horror movie for Halloween, this was my first and only choice. After all, if you’re gonna write 3000 words for a movie, it better be one that makes you feel something, and I can honestly say Candyman had an effect upon my life like no other film did. The film scarred me for years****+++ but I hoped that by writing this article and really picking the movie apart, I would exorcise some of the old ghosts lurking in my head, the ones that still make me twitch when I’m at my most exhausted and hallucinatory, the ones that occasionally haunt my dreams twenty-five years after my initial viewing. It is only in the last few years, as I have had a child of my own, that I have really been able to begin looking at the film with a clear, objective eye. And even then, I remained a little unnerved at the thought of watching it again for this article.
(Especially since there is a giant mirror on the wall behind me as I write said article. Sheesh.)
For better or worse, Candyman is a film that has stayed with me through my entire life. I guess you could say… I’m a believer.
* The filmmakers made the bold choice of actually filming at the Cabrini-Green complex where, according to lead actor Tony Todd, five different gangs who controlled the drug markets there were paid off to not harass the film crew. A dangerous decision that added an undeniable level of realism to the story.
** For the scene where legions of bees emerge from his character’s mouth and torso, Tony Todd patiently endured having the bees crawl from his mouth for the shot. He later claimed to have been stung 23 times during that scene, but ultimately had no complaints as he was paid extra for each time he was stung!
*** Hand-in-hook…? Sorry.
**** A theme which Bernard Rose explored to wonderful effect in his first film, Paperhouse (1988), another film in which a strong female protagonist walks the line between dark fantasy and reality.
*+ The transplant is not entirely seamless: the bonfire which serves as the climax of the movie is more a relic of an English harvest festival and doesn’t really fit the new American setting. But it serves its thematic purpose, allowing Helen to sacrifice herself for Anne-Marie’s baby and be reborn as part of the very legend she once chased so doggedly.
**+ Named in the sequels as Daniel Robitaille, the character is not referred to as anything except Candyman in the first film.
***+ This backstory is presented to Helen and the audience entirely through the use of sound, a creative way to make an impact on the viewers’ imaginations, and save money on what would likely have been a costly period setting. The story is also elaborated upon and fully shown in the underrated 1995 sequel, Candyman: Farewell To The Flesh—directed by Bill Condon (Gods & Monsters , Dreamgirls , Twilight )—inevitably losing some of its power in the process.
****+ Some notable exceptions are Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster…both of whom, incidentally, Candyman is compared to in a line of dialogue from the film. Dracula in particular shares a bond with Candyman as a terribly romantic movie “monster”, who also was in a pretty famous movie in 1992.
****+ My own mother, who claimed to barely remember the film, resisted giving her opinion about it until pressed. She admitted that she thought it was stupid, and that she dismissed it as another—to use her words— “White woman is the desired object” type film.
****++ Candyman was one of numerous psychological horror films in the early ‘90s that rode in on the wave of critical and commercial success enjoyed by The Silence of The Lambs in 1991. The film’s initial poster played heavily off of Lambs’ memorable artwork; both featured close-ups of eyes set in a deathly pale face as a distinctive insect crawls over it. Interestingly, proponents of the “Helen did it all” theory often point to this original Candyman poster—in which the killer stands at a shadowy remove within Virginia Madsen’s eye—as “evidence” that the vengeful spirit existed entirely within Helen’s mind. The main artwork has since been updated to remove this ambiguity.
****+++ I saw this film much, much too young, at nine years old. Certainly had a bad effect on a biracial kid with an overactive imagination who wasn’t ready to start contemplating questions about his own identity.