I was barely a budding teenager, perhaps 12 or 13 years old, when I saw the original 1992 Candyman. Because of that, I don’t remember much of anything about it and it’s why I consider today my first viewing of the film. Whew! It is a lot better than I anticipated.
The basic gist of the film, based on a short story by horror legend Clive Barker, is that Helen (played by Virginia Madsen) and Bernie (played by Kasi Lemmons) are investigating urban legends as part of a thesis paper at the local university in Chicago. Specifically they begin taking an interest in Candyman (played by Tony Todd), whose stomping grounds are Cabrini-Green, known as the housing projects part of town.
Candyman’s backstory is that he was the son of the slave toward the end of the 1800s, who got too close to a white woman in the estimation of white racists, and had his hand sawed off, with a hook taking its place. Then the mob smothered honey all over his body and let him be eaten alive by bees. In the modern time of the film, Candyman is summoned when someone says his name five times while staring at a mirror, resulting in their or somebody’s else death.
The subtext here — and in the case of Ruthie Jean’s murder at the projects, the subtext was rather obvious, where the newspaper headline asked, “What killed Ruthie Jean?” (that’s an interesting way of phrasing it instead of “who”) and following that up with the answer in the subhead: “Life in the projects” — is that dozens of murders have happened at these projects and the police don’t care. Because they’re black. Because they’re poor. Because they’ve been written off, segregated and hidden from “polite society.” And that the residents use the legend of Candyman to “cope” with their real-world living conditions.
But even Helen herself, who takes note of the above, is herself contributing to the problem, in my view. For one, she’s coming to the projects because of a peculiar urban legend, almost like a gawker rather than someone who really cares. Secondly, she coerces a little boy (what, are you scared?) to help her find the Candyman.
Helen learns that her apartment’s medicine cabinet has an entire room behind it. Which is totally a true thing! There was a viral, incredible series of TikTok videos recently showing this to be the case in New York City.
I love the idea of digging into urban (and real!) legends like that. When I was a kid, our urban legend fairly similar to Candyman was Bloody Mary. If you turned off the lights and said “Bloody Mary” five times to the mirror, she would appear. I did that a few times and she never appeared. Nonetheless.
In addition to the racial and poor subtext, there’s also overt sexism issues. Helen and Bernie deal with the sexism of the professors at the university who think the women aren’t up to snuff on this issue.
The story develops that Candyman essentially gaslights the real world into thinking it’s Helen who chopped off a Rottweiler’s head, owned by a woman at the projects, and then stole her baby. Then they think she murdered Bernie. Then they think she murdered Dr. Burke (played by Stanley DeSantis).
Meanwhile, it turns out that Trevor Lyle (played by Xander Berkeley), her husband, is a cheating dirtbag having an affair with one of his students. Once Helen is able to distract the Candyman long enough to save the baby, she is burned to death and returns at the end to kill Trevor. That was oddly satisfying.
At first I’m thinking, man, is Candyman harder to contend with than even Freddy Krueger? Because he seems harder to fight and it’s especially hard to fight him if he can gaslight the world into thinking you’ve killed people. That said, his chest, which is comprised of thousands of bees, seems to be his proverbial Kryptonite.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two items from a technical standpoint: Director and writer Bernard Rose’s aerial shots throughout the film are masterful and add a lot to a low-budget horror flick and Philip Glass’s score, which often plays over those aerial shots, is haunting and grand. It has such a theatrical grandiose sweep to it.
Overall, I’ve always thought of Candyman, Child’s Play, Hellraiser and the like to be the second tier of the slasher subgenre of horror. The first tier, of course, being Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I don’t think you would be out of place putting Candyman right there with the original films of the three aforementioned.
It’s genuinely scary, with a thinking script that has something to say and its technical prowess is right in line with those as regards the direction and an instant-classic score.
If you haven’t seen it, or watched it at a time when you were too young to appreciate it as I did, then I highly recommend re-visiting this cult classic, especially ahead of the 2021 version.