In an era where the title on a video box was deemed just as important as the content of the film, one could be forgiven for dismissing Candyman (1992) as another cheap horror flick from one of the worst time periods in the genre. With a name that wouldn’t be out of place next to such tacky late eighties/early nineties offerings as Puppet Master (1989), Hellmaster (1992), Winterbeast (1992), Leprechaun (1993) and Dollman vs Demonic Toys (1993) it would be easy to reject the movie on its title alone. But Candyman was a high-quality blip on the early nineties radar and remains one of the best horror films of the past twenty five years.
Stemming from the fertile imagination of horror genius Clive Barker, Candyman was based upon one of Barker’s collected stories from his Books of Blood series entitled The Forbidden. Barker was inspired to write the story after recalling a cautionary tale his mother once frightened him with. The story told of a public toilet in his home city of Liverpool which housed an ‘evil man’ who would cut off his private parts of anyone stupid enough to go in. Barker took the anecdote and turned it in to a full novella about a mythical bogeyman stalking a rundown English housing estate.
After giving the horror movie an ‘S&M’ injection with Hellraiser (1987), Barker’s foray into film directing stumbled at the second hurdle with the uneven Nightbreed (1990). The critical roasting the film received appeared to jolt Barker away from the film camera. When the idea of bringing The Forbidden to the big screen arose Barker stepped back to an executive producer role; Bernard Rose stepped in to carry out a story rewrite and to direct. Expanding the original story, Rose relocated the action to central Chicago. Though this seemed like an obvious move in order for the film to connect with an American audience, it also served to amplify the ideal of terror in an urban setting; the tower-blocks and high rises of Chicago would play a hefty role in the film.
From the off its clear that Candyman is a world away from standard stalk and slash fare. The viewer’s eyes and ears belong to Helen Lyle, a mature student putting together a college thesis on the validity of ‘urban legends’. A joint project with her friend Bernadette, their research leads them to the story of Candyman, a supposed mythical serial killer who appears from nowhere to gut you from ‘groin to gullet’ after you say his name five times in a mirror. They learn that Candyman’s home is Cabrini Green, a notorious housing project in the roughest part of downtown Chicago, ‘I won’t even drive past there’ warns Bernadette. Keen to learn more about this urban myth Helen begins investigating Cabrini Green. An attack by a gang leader who calls himself Candyman leaves Helen injured, but eventually leads to the arrest of the hoodlum and what Helen believes is the end of the Candyman legend.
But in an ingenious story twist it is the discrediting of the Candyman fable that brings the real Candyman out of the shadows, ‘You were not content with the stories so I was obliged to come’. Much to Helen’s dismay there really is a Candyman and he is not impressed that the reputation that he has built up, the status that the aforementioned hoodlum played upon to further his own criminal status, has now been torn down. He must seek to rebuild this reputation by ‘shedding innocent blood’. The story then takes a severe left turn as we witness our heroine take an unbearable fall from grace, hypnotised by Candyman and framed for the killings he apparently carries out.
To fill Helen’s shoes director Rose took a bold step in casting Virginia Madsen. Though far from an acting novice, with fourteen films on her résumé including Dune (1984) and Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), Madsen was known more for her sharp good looks than her acting chops. With half an eye on the recent Oscar success of Silence of the Lambs (1991) the producers were pushing for a more ‘high-brow’ actress to lead the film. Rose stuck to his guns though and the film provided Madsen with many opportunities to prove her critics wrong.
Easily the equal of Jodie Foster’s Oscar winning turn, Madsen gave her career a much needed boost as a result of her Candyman performance. Never resorting to typical scream-queen theatrics, Madsen provided Lyle with as rounded a personality as the confines of the script would allow, whether as a haughty academic, suspicious wife, or mesmerised victim. There was also a huge amount of screen time dedicated to Helen, with only a handful of short scenes in which Madsen didn’t feature, but despite this she carries the film superbly.
For the titular role Rose and Clive Barker were clear about the sort of man they wanted to wield the hook. Candyman is revealed to be Daniel Robitalle, the son of a wealthy slave and a man known for his artistic talents. Commissioned to capture the ‘virginal beauty’ of the daughter of an affluent landowner, Candyman fell in love with the girl, as she did likewise. The woman became pregnant with his child but such were the racial tensions of the time her father sought revenge on Candyman by hiring a group of ‘brutal hooligans to saw off his right hand with a rusty blade’. They then chased Candyman to the village of Cabrini Green where, after cutting off his hand, smeared his naked body with honeycomb; ‘angry bees’ stung him to death. His ashes were then scattered over Cabrini Green.
Envisioning an elegant and noble man, Rose wanted an actor who carried an air of both power and grace. The director found exactly what he was looking for in Tony Todd. A tower of a man and a trained stage and theatre actor, Todd had more than enough gravitas for the part. Even though we aren’t introduced to the true Candyman until some way in to the film, Todd seems to be ever present. The wait is also well worth it, Helen squinting across an empty multi-storey car park as the deep, alluring tone of Todd’s voice echoes out, his classically stylish attire at odds with the dreary locale. As the story required, Tony Todd as Candyman is immediately legendary; no character has been quicker in joining the pantheon of horror villains, standing alongside the likes of Dracula and Michael Myers after mere minutes of screen time. In Todd’s words the role was ‘a blessing and a curse’; subsequent to Candyman’s success Todd was continually typecast as a horror actor in much the same way as fellow actors before him Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Robert Englund. But like the true horror greats, the typecasting didn’t diminish the power of Todd’s original performance.
Much like the Kirsty/Pinhead dynamic in Barker’s earlier Hellraiser, where Madsen’s Helen dominates the screen Todd’s Candyman is the polar opposite, appearances limited to a small number of dream like manifestations and quick blasts of brutality. There is a duality in Candyman though. Before he is even seen Candyman / Damiel Robitaille is painted as the victim of his own film, cruelly executed for falling in love with the wrong woman. As much as we sympathise with Helen, we also sympathise with Candyman, despite his crimes. He is both hero and villain, the former reinforced by the unlikeable nature of those he kills, the vacuous teens in the prologue and the condescending Dr Burke. It’s a contrast mirrored by his look and physicality, elegant and still when addressing Helen, but vicious when heaving his hook through a victim.
Complementing the writing of Candyman is the characters design and the world he inhabits. Rose surrounded Todd with a number of surreal images, such as the opening shot of a giant swarm of bees engulfing Chicago city centre and the poetry of his myth, ‘I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom’. The design was perfectly incorporated in to the squalid setting of Cabrini Green, such as graffiti smeared in excrement and sprayed painted images. But it was all just a fraction removed from the urban reality in which it sits, creating the perfect off-kilter feel. There are many visual highlights throughout the film which encapsulates this, none more startling than the symbolic shot of Helen stepping through ‘Candyman’s mouth’. All of it creates the legend of Candyman before the viewer has even seen him.
As well as creating an uneasy locale, the filthy setting highlights the visual allure that grows between Candyman and Helen. In comparison to the rundown Cabrini Green, the soft-focus shots of the pair are a relief for the viewer. Even the supposed ‘safety’ of Helen and Trevor’s apartment and their college campus seem shallow when compared to the depth that exists when Helen is alongside her tormentor. It is here that the brilliance of Rose and Barker’s story really becomes apparent.
Though told using all the tools of a regular slasher thriller, Candyman’s story is a tragedy, almost classically so. Candyman, having already been established as an anti-hero, doesn’t want to harm Helen, at least not physically, ‘the pain will be exquisite’, and it’s clearly indicated by a wall painting in his lair that he sees Helen as the love he lost all those years ago. It could even be argued that Candyman is more committed and loyal to Helen than her actual partner Trevor; the first time we meet Trevor he is openly flirting with one of his young female students. Remarkably, there are key moments when a tear escapes from Candyman’s eye, including the profoundly beautiful scene when Helen finally ‘gives herself’ to Candyman. Laid out Christ-like in the remains of a Cabrini Green apartment, Candyman is surrounded by graffiti and rubble; yet there is something graceful that tugs at the heartstrings when he finally sweeps Helen from her feet.
Bernard Rose quickly reminds viewers that the horror remains with a startling shot of Candyman’s bee-filled innards. Even so, the bee-kiss that follows still has a romantic edge. Professional that he is Todd agreed to be filmed with a mouth full of real bees, with a specially made mouthpiece inserted to ensure that he didn’t swallow any of the insects. It is one of the most startling visual in horror cinema when Candyman opens his mouth to release a gaggle of bees. Todd somehow held focus despite receiving a number of nasty stings in his mouth, while Madsen, having learned just before shooting began that she is hyper-allergic to bee venom, used what was no doubt some real fear to bolster her performance.
This coming together of Helen and Candyman is an undoubted high-point of the movie. To achieve a more graceful feel to all the scenes involving the two Todd insisted that he and Madsen take a number of classes together including fencing and ballroom dancing. The chemistry between them is undeniable. Rose also chose the rather extreme method of having Madsen hypnotised before shooting began in order to give Helen a transfixed quality whenever she is confronted by Candyman. Having been placed in hypnosis, the hypnotist then gave Rose a key word to use whenever he wanted to place Madsen in this state for filming purposes. Much to Rose’s and everyone else’s surprise this trick actually worked and Madsen would instantly fall into a trance like state when required to do so. It looked fantastic on screen particularly when coupled with the soft focus Rose chose to employ when shooting Madsen up close. However, when a whole days shooting remained completely blank in the actress’s memory she refused to go through the process anymore and made Rose swear he would not say that particular word to her on set again.
As tremendous as Candyman’s design and portrayal is, the film remains very much Helen’s story and her complete downfall. There is a snootiness to her behaviour in the early running, turning up her nose when she visits the working class ghetto of Cabrini and proclaiming her brilliance to fellow academics over restaurant wine. It’s the over-confidence that precedes a fall; and what a fall it is.
The start of Helen’s demise arrives via the most frightening scene in the film, as Helen awakes covered in blood in Anne-marie’s apartment. Compared to the smooth, calculated shots used by Rose to this point, the camera suddenly becomes free moving, stumbling with Helen as she staggers forward to find out how and why she’s ended up where she is. It’s an impossible situation and it dawns on the viewer that there will likely be no comeback for Helen from this, and that this was likely Candyman’s plan all along. The speed of Helen’s downfall is swift, going from bad to terminal in no time at all. Emotionally, it makes for quite an exhaustive watch as one by one all the supporting threads in Helen’s life break away. All she is left with is rescuing Anne-marie’s baby, in hope that this last act of defiance will break her away from Candyman’s side. Rose doesn’t go soft with his finale though, even after this seemingly triumphant end.
Far from fictional, Rose chose the actual Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago to shot much of Candyman. Rundown and riddled with gang activity, it was a brave move by Rose to film there, but the visual results were undeniable. To ensure the respect of the gangs who ran the area Rose gave a number of parts to young children and adults from the streets and apartments of Cabrini. Filming there went without a hitch until the last day of the shoot when someone shot a hole in one of the production vans from an apartment rooftop; a sign that it was time for the production to move on.
The risk was worth taking as the true-life locale adds an authenticity to the film that is rarely seen in the horror genre. The ugliness of Cabrini and the doggedness of those unfortunate to live there is as upsetting as anything Candyman employs. Barker always envisioned his tale taking place in a modern day, urban vision of hell, and it is harder to visualise a more onerous setting than the one used. It was a class-war wound that Rose poked at during the film, making it clear that the police only intervene in Cabrini when Helen, an affluent white woman, is mugged. Whether as a result of the film or not, much of Cabrini Green was demolished in the late nineties to make way for extensive regeneration.
Another of the film’s underlying layers, more prevalent at the time, was the issue of race. Rose battled on the films behalf with the studio over the fact that the films titular villain was an African-American male. Seeing parallels with the ancient and blatantly racial The Birth Of A Nation (1915) some studio executives were concerned at how the picture’s notion of a ‘black’ villain attempting to steal away an innocent ‘white’ woman by homicidal means would be received. Concerns were further heightened by the Los Angeles race riots five months before the film’s release. Fears were unfounded though; rather than a traditional ‘boo, hiss’ villain, Candyman was seen as an anti-hero and both Todd and Rose were approached by fans of the film almost immediately after its release speaking of Candyman in reverent and appreciative tones.
In amongst the unfolding tragedy and the developing relationship between Helen and Candyman, Rose placed plenty of traditional scares. Showing that he was just as adept at getting an audience to toss their popcorn, simple moments provide some fantastic jolts, such as Helen’s return through Ruthie Jean’s bathroom cabinet and the crashing through of Candyman’s trademark hook via Helen’s own bathroom cabinet. Gore-hounds will also be happy, with the moments of splatter kept tight and effective to ensure maximum impact; Helen’s revenge and confirmation that she is finally by Candyman’s side by gutting her husband Trevor is the gory payoff.
Along with the talent in front of the camera, Rose was equally blessed to work with composer Philip Glass. Not realising he was writing for a horror film Glass’s score didn’t follow the standard horror route of telegraphing the scares. Instead Glass wrote a delicate score, a music-box piano theme that ran throughout the film, accompanied by soaring choral pieces when the action picked up. It made for one of the most unique horror movie scores of all times, and fitted perfectly Rose’s atypical approach to the fright film.
Rose’s final twist on the traditional horror film was to raise ever increasing questions regarding the heroine, and whether Helen really is the innocent party that she originally appears to be. One of Candyman’s final lines to Helen is perhaps the most telling lines in the film, ‘It was always you Helen’. Taking this utterance at its most literal, one starts to wonder whether there ever really was a Candyman or whether he was a figment of a Helen ever deteriorating mind. Further evidence appear when Dr. Burke shows Helen video footage of one of her apparent confrontations with Candyman; the screen only shows Helen, with no hovering Candyman in shot. There is also something indictive about the dream like quality of Helen and Candyman’s confrontations; may be they were all just fantasy after all.
Following the success of Rose’s film, two sequels quickly followed. Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1994) only saw Barker return to write the story and Glass to offer up his now familiar soundtrack. Whilst it offered slightly more detail on Candyman’s background there was little else that was original or as good as Rose’s movie; a diminished box office take and a poor critical reception greeted it. Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999) saw Barker and Glass also depart, and though Todd took up the hook for the third time, the it was a by-the-numbers horror film, bringing all the predictability of a standard stalk and slash flick.
See also Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1994), and Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999)