Director: Bernard Rose
Starring: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons, Vanessa Williams, DeJuan Guy, Marianna Elliott, Ted Raimi, Ria Pavia
Words – Oliver Innocent
Touted as the heir to the throne of Stephen King, Liverpool-born horror novelist Clive Barker came to prominence in the mid-1980s with his short story collections, Books of Blood. These stories were both lyrical and explicit, frequently blurring the lines between the erotic and the horrific.
This predilection for the merging of pleasure and pain would reach its apotheosis in Barker’s directorial debut, Hellraiser (1987), based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. There had been film adaptations of Barker’s work before such as the B-monster-movie romp, Rawhead Rex (1986), however Hellraiser marked a turning point. Bloody, sexy and iconic, Hellraiser opened the floodgates.
While Hellraiser metamorphosed into a never-ending franchise juggernaut, Barker returned to directing duties with the misunderstood commercial and critical failure, Nightbreed (1990).
Then came Candyman.
Adapted and directed by Bernard Rose, Candyman – based on Clive Barker’s The Forbidden from Books of Blood – retains that unmistakable Barker feel at the same time expanding into new territories.
The most notable change from the source material is the transposing of the setting from Liverpool to the Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green. Rather than a mere cosmetic change, this shifts the story’s focus entirely. Where The Forbidden looked at the British class system, Candyman examines the divide between black and white America.
The legend goes that in the late 19th century the titular ‘Candyman’, an artist and son of a slave, fell in love with a landowner’s daughter he was hired to paint, whereafter she became pregnant. The furious landowner instigated a lynch mob who ran him down, sawed off his arm and smeared him with honey so he would be swarmed by bees, before burning him on a pyre. His ashes were scattered over the site where the Chicago housing project would later be built.
Over the years an urban legend developed surrounding the hook-handed ghost of the Candyman; if you say his name five times in front of a mirror, he will appear behind you before splitting you from groin to gullet. The film follows Helen, a university student studying the legend, as she gets drawn deeper into the world of the Candyman more than she could have ever imagined.
Candyman captured the zeitgeist of the early 1990s with its examination of the dichotomy between black and white America.
This was a time when hip hop was rapidly gaining both popularity and credibility – artists like Public Enemy and Ice Cube rapped about ghetto life, racism, and the political and social issues affecting African Americans at the time. These same issues were portrayed in cinema in films such as 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1991’s Boyz n the Hood. Horror often addresses the fears, anxieties and issues of the time so it’s no surprise a film like Candyman emerged a year after Boyz n the Hood, looking at race relations through the lens of horror. What is surprising (or unfortunately for many, not so), is how relevant Candyman still is.
With its depiction of a black man lynched by a white mob, housing projects and gang violence, Candyman feels more prescient than ever amidst the Black Lives Matter protest movement. It almost seems fitting (though for reasons which stem from tragic incidents) that this is the year Candyman is due to return in a “spiritual sequel” to the original film.
It’s even more pertinent that the upcoming sequel has been developed by a black female director, Nia DaCosta, and black filmmaker Jordan Peele whose previous horror thrillers, Get Out and Us, also comment on race, class and identity.
Along with this new blood, some of the original cast are due to return including the original Candyman himself, Tony Todd. Appearing in numerous genre films before and after, it’s Candyman that remains Todd’s defining role. He ensured the character would go on to become a horror icon with his commanding presence, eloquent speeches and deep baritone voice. The hook for a hand and chest full of bees didn’t hurt either.
The Candyman could have easily become a Blaxploitation monster single-mindedly haunting a white woman. Todd elevates the Candyman above this. He’s a tragic, romantic figure with a yearning for living on as a legend because his own life was forcibly taken from him. His desire to be with Helen because he believes she is the reincarnation of the love he lost his life for transcends the stereotype of the black monster’s lust for a white woman.
Virginia Madsen’s Helen similarly differs to the standard horror heroine. She’s a married graduate student focused on her studies, rather than the usual single naive ‘final girl’ or the party loving horny teen. This makes her descent even more tragic as the Candyman seeks to take everything from her so she can be with him forever. Madsen really shows her range with this performance, from the confident, hard-working Helen at the film’s outset to the driven to hysteria Helen of the final act.
Helen’s investigation into the legend highlights another important aspect of the film; it doesn’t forget to be scary. The examination of race relations adds to the horror rather than distracting from it, something that could have easily happened had the adaptation fell into less confident hands.
Writer-director Bernard Rose ensures there’s an uncomfortable tension as Helen explores the housing project and encounters a group who think she’s a cop – this culminates in a harrowing encounter in a toilet where she’s beaten up by a gang of men – it’s the flipside to Candyman’s encounter with the white lynch mob. Here it is Helen, a white middle-class woman, who is the outsider.
The supernatural element of the legend is also expertly handled. A riff on the Bloody Mary legend, the drawn out saying of Candyman into a mirror, punctuated by his sudden appearance is a truly terrifying image, amplified by Philip Glass’s iconic, haunting score.
Much like the legend of the Candyman himself, the story of the film has grown in the years that have followed, now feeling more relevant than ever before.