You don’t have to believe … just beware.
Grad student Helen Lyle’s (Virginia Madsen) investigations into urban legends for her final thesis leads her to the notorious Chicago housing project of Cabrini-Green and the urban folktale of The Candyman (Tony Todd), a hook-handed boogeyman said to stalk the run-down apartment buildings. Like any good sociologist, Helen is skeptical of the actual provenance of the mythical figure, but when she repeats his name five times while standing in front of a mirror, she finds that the legend is all too real — and she is now, irrevocably, a part of it.
We’re going to be getting a long-delayed same title sequel to Candyman next year, lord willing and the pandemic doesn’t rise, courtesy of freshly minted horror impresario Jordan Peele, Get Out (2017), and director Nia DaCosta, Little Woods (2018), and that is almost certainly going to be worth a look at, but for now let’s set our attention on British director Bernard Rose’s 1992 original, a chilly, bloody, romantic, and intelligent slice of horror that stands as a modern classic of the genre.
Bernard’s film is based on the relatively minor Clive Barker short story, The Forbidden, which was published in Volume 5 of his name-making Books of Blood cycle. The Forbidden is essentially an urban take on The Wicker Man, with an upper-middle-class student studying graffiti on an impoverished London (well, I assume) housing estate, only to find herself effectively sacrificed to the urban legend of the Candyman, burned alive in a Guy Fawkes bonfire after investigating the murder of a small child. A lot of the story elements are directly transposed to the screen from the source novel, including the class criticism themes in the background and the hook-handed, bee-infested figure of the Candyman in the foreground, and the broad plot arc as a whole. But Rose, who also wrote the screenplay, makes two key changes that put Candyman well above its literary origins. Firstly, he transposes the story to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, whose inhabitants are predominantly black, layering race issues atop the story’s foundational class issues. Secondly, once the bodies start piling up, he makes Helen a suspect as well as a victim, with her repeated pleas that the film’s various mutilations are the work of a supernatural serial killer falling on deaf ears.
And fair enough; if a blood-spattered woman at a horrific crime scene is hanging her hopes of innocence off what is basically a hook-handed Freddy Krueger, it’s an unwise cop who believes her. Add to that, once invoked by Helen, the Candyman targets people close to her, including her friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, director of 97’s Eve’s Bayou and last year’s Harriet). We as viewers, of course, experience this from Helen’s point of view, simultaneously steeping in her anguish at being disbelieved, but having to acknowledge that the reality of what is happening to her is frankly too fantastical for other characters to take at face value — and if you detect echoes of this theme of a woman victim not being believed in Leigh Whannell’s recent The Invisible Man redux, I’d say that horror scholar Whannell isn’t blind to them either. Hold the scene in Candyman in which Helen’s court-appointed shrink is gutted in front of her up against the restaurant scene in The Invisible Man in which Elisabeth Moss’ beleaguered protagonist sees her sister (Harriet Dyer) get her throat slit by the film’s invisible villain; the congruencies are clear.
The difference is that while the relationship in The Invisible Man is abusive and predatory, in Candyman, the interplay between Helen and the titular villain is laced with romanticism. ‘Be my victim,’ the stentorian Tony Todd intones, and there’s a promise of love as well as blood in the request; it’s a seduction and an invitation to murder.
Which is all very problematic in much the same way that, say, Edward and Bella’s relationship in Twilight is, but Candyman has attracted much less criticism than the sparkly vampire franchise has (there’s also a connection between the two series; Bill Condon directed the sequel Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Twilight: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2 (2011-12). Rose complicates matters by connecting the Candyman’s obsession with Helen to his racial identity. In an origin story crafted out of whole cloth for the movie, we learn that the Candyman was once an educated black artist in 19th century Chicago who was murdered by a mob after his affair with a white woman was uncovered. His drawing hand was sawn off, and he was smeared with honey and left in an apiary to be stung to death by bees. Helen is heavily implied to be the reincarnation of the monster’s lover (Francis Ford Coppola added a similar wrinkle to his take on Dracula the same year).
So yes, the film’s darkly romantic take on stalking and violence is troubling but rooting the villain’s genesis in an act of horrific racist violence leavens it somewhat — it’s hard to blame the guy for having an ax — or indeed, a hook, to grind. There’s also the interesting implication that free will may not be too big a factor in what’s playing out before us: by invoking the Candyman, Helen has set in motion a reiteration of his myth that must play out according to a set pattern; he will be a monster, she will be a victim, the Cabrini-Green community will stand witness and tell his tale anew.
None of which mitigates the occasional uneasiness that accompanies watching Candyman as a white guy and knowing that, although Rose has done a simply sterling job of adaptation, he’s also a very white guy telling a story about a black community from an outsider’s perspective. The people of Cabrini-Green are strongly othered, and while it’s not to the degree that the smiling pagans of Summerisle are in The Wicker Man, we are still taking in their world through the eyes of a white, relatively sheltered protagonist in the form of Helen. Personally, I suspect that Rose is being deliberately contrary with the racial politics of his film, layering in elements that both mitigate and provoke. Helen has a black best friend — but the black best friend is murdered. The film tacitly condemns Helen’s privileged actions as a white, wealthy woman who blithely inserts herself into a black community for her own purposes — but also invokes the hateful ‘black buck’ stereotype when depicting the Candyman’s lust for her.
Which makes the upcoming sequel by DaCosta and Peele all the more intriguing. Candyman is a great, troubling, frequently downright masterful film, but it’s half the conversation, and the two extant sequels (Farewell to the Flesh is just about worth a look; Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999) is resoundingly not) have failed to continue the most vital thematic throughlines of the original.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, however, the 2021 Candyman seems to be both a continuation of and a response to Rose’s original. Rather than take us into a black community, it seems to be speaking from the point of view of that community, or at least the gentrified remnants thereof. Our protagonist is not a white interloper but a black man, artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who seems to be grappling with both his personal legacy as a survivor of the first film (as a baby, the character was kidnaped by the Candyman but subsequently saved by Helen’s sacrifice) and his position as a successful creative using elements of street-culture in his work to elevate himself. All the ingredients are in place: destiny, legacy, race, class, art, love, and blood — and what’s blood for, if not for spilling?
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson