The figure of the Candyman has, in many ways, far extended beyond the film that he was introduced in. I remember from my own childhood that even though I wasn’t allowed even in sneezing distance of a horror movie, much less one that was rated R, I still knew about the Candyman. It used to be Bloody Mary who would show up and kill you if you said her name three times while staring at a mirror in the dark. Around the early 90s when Candyman was released, Bloody Mary was quickly supplanted by the Candyman, as the all-powerful bogeyman, and the bane of all scaredy-cats who couldn’t be in the dark for more than ten seconds.
So color me surprised when I finally saw Clive Barker’s Candyman several decades later and discovered it wasn’t merely a pulpy horror film meant to scar anyone who saw it too young for life. Helen (Virginia Madsen) is a graduate student who is investigating a spate of murders attributed to the Candyman, the ghost of a Black man named Daniel Robitaille who was killed by a vengeful White mob when his affair with a White woman was discovered. His hand was cut off and he was covered in honey so that he would be killed by bees. Inhabitants of Cabrini-Green, an inner-city project, strongly believe in the reality of this legend, though Helen and other outsiders are far more doubtful. In fact, early in the film, Helen survives an attack from a gang member who wields a hook and calls himself the Candyman. Helen believes that she has put the mystery of the killings to rest until the real spirit of the Candyman (Tony Todd) appears to her and demands her life in exchange for the blood of innocents he would otherwise have to spill.
Names in the credits such as Anthony Richmond, who shot The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now, two visually evocative masterpieces, and avant-garde musician Phillip Glass tipped me off as to the pedigree involved with this film. Indeed, both contribute to the dreamlike and intensely creepy atmosphere of the film, but perhaps the crowning achievement of the film has to be the production design by Jane Ann Stewart. Though the film was set in the real Cabrini-Green complex in Chicago, the production design makes the place look much more bleak and nightmarish than it really was. There is also the gorgeously grotesque graffiti that inscribes the walls of the complex. Its presence makes the whole complex seem more like an abandoned Gothic castle.
In fact, it is more accurate to say that Candyman is an art movie with some baroque sensibilities that lend itself to horror. The main factor for this elegant tone to such a seedy story has to be Tony Todd’s performance. Most bogeymen and horror villains are at the extremes of the spectrum between the relentless silence of Michael Myers and the cynical talkativeness of Freddy Krueger. But Tony Todd takes his cues from a more grandiose villain – the Phantom of the Opera. Everything about him, his commanding baritone voice, his immense stature, his elegant fur coat, makes him a truly compelling villain. He is terrifying but seductive, and we can see why Helen would be attracted to this personality. He may commit unspeakable evil as a vengeful apparition, but it is clear it comes from a place of great pain and sadness.
If it were not for Tony Todd’s performance, the more problematic aspects of the story would be far more apparent. Why would the Candyman kill his own people and not people similar to the ones who killed him (i.e. White racists)? Perhaps, it is meant to be a metaphor for Black-on-Black violence and how a racist society fosters the environment in which such atrocities are often committed. Yet he also lusts after a White woman, which is a trope in and of itself: the hyper-sexualized Black male pursuing a virginal White woman is a historical misrepresentation of the power dynamic that exists in that type of relationship. Also, other than Kasi Lemmons’ Bernadette and Anne-Marie, who lives in the project and whose child is kidnapped, there are no positive Black characters of great importance in the story.
It is clear that Candyman is a story by a White person told to White people, which happens to feature Black people. Yet Rose did go out of his way to set it in America, when he could have easily set it in England where the story originally took place. As class is the main economic and societal force that drives English society, so is race for American society, and Rose was canny enough to observe it and make it a main feature in his script. Also, the sequels, while uneven in quality, did attempt to humanize the Candyman at least a little by explaining his backstory. Still, the original Candyman endures as a powerful, meaningful film with terrific scares that, while not totally unproblematic, is genuinely thoughtful and thought-provoking.