December 7, 2004
Based on Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden,” Candyman (1992) is one of the first horror films to open acknowledge and use urban legends as the basis for its story. When most people think of such things the first ones that come to mind are alligators in the sewer or razor blades hidden in Halloween candy. The one Candyman uses is much more sinister. A young couple are about to have sex. The girl looks into a mirror and says the word, “Candyman” five times. A tall man with a hook instead of his right hand appears and brutally murders her.
Two graduate students—Helen (Madsen) and Bernadette (Lemmons)—are doing research on the Candyman urban legend for a thesis paper at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Helen’s husband (Berkeley) is a professor at the school and an expert in urban mythology. Through the course of their research, the two women learn that the residents of a dangerous area in the city known as the Cabrini Green projects believe that the Candyman (Todd) haunts their building.
Helen uncovers a news clipping of the mysterious death of one the building’s residents—Ruthie Jean—that may have links to the Candyman. She and Bernadette decide to go to Cabrini Green and check things out for themselves. The deeper Helen investigates the Candyman legend, the more her perception of reality becomes skewed. She starts seeing him in broad daylight. Her life gets more complicated when he frames her for several horrific murders. Helen begins to question her own sanity as her world rapidly unravels before her very eyes.
Candyman takes a mainstay of the horror genre—the haunted house—and effectively updates it for a contemporary audience. The Cabrini Green projects are an imposing structure: an immense concrete monolith covered in graffiti, dirt and trash and crawling with dangerous gangs. This is not a place for a white, upper class academic type to be spending her time and yet Helen makes the perilous journey because she is obsessed by the Candyman legend.
Director Bernard Rose has a strong visual sense. He does not shoot Candyman like a traditional horror film. For example, he uses overhead shots of the city to establish several scenes—it’s a powerful, God’s eye view of the streets and buildings that creates an unsettling mood. Rose presents truly disturbing imagery, from the swarm of bees that engulfs the city in Helen’s dream, to a toilet bowl filled with swarming bees that she finds at Cabrini Green. This imagery is complimented by Philip Glass’s experimental, elegiac score. It is never overused but instead insinuates itself into the movie, lurking in the background.
Rose also spends a lot of time establishing Helen’s character, letting the audience get to know her and thereby empathizing with her when things go horribly wrong. Virginia Madsen is well cast as the smart, strong-willed Helen. She conveys a vulnerability that makes her a sympathetic character and this helps us identify with her. It’s a strong performance that requires her to show a wide range of emotions: the confident grad student to the fearful murder suspect who questions her own sanity.
The Candyman legend itself is an intriguing one and we are soon as fascinated by it as Helen. Its backstory is steeped in cruelty and prejudice, making the Candyman a tragic figure and somewhat sympathetic in his own right. He is more than just an anonymous scary monster that must be destroyed. The casting of Tony Todd also helps transform the Candyman into a fully realized character. He has the fearsome physical presence with his deep voice and towering figure.
The audio commentary for the movie features an impressive roster: director Bernard Rose, producer Alan Poul, Clive Barker and actors Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd and Kasi Lemmons. Rose starts off by stating that he had always been a fan of the horror genre and of Barker’s work. Poul talks about how the project came together. Barker examines the Candyman mythology and Madsen, a native of Chicago, talks about how she prepared for the role. Each participant was recorded separately and edited together so that there is no dead air. This is a very interesting commentary packed with factoids (i.e. Sandra Bullock was almost cast in Madsen’s role) that fans of the movie will thoroughly enjoy.
“Sweets to the Sweet: The Candyman Mythos” is a 24-minute retrospective featurette. It was Rose who actually thought of making the haunted house Cabrini Green after extensive location scouting. He felt that white, upper class suburbia would be afraid to go there and would be the ideal place for the Candyman to dwell. There is also a fascinating account of how Rose had Madsen hypnotized during filming so that she could achieve a glassy eyed, detached look during certain scenes. He was able to bring her in and out of trances at will! While there is some repetition from the commentary, this is a fascinating look back at this underrated movie.
“Clive Barker: Raising Hell” takes a look the famous author and his prolific career. He talks about his love of telling stories through various media: short stories, novels, films, comic books, etc. This is a short but good profile on the man.
Finally, there is five minute slide show of Bernard Rose’s storyboards for the movie.
Candyman is a horror film that plays it straight. It refuses to resort to irony and self-reflexivity which would dominate the rest of the decade with the rise in popularity of the Scream trilogy and its offspring, like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) Urban Legends (1998), which knowingly wink at its audience and lets them in on the joke. Candyman is grounded in realism and this makes the more fantastical elements so unsettling.