Inspired by a recent Laser Time episode, I decided to dig into one of my personal “Halloween comfort foods,” Candyman. But does it hold up?
Candyman is a very good horror film, and I’m glad it has achieved a cult following over time, but I think it actually deserves more accolades than it gets. Candyman isn’t just a good horror movie: it’s a well acted, multi-layered psychological drama with a lot to say about race, urban blight, and the dangers of paternalistic meddling with people and cultures you don’t understand. That said, Candyman is first and foremost a horror movie, and like the best horror movies, it will get inside your brain and make your skin crawl. Its finest trick is the juxtaposition of the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago and the real-life dangers that are fairly or unfairly bound to it, with the supernatural terror of the Candyman himself.
The movie begins with grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) working on a thesis about urban legends. She learns of the local Candyman tale (which is really just the old “Bloody Mary” gag) and its connection to Cabrini-Green, and decides to interview the local residents. While conducting her investigation, she is confronted by a gang leader carrying a hook who has taken the Candyman moniker as his own. He is arrested, and many of the notorious Candyman murders are blamed on him, at which point things get very interesting. You see, there is a real Candyman, and he feeds on belief. When “his” crimes are pinned on a flesh-and-blood human, he is sapped of that belief, and has to physically appear to bring his followers back into the fold.
The original story, Clive Barker’s The Forbidden, was set in the slums of Liverpool, but the move to Chicago works wonders for the story. As straightforward horror, Candyman is fine, but on-location shooting at the actual Cabrini-Green project adds a sense of real danger and authentic grit. While injecting a standalone piece of art with a dose of “race in America” is often a recipe for a clumsy, awkward disaster, it adds so much depth to this story that it’s hard for me to imagine a version set anywhere else. Madsen’s character is the type of plucky white academic who, in a worse movie, would roll into the projects and solve everyone’s problems. In this movie, she is portrayed as a brave but naive student who has gotten involved in something that she cannot possibly comprehend or fix, and in fact, she just makes things worse.
Tony Todd is a horror icon, largely due to his work in the titular role, and he is perfectly cast as the towering, hook-handed slasher. But he also shows off acting chops beyond what we usually get from standard movie monsters. The Candyman’s backstory is tragic, gory, and unjust. He has a legitimate grievance, and while he is certainly a cold-blooded monster engaged in inexcusable and irredeemable acts against innocent people, he is still a sympathetic villain. Todd’s performance shows the depths of a creature who was once much more, and that is no easy feat. Both Madsen and Todd ensure that their characters never become hack-y, and each imbues their roles with so much emotion that they often transcend the movie itself. This is, in my opinion, Todd’s finest role.
English director Bernard Rose drives all of this home, and he’s especially effective in his use of long shots of Cabrini-Green to create a sense of isolation. There are a ton of memorable shots in this movie, especially if you are as scared of bees as I am. Additionally, the score by Philip Glass helps to maintain a constant state of dread.
Candyman is genuinely scary. It’s not above the occasional cheap jump scare, but it is a masterful work of ramping up tension, only to release it in completely unexpected ways. You can pick out the occasional plot hole if you are of a mind to do so, but this movie is driven primarily by atmosphere and the relationships between characters and their environments. Ghost stories will always flout physics, and small failings of internal magical logic are forgivable, as they are frequently in service to a larger point. The most important thing for the movie is simply Todd’s presence, both seen and unseen, as an omnipresent lurking menace.
Candyman isn’t really a “fun” horror movie, but it is a serious, smart one. And it’s worth revisiting.
Article by contributor BadgerNoonan.