I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing. So now, I must shed innocent blood.”
The purpose of urban legends is often to evoke what scares us most. Children grow up learning dark histories of their neighborhoods from elders at bedtime or around crackling campfires and sugar-fueled sleepovers from friends who’ve heard all the stories before. The folklore is usually attached to a specific location or event relevant to the community, alluding to a strange intimacy that binds these myths directly to the people responsible for their continuous retelling. Much like the ever-changing facets of human existence, these tales transform as they travel through time, spreading cautionary accounts of mystery and morality that boast powerful, realistic truths woven between gruesome threads of fantasy and fiction.
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) are obsessed with the inner workings of urban legends. Their graduate’s thesis at the University of Illinois concerns these age-old narratives. Helen hears word of a housing project on Chicago’s near north side called Cabrini Green, said to be haunted by a vicious supernatural entity known as the Candyman. This story is much sweeter than reports of alligators in the sewer, so she and Bernadette elect to investigate the lead a bit further. The bloody details don’t seem to scare these scholars much, but their skepticism wavers while walking the graffiti-scarred hallways of the eerie tenement complex. Top floor neighbors reluctantly tell the story of poor Ruthie Jean, a woman who called 911 only to be coldly ignored. When the police finally responded to multiple reports of frantic screaming, they discovered her dead body slashed to a grisly pulp. Despite this chilling anecdote, Helen suspects the killer is a human con artist exploiting the clout of terrifying lore to transplant paranoia into potential victims. To her, the Candyman is simply another creature of the mind, like Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster, alive only in the darkest regions of the imagination.
To the petrified residents of Cabrini Green, Candyman is just as real as you or me. He was the son of a former slave turned businessman who was lucky enough to establish his own career as a painter. When a wealthy landowner commissioned the young artist for a portrait of his beautiful daughter, the two of them fell passionately in love. The woman’s father, furious with her interracial coupling, set out with a mob to punish the Candyman. After a merciless beating, they lopped off his right hand and jammed a hook into the bloody stump. Then they covered him with honey and let loose a swarm of angry bees that eventually stung him to death. They burned his tattered body on an enormous pyre and scattered his ashes over the land that would later house the Cabrini Green projects. The history of Candyman’s hateful demise evolved through the decades, somehow twisting the horrible memory of his suffering into a second chance at revenge. Now he treads the line between life and death, inspiring heavy fear and respect within those who believe like an ominous messiah. Anyone brave enough to challenge his existence by muttering his name five times in the mirror can expect an unfriendly visit from the Candyman.
“With my hook for a hand, I’ll split you from your groin to your gullet.”
Unable to shake her doubts, Helen says his name five times to the mirror on her medicine cabinet. Not long after, her life begins to shudder and crack, conjuring strange visions and unexplained occurrences that feel like living nightmares. Soon the Candyman reveals himself, claiming it was her disbelief that summoned him. Thanks to her cynical research, the usual fear conjured by his devoted “congregation” has diminished. To restore this legacy, he decides to toy with Helen, hoping to inspire belief before finally killing her. This leads to some demented puppeteering as the diabolical specter frames her for two brutal murders and the kidnapping of a defenseless baby, setting up a Hitchcockian closing act that sees her as the wrongly accused victim racing against time, desperately fighting to derail the Candyman’s horrific scheme.
Writer and director Bernard Rose, along with the help of cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, present incredible frames rich with piercing intensity and dread. Chilling bird’s eye shots of Chicago convey an otherworldly presence from the very beginning of the film. As the story progresses, transfixing views of the inner city construct the perfect backdrop for a unique a horror story. Rose doesn’t set this tale within the safe confines of the suburbs, nor does he toss his characters into the woods to get merked in some log cabin. The scares in this film are freshly picked from the depraved mind of Clive Barker, based upon his short story, “The Forbidden.” Barker’s gothic source material, combined with Rose’s cinematic command and Richmond’s illustrious eye, create a film that is both beautiful and unsettling in its gore-filled execution.
“What’s blood, if not for shedding?”
Rose is indebted to an exceptional cast led by Madsen’s nervously poised performance as Helen Lyle. Xander Berkeley is slimy and suspicious as Trevor, Helen’s adulterous snob of a husband. Lemmons plays Bernadette with pleasant control, providing a sort of carefree demeanor that contrasts Helen’s pessimism. As a young resident of Cabrini Green named Jake, DeJuan Guy shares a child’s perspective, alluding to the rippling of Candyman’s mythos throughout multiple generations. The most impressive display of acting comes from the man who becomes the monster. Although he wasn’t first pick to play the part, brilliant character actor Tony Todd was chosen by Rose when the budget proved too small to recruit Eddie Murphy. Without the patient, foreboding role that Todd contributes, the tension would thin and disappear before the half-hour mark. His depiction of the titular villain cements the film in the minds and hearts of horror enthusiasts, creating a character who glides through frames with charismatic motion, speaking seductive, rhythmic sentences that seem to slowly crawl from his vengeful mouth.
The stellar efforts of the filmmakers and their powerful cast are generously bolstered by an elegant, haunting score created by Oscar nominated composer Phillip Glass. Instrumentally, Glass’s arrangements are tightened with immense discipline, utilizing a limited but courageous combination of organ and choir to usher the story forward. As Helen represses the terror festering within, the music reveals these feelings to the audience while she struggles to avoid them. Unfortunately, after Glass viewed the finished result of Candyman, he was disappointed to find that the original script his job was based upon was not what transpired on screen. Still, despite any apprehensions toward the film, his work stands as one of the greatest scores in all of horror cinema.
The displeasure Glass finds in the film is not ill-conceived. When first signing onto the project, he and Rose were set on creating social commentary regarding the preposterous, white citizen perception of African-Americans living in the projects as “Boogiemen” from another world. Studio intervention veered their focus and deterred any remaining semblance of their initial vision in favor of the usual slasher clichés. Concentrated dissections of racial and class divides are still apparent in the final cut. Candyman also does quite well to indict irrational fears of miscegenation and the illogical corruption attributed to the foreign “other.” Although Rose’s film ultimately suffers from a lack of follow through concerning these important slivers of subtext, it successfully visualizes the racist anxiety of the white elite and their worrisome suspicions that black strangers will creep into their pristine society to devastate and defile.
After more than twenty-six years, Candyman is still a beloved film. Two sequels, an abundant cult fan base, and a possible remake with rumored connections to Get Out director Jordan Peele suggest the film’s influence won’t fade anytime soon. Todd’s noteworthy antagonist holds a menacing place among titans like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees. Thanks to great acting, masterful filmmaking, hypnotic music, and buckets of blood, Candyman is an unforgettable horror experience that will shock and entertain you. Go watch the film, then find yourself a mirror. Look your reflection dead in the eye and say his name five times—Candyman… Candyman… Candyman… Candyman—it’s all right if you get scared. No one usually gets past four.