It’s the weekend before Halloween as I write this up. It’s dark outside, the shadows twist in weird ways that invite your imagination to really screw with you, and I have just revisited one of the only horror movies that has ever been able to get inside my head and linger for days or even weeks at a time.
Candyman is a film based on Clive Barker’s original story “The Forbidden,” written and directed by Bernard Rose. Moving the story from its original English setting to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, Candyman tells the story of two graduate students writing their thesis on the idea of local people using urban legends as a means to explain away the horrors of daily life in impoverished neighborhoods.
The legend of Candyman tells the story of a son of a slave who made his living as an artist, painting portraits of the wealthy. In this capacity he meets a young lady, falls in love, and gets her pregnant. The lady’s father gathers a mob together, hunting the man and exacting a brutal revenge that would make anyone cringe. So the story goes, if you look into a mirror and say his name five times, he appears behind you and splits you open from groin to gullet with his hook-for-a-hand.
If that idea sounds familiar, it’s based in part on the classic “Bloody Mary” legend.
When Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) learn of the murder of a young woman named Ruthie Jean and how the locals attribute her death to the Candyman legend, the two head to Cabrini to learn more. The Candyman’s power is based in rumor, and some locals have taken to spreading fear and violence in the name of this specter just on account. Fear is powerful, tangible. But Helen commits the ultimate sin against the Cabrini bogeyman when she tells a young boy that there is no such thing as Candyman.
It’s not your average ghost story when an apparition appears in broad daylight and tells you that he was “obliged to come” once the seed of doubt has been sown in the minds of his faithful believers.
The Candyman (Tony Todd) tells Helen that he lives in other people’s dreams, in a blessed state beyond life and death. To undo the damage she has caused to his legend, she must become his victim, a willing sacrifice in full view of his “congregation” so that his power may be restored. The story twists and turns from here. From one perspective, Candyman has committed these brutal murders, reviving the fear attached to his name. From another perspective, perhaps Helen is simply insane, killing in the name of Candyman to generate interest when it’s learned that publishers are interested in the story. Whichever the case, there’s an infant’s life on the line. Was he kidnapped by Candyman to lure Helen to him, or did Helen take him to further inflate the story?
Candyman is, as I’ve said, one of the few movies with true staying power. Most slasher films are gratuitous blood-splatter machines, and this one is certainly no different in that regard. But as a good old-fashioned ghost story, Candyman works on the psychological level. When the movie’s over and the lights go back on, it’s astounding how long it takes to be able to look at a mirror without this story doing things to you on some level. Add in Philip Glass’ memorable “Music Box” theme, which just gets stuck in your head by the time the credits roll, and you’ve got the making for the kind of haunt that keeps on haunting. Sure, you can laugh it off, but… have you tried to call him? I’m often impressed when I introduce people to this film, and they come away from it telling me, “That could actually happen.” Maybe not so much the hook killings, but some people are convinced in the legitimacy of this ghost story. And that probably has something to do with the whole “Blood Mary” thing. Who hasn’t tried that at some point?
In addition to the psychological factors, this movie has two points that keep me coming back time and again. The first is Virginia Madsen.
Today she’s an Oscar-winning A-list actress, but back then she was a B-movie scream queen, or so we all assumed. The thing is, hindsight is 20/20, and you can see her acting abilities on full display here. Most impressive to me is the scene where she returns home to the hospital to find her husband and his latest fling. You can see her become slowly unhinged. It’s a quiet insanity that simmers. Not only does it work in the confines of the scene, but it’s made even more powerful by the entire arc of her character’s journey. She makes it seem natural, which means it was hard work and that Oscar is well-deserved. She’s come a long way since David Lynch’s Dune. I sometimes wonder how she felt about Candyman being set in Chicago, where she was born.
The second point and even bigger point that brings me back to this one is Tony Todd.
Todd is one of my absolute, all-time favorite character actors. I rank him right up there with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. I had no idea who he was when I first saw him on Star Trek: The Next Generation, guest-starring as Worf’s brother Kern. He got my attention there. With Candyman, that’s when his name stuck with me. I’ve been a devoted fanboy ever since. There’s just something about this guy that sticks with me. What has always been most cool for me is that he’s turned up in all manner of projects that I would never expect to see him in, from Xena: Warrior Princess to Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda to Star Trek: Prelude to Axanar. He is one of those true professionals who pushes every ounce of emotion and charisma he has into a performance. You can tell he enjoys losing himself in the roles, regardless of the quality of the story around him. Sort of like Samuel L. Jackson, but a touch more subtle.
Candyman was popular enough and generated enough box office to warrant two sequels, the merits which are often debated amongst fans. For myself, I rather enjoy the second film and think it to be a worthy successor for all the right reasons. I’ll discuss it on another post at some point down the road. The third one is more than a little contrived for my tastes. Good idea, but not the greatest of executions. Even so, I’ve certainly seen worse attempts at sequels, and it tends to remind me of just how good this first one is. This movie is one of those true gems that demonstrates why the horror genre works so well. People love to be scared, and this movie is more than just cheap jump scares and gore. It has those aplenty, but it’s also got a lot of heart. And brains. This is a smart film. It doesn’t talk down to its audience, and it doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It just tells a good story and gives you some thrills and chills along the way. What more could anyone ask?