This month marks the 25th anniversary of Bernard Rose’s Candyman – a beautiful and haunting film that is just as effective, relevant and terrifying today as it was upon its release. Based on a short story by Clive Barker, Candyman gives us a horror boogeyman who lives within his own legend, killing to spread rumors of his deeds and then feeding on belief.
In Candyman, graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is studying the history and effects of urban legends. Her research takes her to the Chicago housing project, Cabrini-Green. Long known for crime and gang-perpetrated violence, it is also home to the legend of Candyman – a vicious figure with a hook in place of his hand who will appear should you dare whisper his name five times while staring into a mirror.
Like all good ghost stories, Candyman’s legend is rooted in fact. He was born the son of an affluent freed slave. His father had achieved a great amount of wealth after the Civil War and Candyman was raised as a part of Chicago society. That is, until he made the mistake of falling in love with the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Candyman was hunted down and viciously murdered by an angry mob in the location where Cabrini-Green would eventually come to be built, and his spirit and legend are a very present part of the complex. Kept alive and fed through stories of horrific violence, his presence is more than a scary story told in the dark, as he hold sway over the residents of the projects. As Helen’s research brings her closer to his story, she finds herself becoming more entwined in his influence, becoming a part of his legend herself.
The film is singular in the way it portrays its boogeyman. The Candyman relies on the legend surrounding him to flourish, keeping the people of Cabrini-Green whispering and glancing fearfully into the shadows for some sign of his presence. He feeds on the anxiety and fear generated from his story. Rose skillfully builds on the way ghost stories are spread to tell the tale of Candyman, using the idea of how legends evolve and last to give its titular character life and power. Candyman was created through an act of violence, but he continues to exist because his legend has become larger than life itself.
A particularly fascinating component of this film is the setting of the story. We rarely see ghost stories told in such a distinctly urban environment. Small towns, suburbs, old houses and isolated locales are plentiful, but we don’t often see a ghost story set among the concrete spires of a city. Ghosts, at their core, represent something old and antiquated. Something of the past. Cities represent the present. The now. The two rarely come together in supernatural storytelling, but Candyman demonstrates that even the most modern of settings can have a dark backstory that haunts it to its core.
This setting is further solidified by giving the Candyman character distinctly American roots. Barker’s original story, set in Liverpool, examined class as an underlying theme, and didn’t really give the Candyman a backstory. By setting it in the United States and making Candyman a Black man, Rose added another layer of complexity to the film. This incorporation of race ties the film more distinctly to America’s history and links it to inequalities that are still a part of our society today. Candyman was killed by a racist mob, and his spirit now resides and roots its legend in the walls of a housing complex – a place where the new elite have pushed the poorer people of color. He is a spirit that was very of his time when he was killed, and is still of our time in the modern setting of the story – a link between past and present.
The story is brought to life by an incredible cast. Genre legend Tony Todd inhabits the role of Candyman beautifully. Coming on the heels of Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead remake in 1990, Candyman cemented Todd as a horror centerpiece. His portrayal of the tragic boogeyman is both alluring and terrifying. Like Helen, we are inexplicably drawn to Candyman whenever he’s onscreen, yet fearful of him at the same time. His deep voice softly imploring her, “Be my victim” is beautifully hypnotic. As entrancing as he is, he is also brutal. The film doesn’t skimp on the gore, and Candyman is not afraid to rip his victims to pieces as he sees fit. It is this brutality that makes his allure all the more dangerous.
Virginia Madsen provides an excellent counterpart in Helen. She is intelligent and insightful and refuses to be deterred as she searches for the truth behind the events terrorizing Cabrini-Green. Her ambition is ultimately her undoing when it leads her headlong into Candyman’s grasp, but it is also what keeps her fighting. Kasi Lemmons and Xander Berkeley round out the cast in vital supporting roles.
As vital as the story and cast is in bringing this classic to life, so too is the phenomenal score by Philip Glass. Beautiful and haunting, it perfectly sets the tone of the film. It captures the elegance of the world that Candyman came from while also creating an air of unease and mystery.
Candyman is a unique and fascinating film that captured our minds and nightmares twenty-five years ago and still has them in its grip today. This is a film that is socially relevant and amazingly effective. It is a tale for the ages that will draw you in and leave you whispering Candyman’s name in the dead of night…just be sure you don’t get to number five.