The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of ‘80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.
When considering which film to continue this new column with, there were two options: dig up some buried treasure or come out the gate swinging with a heavy hitter. In a way, Candyman fulfills both of those roles. For horror fans, this is an undeniable classic. However, it seems to have fallen by the wayside when it comes to more mainstream appreciation. And that’s a straight up crime.
Based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden”, Candyman tells the tale of a spectral killer with a hook for a hand who appears to anyone who says his name five times in a mirror. His legend is a powerful force that hangs over the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago. A young graduate student, Helen (a fairytale-like Virginia Madsen), is studying urban legends and decides to dig deeper into the history of Candyman.
The origin of this ghost is a tragic one; he was a well-educated African American who grew up during the post-Civil War era and found success as a portrait artist for wealthy socialites. When he fell in love with one of his subjects, they ended up having a baby together. When his lover’s father discovered this, a mob was sent to hunt down Candyman and kill him. They sawed off his hand and placed a hook in the stump. Then, they smeared honey on him and left him to be stung to death by bees. It’s a gruesome end that turns this murderous phantom into a completely sympathetic figure.
And that’s a vital part of what makes Candyman work so well. Played with captivating elegance by Tony Todd, Candyman is a figure that is both horrifying and heartbreaking. There is an emotional complexity to how we perceive Candyman, and that makes him just as interesting a character as Helen. Every time we see him or hear his voice, he is casting a sinister spell on us and drawing us deeper into his world of nightmares.
It’s also worth noting that Candyman is clearly exploring the horrors of urban living and how people in such communities attempt to cope with such dire living conditions. While the main creative voices behind the movie are white, there is a sensitivity and unflinching truth to the world of Cabrini-Green and its residents. Yes, it’s mined for horror, but this isn’t taken to levels of dismissive caricature or farce. It will be interesting to see Candyman released in a post-Get Out world, and see what kind of conversations it will spark.
Director Bernard Rose — whose underseen fantasy/horror film Paperhouse deserves way more digital ink — manages to stay away from drenching the film solely in racial commentary and strongly embraces a dreamlike tone that keeps the whole film feeling tense. While we never doubt the reality of what we’re experiencing, it’s eerily apparent that Helen and the audience are not in control. This is Candyman’s playground and we’re along for the ride. Rose emphasizes this with a number of disorienting camera angles and scene transitions that leave us feeling utterly disarmed. It’s deft filmmaking that doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
Another underappreciated element of the film is the haunting score by renowned composer Philip Glass. Truly, this might be some of the most slighted horror music in the entire genre. Glass utilizes an otherworldly chorus, organ, piano, and glockenspiel to evoke a feeling of dark divinity. It feels like a child’s horrifically distorted memory of what kind of music creeps out from a Gothic cathedral. Much like Jaws, Candyman is a great film that’s made truly excellent by its music.
The lengths that the film goes to in order to invoke terror and dread are equally effective. By the end of the film, a baby is threatened with immolation and we see the gory details of what’s inside Candyman’s iconic coat. And the final shocker of the movie is a knockout in both scare factor and narrative resolution. All of this is handled with such a level of polish and maturity that it might be one of the reasons the film hasn’t managed to maintain a significant presence with modern audiences and critics. Candyman isn’t a “fun” movie. It’s not trying to be. It wants to scare you and get under your skin. That makes for a wholly uncomfortable but totally effective experience.
There are plenty of contenders for Best Horror Film of the ‘90s — we’ll get to all the others — but for my money, Candyman is easily in contention for the top spot. It needs to be as heralded as any other beloved horror film, but it also needs to be recognized as a stunning achievement in cinematic storytelling and in creating one of the genre’s best boogeymen.