Best Horror of the 90s: Candyman

candymanCandyman‘s opening shot has us in Lovecraft country, maybe unwittingly – the
massive gray highways stretch over and through the city like Cthulhu’s tentacles reaching into
the minds of dreamers. They create new vistas of delirium for those captured, and Bernard
Rose’s film shows us the apotheosis of these nightmares: a big black guy with a hook for a
hand. But the Candyman isn’t just a Michael Myers/Jason/whoever redux – he’s a new God for an ugly
urban world.

I. Liberal Racism

An urban world that, thank God, is changing in real life. Cabrini-Green, the Chicago
ghetto where a lot of the film’s action is set, is no longer the hell presented here by Rose and co.
Cabrini-Green, the housing project, is now demolished, and at the time of its demolition there was a good deal of predictable liberal hand-wringing over destruction of the slums, taking people out of mismanaged government-provided homes that had become hellholes. This attitude is displayed in the film, and may be the most audacious of the themes running through Candyman: an indictment of academics who would rather study a problem than fix it.

Candyman, starring Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd, is about a pair of graduate students, Helen Lyle (Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons), engaged in earnest studiousness on the
Look at the shower curtain, the wicker basket - all Africanizedsubject of urban legends. They uncover some nasty stories about a local folk monster, Candyman (Todd), and decide to visit the source – Cabrini-Green. As Helen in particular becomes more immersed in the stories, reality loses its hold and she comes face to face with the Candyman himself.

The plot is standard horror fare with standard horror elements, but there are also a number of intelligent and subtle touches that coalesce into a truly stunning film. Visually, Rose and crew have put together a horror movie that’s unconventional because it is shot so almost-conventionally. Dutch angles and quick edits don’t provide the scares (though there are a few flash edits here and there, they aren’t a regularly visited motif). Rather, the camera takes in David Lazan’s unsettling art direction without callingThe fecal sweets attention to itself, allowing the urban dread to build in a culmination of garbage and graffiti (especially that oddly disturbing phrase, “Sweets to the Sweet,” written in feces on a bathroom wall and in yellow paint inside the apartments themselves). The walls of Candyman’s domicile are sickeningly alive, wet and dripping: The horrors don’t leap out of the corner of the frame (except in one little mistake of a shot) but rather sit in the middle, scaring us not with sudden surprise but with slow contemplation and wholly developed images.

The urban blight of Cabrini-Green is cleverly contrasted with Helen’s apartment, which is decorated in a faux-African style, with bookshelves looking like bundles of sticks, and even an African-print shower curtain (the movie as a whole is pretty straight-faced, but some of these visual jokes are quite funny. I very much liked the new color scheme introduced by Helen’s replacement: pink tiles, fuzzy pink chairs, and pink-bright buckets of paint). This underlies the central theme: blacks and Africans are to be poked and pointed at, sympathized with and left in the same hells, to be simultaneously held down and then used as symbols of ‘America’s racist system’ for votes in election
s. When Helen visits with black women – the cleaners at the college and then a young single mother in Cabrini-Green – it isn’t a human connection she tries to make but rather she uses them to further her research, which brings some very real physical danger to the latter woman.

Central to Candyman is this culture clash: the way two people can lead very different lives (and worship very different gods, more on that later) just eight blocks apart. Helen and Bernadette (who is black, but seems to be regarded by those in the ghetto as just as alien as Helen, which points to the importance of class in racial identity, yatta yatta yatta) have fun with the ideas of parity – Helen’s apartment was built as part of a housing project retooled into condos – but these other lives are just opportunities and fun, their thesis with some meat on its bones.

II. Primal Urban Fear

With the Candyman’s appearance in the flesh to Helen, the film veers wildly into the realm of the supernatural, but here the director keeps the horror real by embodying it in a very real fear of the white middle class: the big, tough, urban black guy. This is one of two major distinctions between the film and its source, Clive Barker’s short
The Candyman reveals himselfstory “The Forbidden.” Both deal with the same plot outlines, but instead of the Chicago ghetto, Barker’s story is set in a low-rent British community. The movie’s change is a smart one – Cabrini-Green is such an awful place (and portions of the film were shot on location) that we can believe its residents would seek ANY form of transcendence, even with the devil himself.

Tony Todd’s Candyman doesn’t look like the devil, though. Wearing a long coat and a hook for a hand, he looks just like the killer in that other urban legend. At the time the film was released, a few reviews ridiculed the costume he wore, comparing his long fur coat to a pimp’s outfit. Well, of course it looks like that – what the hell’s your conception of the inner city tough? Should he instead be decked out in a fedora with a red-and-black-striped shirt? This is typical of most critics’ active ignorance toward this type of movie, in that intelligence is not to be found here and if it is, it will be denied.

Candyman is smart, though. It taps simultaneously into two common fears, urban dread and personal mutilation, then piles new ones on top. The Hitchcockian dread of being wrongfully accused and placed in the authorities’ hands with no recourse; the fear of being abandoned by one’s family, of being burnt alive, of being stung by bees… These fears, common and grand, are relentlessly piled on. In this way, it’s something like The Silence Of The Lambs: little intense situations create a foundation for the real and profound horrors to take place. The sense of dread is also exacerbated by Philip Glass’s bizarre and minimalist score: electronic pulses and heavenly choirs help to set the deeply religious tone that informs the entire film.

III. New Gods

Yep, religious. Candyman does all sorts of wonderful things we’ve already talked about, but what makes it one of the finest horror movies of recent years is that it finally, explicitly recognizesBig scary Tony Todd the primary undercurrent of all slasher movie antagonists: they are gods. Not like big daddy G of the Judeo-Christian thing that serves us oh-so-well in these here United States. Rather, they are the pagan gods, a Marduk or Baal for our times.

Candyman is a religious figure. He attacks Helen because her words have caused dissent amongst his congregation, and he needs to prove that he is indeed very much real. His ugly, organic apartment and the bees that crowd his innards (which populate perhaps the single mo
st uncomfortable-looking kiss in cinema history, like Notorious in reverse) all connect him to a primal and repellent nature. The same is true of Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, and boring-as-all-hell Jason Vorhees. All of them are semi-indestructible fetishes, Elder Gods for a new era. None of the films they featured in were smart enough to recognize or play upon that fact in any intelligent manner (except for New Nightmare, but Joe gets to write about that and I don’t. More’s the pity), while Candyman makes it the movie’s centerpiece, and one that fits neatly in with its earlier themes: Candyman’s deification is a result of the squalor of Cabrini-Green, and he only assaults the members of the white society when one of them introduces the element of doubt.

But any horror film can turn into a vile load of crap if the performances aren’t right. All the clever direction in the world can’t save that (want proof? Look at Savini’s wretched Night Of The Living Dead, which has all the right elements except for its bad performances by everyone but Candyman himself, Tony Todd). Here the actors all hit the right notes with a number of very clever and human touches that ground their characters in reality. Virginia Madsen plays Helen with great confidence-bordering-on-arrogance that makes one cute, short scene with her husband a nifty little treasure: showing off the recovery of her recently wounded eye with great pride, like she’d worked extra hard at touching it up. And Tony Todd plays the part of the god with a brutal elegance who, whenever he’s with Helen, is like a lion playing with its cub. It’s a testament to his capabilities as an actor and Rose’s assured direction that this very earthy-looking actor (no, that’s not a euphemism for black – the man’s a huge 6’5″) seems so ethereal and otherwordly.

A few aspects of the film do not work. The centuries-gone love didn’t work in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it doesn’t work here either. It adds superfluous motivation for actions already properly motivated. But that’s one misstep, and Candyman gets so much so right. Bernard Rose knows the genre well enough to tweak it and still make a serious horror movie, and his jokes are sly and subtle I did NOT just do this to sneak breasts onto our page. It illustrates my point.where a lesser filmmaker would stick one-liners in the monster’s dialogue. My favorite is the penultimate shot: Helen’s husband’s new lover screaming and holding a knife, while her bra-less breasts tussle ‘neath her tight shirt like a couple of dogs fighting over a scrap of meat (they do, really – watch the movie). This shot combines sex with violence like the more reprehensible examples of the genre, but it’s a tease in both counts. It’s also indicative of the movie as a whole: an intelligent, incisive, non-overt review of genre fixtures, and just a fine film in its own right.

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