Sweets to the sweet.
An urban legend ghost such as Candyman (Tony Todd) doesn’t care about anyone besides those willing to keep his memory alive. His purpose in death is to be remembered through blood—turning his heinous fate from the late nineteenth century into a curse that haunts others into being too scared to naively follow in his own footsteps where it comes to the belief that someone who looks like him can escape the prejudice that targets the color of his skin. So when Chicago grad students Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Bernie Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) say his name five times in the mirror of the former’s expensive condo, Candyman has no reason to visit. Killing them would actually hurt his longevity since their thesis seeks to birth new disciples.
Writer/director Bernard Rose brings Clive Barker‘s original short story “The Forbidden” from Liverpool to the “Windy City” in order to let his Candyman highlight the racial divide and segregation that still prevails in America today. By utilizing the Cabrini-Green public housing development, he sets ground zero inside a derelict building caught in the middle of two upper class neighborhoods populated by residents who wouldn’t dare set foot across the imaginary borders separating them. It’s here that the last two Candyman incidents took place: a woman butchered by someone who entered her apartment through the wall behind her medicine cabinet and a young man neutered in the bathrooms. The papers say it’s a serial killer. The police stay away because they are no witnesses. And tenants fear Candyman’s wrath.
That leads Helen to throw caution to the wind and enter Cabrini-Green despite the danger being white, attractive, and wealthy conjures. She follows the graffiti, photographs the crime scenes, and even lucks upon a willing interviewee (Vanessa Williams‘ Anne-Marie) to provide background information. Helen treats what’s happening as homicides with logical answers and thus every new detail she uncovers (including a gang leader who might potentially be using Candyman’s name to tighten his grip on the community) sows another seed of doubt towards the legend’s veracity. Her use as a storyteller is therefore erased in an instant once her motives turn from collecting stories to debunking them. That in turn does get the real Candyman’s attention. No longer watching from the shadows, he appears to restore his glory.
It’s a chilling and unique monster movie in that way since he’s not merely bloodthirsty. Candyman is smart and calculating. He weighs his options, acts with purpose, and never falls prey to the theatrics of his counterparts like Freddy Kruger, Jason, and Michael Myers. We as viewers don’t therefore fear the jump scares that may or may not come if he appears behind the shoulder of whoever dared say his name. We don’t even fear the brutality of his response courtesy of the metal hook affixed to the stump of his right wrist. No, our terror lies in his silent creeping days later, after biding his time to strike when it benefits him most. It’s the bees pouring out of his mouth and the hypnosis of his words.
Because while the opening act introduces us to Helen (and the secrets looming over her love life with husband Trevor, as played by Xander Berkeley) and the real-world impact a ghost story can have as far as wielding power over people who are already disenfranchised, it serves only as a prologue to a truth more sinister than she could ever fathom. Not only does she ruin the good thing he had going with a copycat doing the work for him, but she has the gall to infect a young boy (DeJuan Guy‘s Jake) with the idea it’s all fake. Candyman is forced into needing to write a new chapter in his legacy as a result and who better to assist than the woman who doesn’t believe?
The real meat of the film may see Candyman committing the crimes, but he’s placing the blame squarely on Helen instead. It’s a dual-pronged plan too as he’s able to both get revenge by having a white woman be the one screaming about an invisible culprit and remind everyone of the fact that his own “crime”—the one that earned him a painful demise—wasn’t his alone. No one pretends that the white woman he fell in love with and conceived a child with was stung to death by bees. It was her father that hired the lynch mob in the first place. Helen can therefore become Candyman’s original love’s surrogate. She can be this city’s newest boogeyman and increase his mystique across the racial and economic divide.
Rose and Todd orchestrate some great kills along this road with each given a before (Candyman’s punishment) and after (Helen left with no memory and a weapon in her hand). And maybe it is all in her head too. She received a concussion during an assault and might be hallucinating this evil as a means of shielding her psyche from her own darkness. Some of that welcome ambiguity disappears as we get closer to the end’s multiple question marks (the biggest one being whether Candyman has a physical form) and convenient heroics (not to mention the epilogue’s torch passing), but it’s nice while it lasts because it helps send Helen deep into the abyss of lost identity. Could she have done these gruesome acts? Betrayal’s a powerful motivator.
For Rose to have a Black villain steeped in the Black experience running amok in a Black setting and yet choose to center everything on a white woman from a different world can’t help proving a missed opportunity (which looks to be rectified in Nia DaCosta‘s reboot/sequel), but it does show the narrow scope of what Hollywood believed (and still does in many ways) to be profitable. The script is obviously looking to comment on poverty and how two totally different ecosystems can exist across the street from one another, though, so there is intent that successfully comes to fruition regardless. That disparity only exists if the infrastructure demands it—something more white people are finally willing to believe upon the realization that “Candyman” comes for them next.
Watched in conjunction with Season Seven of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.