In 1987, writer Clive Barker directed Hellraiser. This wasn’t the first film he’d written but it was the first he directed. His next directorial venture, Nightbreed (1990) wasn’t a commercial success and he didn’t return to directing until 1995 with the film Lord of Illusions. I’ve never been a fan of his books and I’ve tried and failed with most of them. Same goes with his short stories which are, like most authors who’ve published similar collections, hit and miss. Some of his short stories have been adapted for cinema or TV and of these there is one clear standout for me.
Candyman was released in 1992 and based on a short story called The Forbidden. I hadn’t seen it for a good few years before watching it again for the purpose of this retrospective and, not only has it aged really well but it’s also just really bloody good.
One of the first things I noticed during my watch was the score. It’s very minimal and there isn’t much variation on the soundtrack but composer Philip Glass has done a phenomenal job with a simplistic but memorable piece of music that echoes throughout the film and deserves to be as recognisable as John Carpenters Halloween theme or the Elm Street theme by Charles Bernstein.
Director, Bernard Rose also does a tremendous job here and Candyman is an atypical slasher movie with a lot more going on than just a hook-handed man killing people.
The film follows Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) who, along with her friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), is writing a thesis for their university on urban legends. One that piques the interest of Helen especially is that of Candyman. Similar to the Bloody Mary story, the legend goes that, if you say Candyman five times into the mirror, he appears behind you and kills you with his hook-handed arm.
This interest is further fueled when Helen speaks to a cleaning woman at the university who informs her that Candyman is very real and is responsible for a series of murders in Cabrini Green which is a housing project in Chicago.
When at dinner with her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) Helen talks with an old tutor of hers called Philip (Michael Culkin), an expert on folklore and owner of a rather unique haircut. He has already written about the Candyman legend and tells us the backstory of this tragic character.
Candyman was the son of a slave who had become wealthy. This enabled Candyman to get a good education and a comfortable life. He was a great painter of portraits but things changed for the worse when he fell in love with one of his clients daughters and she him. This was a time when a union between a black man and a white woman was not accepted by many and, when the daughter fell pregnant, Candyman was horrifically killed. His hand was cut off and his naked body was smeared with honeycomb so that he could be stung to death by a swarm of angry bees. This all, apparently, took place on the site that Cabrini Green stands.
The film does deal with issues of race but doesn’t get too heavy handed about it and does make some salient points that are sadly, still relevant today. It’s not the theme that totally drives the narrative but it is there.
Helen and Bernadette visit Cabrini Green. By this point they have discovered that the apartment complex that Helen lives in and Cabrini Green are identical. Turns out that with a glossier coat of paint you can sell one complex as desirable housing and let the other slip into ruin and create an unpleasant segregation.
This is evidenced on the two friends visit to the housing project. They stand out like sore thumbs and Bernadette is especially edgy though Helen seems a little too confident or obsessed and it is these traits that will impact what happens further on.
They investigate the apartment of the last murder victim and find a hidden room behind the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Within this room/lair is artwork resembling Candyman and a strange altar with sweets left there as if they’re an offering of some sort.
They also meet the neighbour, a young woman called Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams) who lives with her infant son, Anthony, and pet Rottweiler. She heard her neighbour Ruthie Jean, being murdered and attributes it to Candyman.
Later, Helen returns alone and meets a young boy called Jake (DeJuan Guy) who tells her about a murder that took place in a nearby public toilet and involved the genital mutilation of the victim….with a hook…deeply unpleasant.
A blindly fearless Helen goes to this small building where we get to see the wonderful site of the worst lavatory I’ve seen with the only exception being the film Trainspotting. It’s in here that she is confronted by a hook wielding man backed by a couple of younger men who beat Helen quite badly.
Jake saves her life by contacting the cops and a point is made as to how quickly this crime is attended to compared to the murders of the black community in the area.
Of course, we’re waiting for the inevitable. Earlier in the film, Helen and Bernadette said Candyman into the mirror but, notably, only Helen said it the full five times. We know that he’s coming but just don’t know when.
It’s almost halfway through the film that we finally get to see the eponymous Candyman and it’s an effective introduction.
We saw him very briefly near the beginning of the movie but, as Helen is walking through a car park, she hears a voice speak her name. There’s nothing demonic or especially gravelly in the voice but there is definitely something about it that raises the hairs on your neck.
We finally get to see Candyman properly as Tony Todd appears and approaches Helen. Todd has earned his stripes over the years as a horror icon and, though he’s been in so many movies, both good and bad, it is his performance here, despite not a huge amount of screen time, that cements this status as the character feel present throughout.
Candyman (whose real name, Daniel Robitaille, is not revealed until the sequel) is not best pleased with Helen. By exposing the Cabrini Green killer as a mere mortal, she has weakened people’s belief in him and it is their fear that sustains him. Needing to reaffirm his mythology, Candyman intends to use Helen and make an example of her before his existence is eradicated.
There’s something almost vampiric about Candyman and Todd’s portrayal of him. It’s not just the fact that he feeds on fear the same way that a vampire feeds on blood but the hypnotic powers he exhibits when confronting Helen. Virginia Madsen was hypnotised for real at the request of the director and that comes across brilliantly on screen as she reacts, not so much with fear in some instances, but more like she is being seduced by her tormentor and on my most recent watch I saw a much more darkly romantic tinge to their interactions.
This isn’t immediately apparent of course as Candyman systematically ruins Helen’s life in a series of brutal actions.
After his first showing, Helen wakes from her hypnotic trance and finds herself in Anne-Marie’s apartment. The poor young woman’s dog has been decapitated and her baby is missing. She attacks a blood soaked Helen and that is when the police arrive and make the arrest.
Helen is uncomfortably strip searched and, again, kudos to Virginia Madsen here. The confident character that we met earlier in the film has gone and we feel for her as, we know what’s happened but who would believe that story.
She calls her husband but, despite it being the middle of the night, there is no answer and Trevor collects her in the morning claiming he was asleep when she called. The police believe she is guilty of murdering the baby but with no body they don’t charge her but do believe it will turn up.
From bad to worse doesn’t quite cover it. Barely a day has gone by before Candyman makes another appearance. Trevor isn’t at home because he is an arsehole and decides against staying to look after his wife. Candyman renders Helen speechless as her friend Bernadette comes to visit and Candyman claims another victim.
This time, when Helen comes to, she finds her world in absolute disarray. The police are arresting her for the murder of Bernadette whose mutilated body is discovered by her husband who cannot believe her innocence.
Bypassing a police cell, Helen is taken to an institution to evaluate her mental capacity to stand trial for her crime/s where she is, once again, visited by Candyman who floats above her taunting the angrily terrified woman with claims that she is his now.
It transpires that a month has passed and Helen has spent most of that time under heavy sedation. She meets with Dr. Burke (Stanley DeSantis) who is preparing her case for defence and he shows her the footage filmed when Candyman visited Helen not long after her arrival and, of course, we see Helen shouting at nothing. With a dark glint of resignation in her eye, Helen tells the doctor that she can prove that she’s not lying and speaks her masters name five times into the mirror.
The doomed doctor doesn’t get long to react to this poor woman’s obvious mental deterioration before Candyman appears behind him and guts him like a fish before releasing Helen from her restraints and flying backwards out of the window.
Helen escapes from the hospital disguised as a nurse and heads home to the only person left who might be able to help her. However, as pointed out earlier, Trevor is an arsehole and is redecorating their apartment with help from one of his students, a young lady called Stacey (Carolyn Lowery) who, as we suspected after seeing their interactions earlier, he is having an affair with.
Realising there’s nothing left of her life now, Helen doesn’t break down in anguish. There’s no point. She instead scares the bejesus out of them and leaves to finally confront the monster that’s torn her reality to shreds.
She heads to Candyman’s lair in Cabrini Green and finds his sleeping body but is unable to kill him as he wakes and once again seduces her into a trance-like state which also features one hell of a lot of bees which are, at one point, even in Tony Todd’s mouth which was achieved by just putting live bees in his mouth. That is dedication to one’s art!! This moment moves from vampiric seduction/hypnosis to something vaguely reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera almost as Candyman and Helen briefly dance and it seems she fully, finally, succumbs to her paramour. They kiss…kind of… and, once more Helen slips into sleep.
When she awakes she is alone and it is then we see that there is an image, painted by Candyman of his lost love, his reason for living and cause of his death. Maybe, unsurprisingly, there is a resemblance between this woman from the past and Helen.
She is taken out of this moment when she hears a baby crying and makes her way to a large bonfire that has been constructed by the residents of Cabrini Green. She crawls in to rescue the baby but is seen by Jake who mistakes her for Candyman (whose existence is clearly, once more, believed by the community). The bonfire is set alight and within the growing inferno Helen confronts Candyman for the final time. He wants her to stay with him for all eternity but Helen finds her inner strength and resilience and escapes from the fire along with the baby leaving Candyman to be consumed by the flames.
Redeemed by her final actions Helen dies as a result of the damage done by the fire but not before handing an unharmed baby to it’s tearful mother.
What could have been the final scene plays next as the residents of Cabrini Green gate-crash Helen’s sparsely attended funeral and throw Candyman’s hook onto her coffin which I’m choosing to interpret as a show of gratitude for what she did in her final moments.
This would’ve been an acceptable way to end the movie and I wouldn’t have been too pissed off if the credits had rolled here but this is a horror movie and not far removed from the eighties so there was always gonna be a sting of some sort.
The final scene takes us to Trevor in his apartment along with his girlfriend. He is grieving the loss of his wife much to the seeming annoyance of the bitchy Stacey. Get a hand ready to count as he speaks Helen’s name while looking into the mirror in a mournful “Why oh why!” tone. One, two, three, four and on five….
…the lights go out and a hairless Helen appears behind her husband and when Stacey enters the bathroom she finds his eviscerated body in the bathtub. A new urban legend is born and the credits roll.
It’s fair to say that I really like this movie.
I saw it very differently on my most recent watch and there is a darkly romantic poetry to the story that I didn’t really appreciate when I was younger. It’s not a love story per se but there are elements of one in the tale. The minimal soundtrack is beautifully effective and the performances from the principal cast are of a very high standard from what could have been a generic slasher movie with both Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen playing their roles perfectly.
This may well be one of the best horror movies to come out of the 90’s and, though the film did generate two sequels I would recommend giving them a miss (I won’t be reviewing them myself in any hurry) and just enjoy this story as a standalone cautionary horror fable.
After a run of Elm Streets and now Candyman, I’m gonna move away from “slasher” films for a while and move onto another branch or three of the genre.
Coming up I’m going to be looking at a suburban haunting, a gang of bloodsuckers and a lycanthropic tourist so until next time…..