“We hear you’re looking for Candyman, b**ch.” The 1992 original is not quite on its 20 year anniversary, though that isn’t far off, and we’re less than one week (as of this writing) from a new follow-up. No better time than now to take a trip back to the Cabrini-Green projects and dig into the story of the Candyman, executive produced by one Clive Barker and adapted from his short story titled “The Forbidden.” Here are three reasons why it’s time (if you haven’t already) to watch:
THE STORY: Chicago graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and her classmate/friend Bernadette Walsh (Casi Lemmons) are doing research for a thesis paper on urban legends. Helen’s research leads her to the story of the “Candyman” (Tony Todd). His genesis began as the son of a slave in the late 1800’s. Daniel Robitaille was his name, and he was a talented painter for rich whites. He fell in love with the daughter of one of these wealthy families he did work for and even made a baby with said daughter. The whites in the community he worked for were not pleased, and ended up brutally murdering him by a combination of cutting off his right hand and coating him in honey, prompting bees to sting him relentlessly while he bled out. His ashes were scattered where the current Cabrini-Green projects lie.
Now, if his name is said five times in a mirror, he is rumored to appear as a malevolent spirit surrounded by a swarm of bees and a bloody hook for a right hand, murdering the summoner viciously. But it is only an urban legend, right? Well, many recent Chicago murder bystanders mention the presence of an otherworldly presence that matches the tales of one Candyman. Helen (particularly, very skeptical) and Bernadette are compelled into Cabrini and begin to find out more of this fictional figure. Once you go down a rabbit role, you’re never coming out the same person you used to be.
Candyman 1992 isn’t devoid of what is found in many average horror movies, that being the handful of jump scares. All said though, they are mild in frequency. Instead, Candyman’s director Bernard Rose prefers to draw his scares through a less-frequent setting, that of the gritty and uncompromising Cabrini-Green neighborhood. It is rare to see movies that take place so prominently in spaces such as Cabrini-Green that are not semi-jokey, much less horror-dominant movies, and immediately, that serves as one of the hooks to Candyman. It’s fresh, even today on an initial watch or rewatch. No, the entire movie does not take place there, but like its titular character, it lingers throughout whether in the foreground or the background. The atmosphere is paired with a score credited to Phillip Glass that is equal parts ominous and beautiful, even evoking imagery of church and religion as the Candyman is essentially a deity in this world with people very much believing in his acts and his “legacy.”
Sometimes, a setting and atmosphere is best built by simply being authentic. Candyman embraced this, whether out of necessity due to a lack of money, a need to create something that stood out, or a combination of the two. Those scenes taking place in the projects really took place there, with deals being struck with the local gangs to ensure their safety while filming. The bees used in various scenes are very legitimate and made specifically for the film, and Todd has gone on record outlining his multiple stings suffered in this feature and the trilogy as a whole. Madsen herself even submitted to hypnosis for many of the later scenes, which she didn’t love but went with for as long as she could. Obviously, it is still a film based on fiction, but the attention to real detail to create something long-lasting is highly commendable.
I wrote it down. The Candyman does not make his first official full-frame appearance until about 45 minutes in. For many features, this could and would be an issue for most viewers—the focal point of a film missing in action for the entire first act and part of the second. Beyond the issue for the large lot of viewers, your central subject character being M.I.A. typically leads to a lot of meandering from a plot perspective until that character arrives.
For Candyman, the argument can strongly be made that it benefits from this approach for two reasons. Reason 1? The story is an urban legend, and urban legends only exist and grow in power if they are constantly retold and mentioned. What this means for the movie is that much of the first 30-45 minutes do function as retellings, secondhand experiences, and the like. In other words, it is basically exposition, but it serves a massive purpose in building the mythos and details around Daniel Robitaille while weaving in themes of gender inequality, race inequality, interracial relations, etc. Going about it this way is crucial, because just as the denizens of Cabrini-Green believe in the Candyman, so too do we as an audience. There are layers to him.
Reason 2? By the time we see Candyman in the flesh, we feel like we know him. His purpose, his reason for existing, why he needs to exist, and why there will not be a happy ending for Helen (Candyman does a magnificent job at building a doom feeling from the start…and adhering to it). When he calls out for Helen in the parking lot and exerts his influence over her inducing her in a trance, we as an audience fall under the same hypnotic trance also. From this moment on, the movie kicks into a higher and bloodier gear, and while not every decision made from this point on works or makes logical sense, the investment is there to see how this story ends.
The great thing about Candyman is that it is not a one-star feature; it is a two-star feature that does not work without the presence of the other. Saying as much is not to dismiss the contributions of some of the other castmates (Lemmons, Xander Berkeley as Madsen’s sneaky PhD professor husband, and youngster DeJuan Guy who manages to steal the show in his first scene and movie debut are sound); however, this is fronted by phenomenal performances courtesy of Madsen and Todd.
The former turns in work that evolves from defiant and semi-stoic to frantic and broken, and all this is done without ever turning into a “scream queen.” No, Madsen charts her own path into the upper echelon of horror female leads. Of course, Todd is the first thing one naturally thinks about when Candyman comes up. Yes, he’s got the deep voice, imposing frame, and penetrating eyes, all perfect additions to creating an iconic horror villain. But what makes Todd and his character so memorable is that he’s…kind of sympathetic after hearing his backstory, and his villain status is directly the result of society’s long standing racism issues. They made this evil, not he himself. Separately, Madsen and Todd are stellar, but together, they accentuate each other well in the context of the story, and not in a way that feels exploitative or cheap within the dynamics of the narrative.
When I watch Candyman, in a way, I don’t feel like I’m watching a feature presentation, and rather, an urban legend come to life, if that makes any sense whatsoever. I’m excited to see how a new retelling/follow-up builds off the foundation of this.
Candyman is currently streaming on Peacock.
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