Candyman (1992) was adapted from a short story called “The Forbidden” by horror master Clive Barker. Barker himself, and Director Bernard Rose brought the terrifying story of The Candyman to audiences with no intention of allowing him to fall victim to the tropes of horror films from decades past. There is very little about this film that can be considered exploitative, especially of women. That doesn’t mean he’s any less seductive, playing with Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) like a puppet before dragging her into an eternity of damnation. Candyman is a decidedly cerebral horror film, playing on themes of poverty, fate, the caste system, hate crimes, psychosis, and revenge. And the legendary Tony Todd as the man behind the hook can’t be described as anything other than epic.
Candyman was Daniel Robitaille, the son of a slave who fell in love with a white woman and impregnated her. As punishment, her father and the townspeople cut off his hand and slathered him with honey from a beehive chanting, “Candyman,” as the bees swarmed over him. He was stung and bled to death. Now, if you stand before a mirror and call his name 5 times, The Candyman will appear and murder you with his hook for a hand in an eternal state of vengeance for the crime committed against him.
Helen Lyle is doing her thesis on urban legends and focuses on the story of The Candyman, perpetuated in the Cabrini-Green housing development in Chicago. More stupid than brave, she and her friend enter the Cabrini to ask questions and investigate the apartment of suspected Candyman victim, Ruthie Jean.
The Cabrini-Green is real, and its body count is higher than all of your favorite slashers combined. That spot of land has a higher murder rate per square inch than the entire country. Is it supernatural? Is it The Candyman? Or were the people living in the squalor of the housing development that Chicago forgot, justifying the horror of their daily lives? Exterior and hallway scenes for Candyman were actually filmed on location at Cabrini-Green (finally demolished in 2010). Rose and Barker had to work out a deal with lead gang members, putting some of them in the film, to insure the safety of the cast and crew. This might be one of the reasons first choices for Candyman and Helen, Eddie Murphy and Sandra Bullock, passed. Pussies. It’s just as well. On the final day of filming, a sniper shot one of the production vans, essentially as a nice reminder never to come back. Point taken.
Further contributing to that heavy feeling in your stomach right now, let me share with you, the story of Ruthie Mae McCoy. Ruthie was an older woman in her fifties, looking forward to finally being able to escape the Cabrini and live in nicer digs. But someone came in through the bathroom cabinet and murdered her. Police were called, but did not break the door down until two days later. Exactly why is unclear. They may have had no legitimate reason to. They may have been following orders. They may have been acutely aware that they were outnumbered in the Cabrini-Green. What was interesting about the murder was the method of entry. You see, old buildings like that one tended to have “pipe chases.” Intended for easy access to the pipes in the wall between adjacent apartment’s bathrooms, you could pop the medicine cabinets off and move between the two apartments and sometimes even go up or down to others. I don’t think they realized that as the Chicago Housing Authority thought they had bigger fish to fry, the Cabrini sank deep into the thralls of poverty and crime, forcing the unfortunate tenants to raise children in an essentially “animalistic” environment. You worried about those who were bigger and stronger and paid no mind to the weak. It was every man and woman for themselves.
The answer is yes, you remember correctly. Two characters in Candyman share a name with Ruthie Mae McCoy: Ruthie Jean, the murder victim whose medicine cabinet Helen crawls through to investigate the stomping grounds of The Candyman urban legend; and Anne-Marie McCoy (played by Vanessa Williams of Melrose Place fame) whose child and guard dog fall victim to Candyman’s twisted game of cat and mouse with Helen. Don’t believe me? An eerily similar article to the one featured as Helen’s research in the film can be found here. And another interesting read on the subject can be found riiiiight here. Got the chills yet? Well, knock it off. Take your dress off and end your little tea party. That’s real horror. That’s when your world and ours intertwine and trust me, you don’t want to be there when it happens. People actually lived in those places never knowing if they’d make it out. And I have no doubt in my mind that such a terrifying existence still exists to this day in every major city around the world. You just don’t hear about it.
Is The Candyman a myth perpetrated by the people who live in such horror so that man’s inhumanity to man could be explained by a supernatural force of evil much greater than any man? Or was it a way of minimizing the evil of man himself? A way to cope with the egregious horror outside one’s door… by imagining a fate worse than anything seen on the nightly news (or in most of these cases, omitted from the nightly news)?
Candyman feeds off of that belief. So when Helen’s research/stupidity leads her to a bathroom that resembles one you might encounter in a Topeka Texaco, she’s brutally attacked by a gang member increasing his street cred by calling himself Candyman. She’s lucky. She lives to identify her attacker in a lineup, further adding to her skepticism and feeding her ability to completely discredit the urban legend of The Candyman in her thesis. Big mistake, honey.
Now you have to answer to the real thing. But Candyman is no savage. Rather than slice and dice the skeptic to revive his legend, he seduces her. And my least favorite trick of the light in film noir is so overused when this happens that my eyes got sore from rolling so much. A dreamlike swoon comes over the actress as a slit in a non-existent blind highlights only her eyes. Ugh. Deliver me from Dick Tracy. Is this Body of Evidence or what? But I digress…
I’m willing to overlook the cheesy noir in light of the integrity that Candyman offers the horror genre by ascending the clichés and exploitation in favor of subtle seduction and thought provoking themes; all while delivering all the fright and gore a horror hound desires. Candyman is a film with an air of oddity surrounding its genesis and filming, guaranteed to give you a sense of dread not only from viewing it, but if you dare to delve a little deeper into it. That’s the kind of horror that stays with you.
It’s not about sex, it’s about connection. It’s not a rape fantasy, but it is no less violating. Candyman uses Helen. He destroys her from the inside out to where even if she can escape, there will be no rest for her. And no future. Candyman manipulates the world in which he does not exist; a quiet, refined ghost haunting the tortured souls of the living. Tony Todd is one of the most underrated actors in existence and it’s a shame that the two sequels spawned from the original Candyman were not handled with the same intelligence because he is the only reason to give them the smallest modicum of your attention. Perhaps that is the only good thing about the resurgence of remakes, prequels, and sequels that give no matter to the origins… maybe Candyman will continue. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary. And I declare that it would be downright blasphemy for anyone other than Todd to don the hook.
As a teenager, before I fell further down the rabbit hole, Candyman was my least favorite slasher. It made me so uncomfortable and after feasting my eyes on all the greats like Freddy, Jason, and Ghostface, The Candyman bored me. However, as I’ve grown into my big girl machete, I’ve made a point to revisit a few of those “snooze-fests.” This one, especially, makes me oh so proud.
Sinister sweets to you,