Graduate student Helen Lyle is researching urban legends for her thesis. She soon uncovers a local superstition about Candyman, a ghost of a former slave who wears a hook in place of a hand. The inhabitants of a housing project called Cabrini Green live their lives in perpetual fear of him. As Helen begins to investigate, she soon finds out that the legends are true. As Candyman begins doing away with those she has come in contact with, blame falls upon Helen for the crimes.
Produced by Clive Barker and based on his story “The Forbidden”, Candyman is one of the high points of early 90’s horror cinema. With the slasher craze of the previous decade fading away, director Bernard Rose brought a new vision of gothic horror to theatregoers. Barker had previously infiltrated the market with Hellraiser, helping to reintroduce many of the themes to genre fans. The Books of Blood, Barkers’ anthology had previously found its way onto the screen with Rawhead Rex in 1986. However, Candyman is a superior adaptation in every sense of the word. While being faithful to its source material, Rose transported Barker’s tale from industrial Liverpool to the American inner city. In doing so, he successfully brought the gothic tradition to a new setting that it had never been to. As Barker himself once said: “The monster never leaves, he simply changes addresses.”
The events of Candyman take place in urban Chicago; its housing projects and tenements replace the village resting in the shadow of a castle. Although the location might be different, the crucial elements are certainly in place. The inhabitants speak of Candyman with both reverence and fear; even going so far as to claim his existence has caused the death of some of the residents. The housing project itself sets up one of the oldest human traits—xenophobia. Helen and her colleague express caution when going towards Cabrini Green, and at one point even discuss how crime ridden and impoverished the area is. Rose’s cameras don’t shy away from depicting the poverty stricken area in its true form. Not afraid to show gang activity or the graffiti covered walls of the tenements, Candyman is a stark contrast to the superficial world that sometimes exists in film. In a time period where racial tensions were heating to the boiling point in America, Candyman addressed both race and important social issues. Even Helen’s educated outlook appears to be somewhat prejudicial, as she’s quick to dismiss the residents’ paranoia as just superstition. At one point, even telling a young child that Candyman is no different from the legends of Dracula or Frankenstein, which in its own way elevates him among the icons of the gothic tradition.
The buildup to Candymans’ debut in well paced, and doesn’t spoil itself along the way. When he finally appears it genuinely feels like a superstition leaping off the pages of folklore into reality. Tony Todd’s performance as the title villain is both terrifying and alluring at the same time. He plays the character with elegance and sophistication, yet he still comes across as cold-blooded and calculating. With his flowing overcoat, booming voice and fluid movements, his performance is reminiscent of Christopher Lee’s iconic portrayal of Dracula. Much like Bram Stoker’s creation, Candyman is a villain with magnetism who exudes a trance like spell over Helen. The implied erotic undertones between Helen and Candyman are subtle; yet make their presence felt whenever the two interact with one another.
While blood is featured throughout the film, it hardly comes close to resembling anything like a slasher flick. Most of the time it’s only the aftermath that’s shown, so the audience is forced to make a mental picture of what might have occurred. The nature of the scenes strengthens the story, and doesn’t detract from what’s being established through the narrative. Naturally, one deduces that Candyman is the perpetrator of the crimes, but with Helen inexplicably present at every aftermath it forces us to sympathize with her being wrongfully accused. Unlike some of its contemporaries, Candyman relies on suspense, mood, and the performances from its cast. Rose creates a self-contained mythology within a film that comes to life, and its atmosphere brings the viewer into an otherworldly experience. The musical score by composer Phillip Glass helps build the tension as events progress, and allows the full effect of everything to sink in. Candyman holds up remarkably well, and there are plenty of prospective fans out there waiting to become its new victim.
Review by Jerome Reuter (@JeromeReuter)