It’s always been stunning to me that the many and varied works of Clive Barker hasn’t managed to produce more timeless cinematic horror classics than they have as the author’s work (particularly his early stuff) is positively bristling with scares, emotion and stunningly orginal images that fire the imagination while plucking at those all-important fear strings. We’ve had Clive Barker’s own adaptation of Hellraiser, of course and… some of the sequels (I guess…), and the Midnight Meat Train had it’s moments – not to forget honorable mentions for Nightbreed and Lord Of Illusions – but the only other helming of his work that’s managed to stand tall as a bonafide achievement is Bernard Rose’s Candyman.
Adapted from the short story “The Forbidden” from the Books Of Blood collection; Candyman is a magnificent, socially charged ghost story that benefits hugely from the changes made to the original material (originally set in a council estate in Liverpool – like to see Hollywood get it’s head around THAT) to become a thought provoking, gut splitter that remains devastatingly relevant to this day.
Helen is a Chicago sociology graduate researching urban legends for her thesis when she stumbles across the story of the Candyman; no, not the Christina Aguilera song, but a mythical hook-handed bogeyman whose stories of murder and mutilation holds sway in the neighbourhood of the predominantly black Carbrini Green housing project. Fascinated that such mass folklore could sustain such fear in this day and age, Helen and her friend investigate further, getting info from Anne-Marie, a single parent resident of a young baby, and Jake, a young child from the area. However, as her digging Helen starts to cause the legend to slip she inadvertently stirs up the ire of the ACTUAL Candyman, a bee infested supernatural being who is displeased that someone has chosen to try and take apart his myth and wants to sacrifice Helen and make her death add renewed fire in the belief the residents have in him.
Helen awakes to find herself covered in blood framed for the abduction of Anne-Marie’s baby and things steadily get worse from there. Genuinely unsure if she’s losing her mind, or if a charismatic urban legend does actually want to make her his murder-boo; the gruesome body count slowly rises as Helen desperately tries to make sense of things.
Can she get to the bottom of how fast her life has completely unravelled of is she truly destined to become part of the Candyman legend forever?
There’s a lot of themes buzzing around the film much like the bees that populate the titular character’s vacant ribcage, and we’ll get to each glorious one in a minute, because first order of business is to state that Candyman is a damn good movie even without it’s layered social commentary.
Barker’s original story dealt heavily in themes of class and this is carried over to the film with Virgina Madsen’s upper class Helen being treated with mistrust the second she gets to Cabrini Green and Anne-Marie repeatedly blurs the line between race and class by lumping Helen’s black friend Bernadette in with her because of her class. “White folks only come around here except to cause us a problem.” she states, warily eyeing up them both.
Rose tackles race by audience complicit in some casual racism, sustaining a lot of tension in the early scenes by simply putting a well-off white woman into a black slum which makes us question: would we fear for Helen so much if she wasn’t of the caucasian persuasion? It’s a shrewd move, seemingly turning the somewhat narrow conventions of the genre in on itself and letting it take the weight, especially considering that the whole basis of the movie is that of a black man seducing/killing a white woman. Similarly, Helen’s white privilege makes her almost completely helpless to verbally defend herself when, after being framed for the snatching of a child, she is treated with disgust by the arresting officers despite being found in an extremely compromising position.
Not only does the film cast a hugely overdue eye over the race and class issues but Candyman goes for the social issue hat trick by making part of the reason Helen pushes her thesis so hard is because she’s being marginalised and patronized to by her womanizing husband and male colleagues. Even the Candyman himself, despite all his passionate yearnings is still using her for his own ends and the ending finally sees her throwing of the fiery weight of someone else’s expectation to start writing her own legend.
Madsen gives a performance both determined and vunerable (during her scenes opposite the Candyman the actress was reportedly hypnotised for real to get the appropriate reaction) and the film benefits massively from minimalist composer Philip Glass’s amazing, gothic score which adds to the whole otherworldly feel of a movie that deals with an Urban Legend brought to life by the power of belief.
This, belatedly brings us to the Candyman himself, an elegant, eloquent rumour made flesh, played with rumbling bass and admirable restraint by character actor Tony Todd. A truly fascinating creation, Todd avoids treating Candyman as a villain and instead portrays him as a soft spoken, horrific romantic lead whose heartfelt soliloquies about Helen’s proposed murder could just as easily be proposals for lovemaking. It’s baffling that the character didn’t enjoy more screen outings of a similar quality (the insipid third outing all but torpedoed any hope of a continuing franchise) but hopefully Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele’s upcoming “spiritual sequel” will finally address this balance.
There’s an understandable argument to be made that for all it’s attempts at diversity, this is still a movie about the black experience filmed for a white audience (white lead, black character dies first), but even so, this is still light years ahead of most other movies in the horror genre both during the 90’s and years after and should be commended as such.
Thoughtful, compelling and most importantly of all, bloody scary, Candyman is quite simply a horror film who’s social conscience is complete off the hook.