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Candyman: A Beautiful Horror

CandymanCandymanCandyman… where do I even begin? Not in front of a mirror (last of the bad jokes, I swear). Often when I fall in love with a movie, I also fall in love with the details surrounding the movie. There are honestly two stories here. The first is the actual film, and the second is all of the things that went on behind the scenes to make this ’90s Gothic. There are a lot of things at play in an otherwise simple story.

The barebones of Candyman are easy to follow. A young man is violently and brutally murdered for a horrific reason. He is mutilated and burned before having his ashes spread over what would later become a large housing complex. The young man then haunts the residents of that housing complex. That is an oversimplification, but a necessary one for now.

Candyman is a horror film, but it’s also a sad story and a love story. There is a well-meaning yet off the mark attempt at social commentary, with the focus on race and disparity. Candyman is many things, some of which are very obvious and some that beg you to look a little deeper.

There is something about every facet of Candyman that sucks you into its world. You are in Chicago in every frame. You are living alongside the magical soundtrack provided by Phillip Glass. It feels like you’re going crazy right along with Helen, played by Virginia Madsen. Then you feel a deep heaviness when faced with Candyman, played by Tony Todd.

Did you feel heavy the first time you saw Freddy Krueger? I didn’t. I felt scared. There is something more going on in this film. The first time I saw Candyman, I felt, much like Helen looks, transfixed. There is another monster in Candyman, and that monster is Cabrini-Green. When Helen and Bernadette, played by Kasi Lemmons, first pull up to Cabrini-Green, they have to prepare themselves mentally. Both women take a look around and a deep breath before exiting the car.

Helen and Bernadette walk past a graffiti covered cinder block wall.

Cabrini-Green is an amalgam of fears. There are real threats, such as the drug dealers and gang members that run the place—then less apparent fears, like race and poverty. There is the fear of a normal loving mother, Anne-Marie, played by Vanessa Williams, who just wants to raise her son and protect him. Anne-Marie strikes a chord; she is every mother that wants the best for their child but has this fear all around her.

There are yet more stories, lives, in the mix. Many characters surround Helen, Candyman, and Cabrini-Green. The movie starts out centered around Helen as she and Bernadette work together on their thesis. They are, of course, researching myths and urban legends. We are thrown back and forth between the multifaceted emotions surrounding Cabrini-Green and the pretentious academics surrounding Helen, specifically, Helen’s husband Trevor, played by Xander Berkeley, and his colleague Phillip, played by Michael Culkin.

Phillip has a small but essential role in the film. At a dinner, Bernadette lets it slip that they’ve just returned from Cabrini-Green. That is Phillip’s cue, as he then starts to explain the legend of Candyman. According to Phillip, the legend began in 1890. Candyman was born the son of a slave, but that all changed when his father invented a machine that could mass-produce shoes.

The turn of fortune for Candyman allowed him to go to all of the best schools and grow up in a “polite society.” Candyman was a talented artist that many would hire to memorialize their wealth and status. A wealthy landowner (see, white man) commissioned Candyman to “capture his daughter’s virginal beauty,” and the painting takes a long time. Candyman fell in love with his subject, and she became pregnant. A vengeful plan was then set in motion as retribution for the heinous crime of falling in love with a white man’s daughter.

A hired mob hunted Candyman down and sawed off his right hand; things escalated when the crowd noticed nearby hives of bees. They decided to smash the colonies and cover Candyman in the honey, leaving him to be stung to death by the swarms. Eventually, when the bees had settled, they burned him on a pyre and spread his ashes over Cabrini-Green.

Helen is visibly upset by the story as Phillip tells it, not in an outward rush of emotions, but instead, she seems to turn inward with her eyes widening in what I can only assume is sadness and shock. Helen had been running down this monster who struck fear in the hearts of Cabrini-Green residents, only to find out that the Candyman she had been looking for wasn’t a monster at all. Not at first.

A shift in the movie occurs here. The audience and Helen are given some crucial truths about the namesake of the film, a character that we’ve yet even to meet. The entire story only takes up a few minutes of the film, but it contains the most critical information. If the summary I first gave you is barebones, this dialogue is what gives it its flesh. I think it took several viewings (granted I was 9 when the movie came out) to grasp the depth of Candyman. I still don’t understand the depth of Candyman, I’m sure. The sequel often gets a lot of criticism, but I like it and recommend a viewing. In Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, we get a much deeper understanding of the character.

Helen then returns to Cabrini-Green to find the mortal killer among them and dispel the Candyman myth; this task is important enough for her to risk her life. What she doesn’t know is she is risking her soul twice. It is this move, this sequence of events, that allows her to tell her Cabrini-Green tour guide, Jake (played by DeJuan Guy), that Candyman isn’t real. Candyman is just a name used by a bad guy to do bad things and scare people. Jake takes this news seriously, and you can see him rolling the information around in his brain as he questions Helen, “Candyman ain’t real?”

This kernel of information puts Helen directly in the crosshairs of the not-so-mortal Candyman, and for the first time, the audience finally gets to see the man behind the myth. The initial appearance of Tony Todd as Candyman is striking, and quite honestly, I think it’s perfect. The entire audience is with Helen, all trying to piece together the dizzying events playing out before us. The attention to detail in this film is so elevated from any other horror film of its time. Candyman is treated with so much care; he doesn’t look like a monster and doesn’t invoke a knee-jerk fear. He invokes your presence, demanding that every bit of you focuses on him.

Candyman stands in a low lit parking garage with his hands behind his back.

The immediate chemistry between Candyman and Helen adds yet another layer of emotion to this horror film. Helen is the woman that said he didn’t exist, proved it nearly. Candyman, much like Freddy Krueger, needs fear and belief to thrive. If no one believes in him, if he is not the writing on the wall, the rumors whispered in the classroom, then what is he? He tells you himself; he is nothing. People have questioned why Candyman would kill both black and white people, why he would terrorize people of his race when white people so terribly murdered him. I have always thought that it was proximity and belief, just like on Elm Street.

It’s unclear if the movie ever confirms Candyman was killing anyone at Cabrini-Green. He didn’t need to. The gang leader using the name Candyman was spreading fear on his behalf, and all the real Candyman needs is that fear and belief. The only murder attributed to the actual Candyman was off-screen and was the second urban legend said to Helen at the beginning of the film. The first on-screen kill is that of the psychiatrist tasked with Helen’s care; this comes after the murder of Bernadette, whose death serves as yet another way to isolate Helen. Once Helen realizes she no longer has a home, her good name, her best friend, or her freedom, she has no choice but to seek Candyman.

Candyman cradles Helen, who is covered in bees, in his arms.

To me, Candyman is at its finest when Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen share space. There is something between them that is very hypnotic (for a good reason), and they simply take over the screen. From the moment they face each other as the camera spins, all of the ways to placing Helen gently on the slab of concrete, warmth, and kindness is coming from our villain. In the end, of course, if this is, in fact, a love story, it’s a tragic one. Certainly, it’s not the one Candyman would have wanted.

On the production side of things, I am thrilled that Tony Todd was cast as Candyman. I cannot imagine anyone else in this role. Tony Todd brings grace to a slasher villain, and when he speaks, it’s like prose. He looks like the professors Helen hangs around with, minus the whole hook-for-a-hand issue. I think that the entire story and presentation of Candyman were so brilliantly done, and I believe a great deal of that is owed to Tony Todd. I could probably write an entire second article on Tony Todd alone.

Several noteworthy things happened around the production of Candyman. The first thing is that Tony Todd did not initially take the offer seriously; he heard the title and thought it was something else entirely and hung up. I am certainly glad he gave the pitch a second listen. Virginia Madsen actually had the final say in who would be staring opposite of her in the film, so the two met for lunch, and the rest is history.

When we first see Virginia and Tony on screen, you may notice that she has a kind of awestruck look on her face. The camera really focuses on her reaction, and her response is both beautiful and haunting. According to Virginia, Tony, and director Bernard Rose, that haunted look comes from being hypnotized. Her dedication to this role allowed Bernard to take her to a specialist and put her under hypnosis. Bernard then had the cues to put her under on set, achieving either incredible acting or a hypnotized actor. Either way, the way she responds to Tony in their scenes is genuinely striking.

A close-up of Helens face as she stands near her car.

In further dedication to the roles of both of our stars, they agreed to use real bees for the iconic moments in Candyman’s lair. They had a specialist on the set who cared for the bees and helped ensure the safety of all parties involved. He used the youngest possible bees to prevent stings. He was especially careful with Virginia since she is allergic to bees; they had to have EMS on set for her bee scenes. The special effects team created a mouth guard for Tony to wear to prevent the bees from getting into his mouth and throat. I know I am explaining this calmly, but I think it’s wild, and both of these actors deserve so much credit for the level of love they were willing to put into their characters.

This dedication is also seen when Helen goes through the fire at the very end. Tony had to learn how to hold her precisely to prevent her from catching on fire. The fire was shot in multiple areas, and the set designers did several test runs. Eventually, though, Virginia would allow a part of herself to be lit on fire for the scene.

Okay, I probably cannot top the bees and fire as far as other things the actors did, but I have one final bit I want to mention. Tony and Virginia spent six weeks together learning to ballroom dance. All for that brief moment in Candyman’s lair where they spin together. In the “Be My Victim” interview on a Blu-ray special feature, Tony Todd says that there were two minutes cut from that scene.

In the special feature interview, Tony explains that they had heard from the studio and, “it was a little afraid of the interracial context because it’s a very romantic moment and then after that, I grab her in my arms and lay her down on the slab, she is mine at that point. But they declared a love for each other in that whirling dance, and the studio was a little nervous about that. They were okay with a tall black man covered in bees, but when it came to a kiss or something, then it was a little bit too risqué”.

Candyman with his mouth open and full of bees swarming out.

That brings me to some of the racial issues and the attempt at social commentary with Candyman. Adapted from a Clive Barker short story called “The Forbidden,” it was initially a story about modern British classism. Bernard Rose is the one who decided to place the film in America, specifically in Cabrini-Green, putting the focus on race and related themes in the inner-city. I am going to include some other voices on this matter.

Tony Todd has spoken about Candyman several times over the years in many interviews, but race isn’t something that he addresses typically. In the special features interview mentioned above, he does have a few comments that I think are important.

Bernard Rose is one of the most intelligent directors that I’ve ever worked with. I mean, I am not going to make any excuses for his lack of depth of racial comparisons, but I know the man’s heart, and I know he fought. Not only did he have to fight with the NAACP who was afraid of a horror film that was going to depict an African American man in a bad light, but it is a horror film, and I think we won that battle over the test of time.

-Tony Todd

One of his other quotes struck me as well, and I think he raises a good point that this film has led to a lot of discussions that may not have otherwise been had. In the horror community, we know the tropes, and we understand that the person of color is usually first to die. It gets joked about in self-aware horror films, so we know it exists, but how are we talking about these tropes, and how are we addressing them? There are exceptions, of course, but how has horror treated people of color? I feel like the horror community is one of the kindest and welcoming communities out there. We should be having these conversations with people of color, especially with a film like Candyman.

I think that films that bring up racial disparities are a good thing for discussions, and I know that there have been several or many college dissertations written on Candyman and its impact on society. If you just took the horror out of it and looked at it like an isolationist, you don’t know who Candyman is; you don’t know why he is there, he seems utterly focused on one specific goal, which is to reclaim his lost love, no matter what.

-Tony Todd

In the special feature interview “Urban Legend: Unwrapping Candyman,” we hear from Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. Tananarive is an author that teaches a horror course at UCLA called “The Sunken Place,” as well as being the Executive Producer for Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.  Steven is an author and screenwriter. They both discuss the many ways that Candyman works, as well as some of the problematic tropes. Tananarive highlights how the film plays off the themes of “urban-jungles” and a “preoccupation with crime” in the black community. Steven points out the idea of tapping into the fear of “the other” in the housing complex, showing that black people are only really presented in one light in Candyman. They both have so many essential points and have an excellent discussion in the interview. If you have the blu-ray edition of Candyman, you should check it out.

Front view of Candyman as he looks at Helen, who we see from behind.

I could honestly go on and on about this film. It is one of my forever favorite movies. I wish it were without flaw, but we learn from what didn’t work. I do believe that every tiny facet of this film was given attention, including race and disparity. It’s not perfect in that aspect, but I am glad we can talk about it. To end this piece, I would like to echo Tony Todd’s sentiment about the test of time because we are still here, and we are still talking about Candyman.

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Written by Amber Welsh

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