“I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing.”
While the first Candyman movie (written and directed by Bernard Rose) came out in 1992, I only got to watch it a couple of years ago; I came across the plot over the years on TV guides every time it was broadcast on Italian television, but I was still a minor and channels would put a giant red dot when restricted movies like Candyman were being screened (the red dot meant to define them as suitable for adults only).
I remembered about Candyman by chance when I found it on YouTube Movies; I rented it because I could not find the movie streaming anywhere else (in Italy there are still some copies available on eBay but they usually retail for more than 35 euros because the DVD edition is considered rare).
I had not expected to enjoy Candyman as much as I did. Being a horror movie, it is genuinely scary and at some point you actually feel frightened by the urban legend that it revolves around.
Helen Lyle is the main character, played by actress Virginia Madsen; I think hers is one of the most excellent character portrayals I have ever seen, not only for a horror movie but also taking into consideration other genres. Madsen truly stands out, even though all the performances in Candyman are great. This is probably also due to the fact that the characters are well-defined both on a psychological level and in the way they interact with each other. Helen is a PhD student and wife of a college professor who is researching folklore and urban legends for her final school thesis. She starts feeling intrigued by one of these legends that leads to her exploring the derelict buildings of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, a public housing project where residents live in hostile conditions due to poverty and crime (most of the Cabrini-Green high-rise buildings were torn down in 1995, about three years after the movie came out).
The residents of Cabrini-Green believe a series of murders that took place in the area were carried out by a hook-handed figure which they call “The Candyman” and they are convinced he can be summoned by saying his name five times while looking in the mirror. Helen is very curious about this so she repeats Candyman’s name five times in the mirror, and that’s when her life turns into a complete nightmare, as everyone she comes into contact with gets killed by a hook-handed man (the character of Candyman is played brilliantly by Tony Todd who reprises his role in the movie sequels and in the 2021 version as well). In the course of the film we find out about Candyman’s true story; he was actually Daniel Robitaille, a slave who was killed for being in love with a white woman and having a child with her. This led to her father cutting off Candyman’s hand and putting honeycomb in it so he got stung to death by a swarm of bees. Nowadays, according to the legend, every time Candyman gets summoned by people repeating his name while looking in a mirror, he comes back to kill them in order to avenge his own death.
Watching the movie is both a fascinating and terrifying experience. Based on a Clive Barker short story titled “The Forbidden” and included in his “Books of Blood” anthology, Candyman is a 90s classic whose special effects wonderfully contribute to the general atmosphere of the movie. Its cinematography is beautiful and it deeply influences the tone of the movie, which is chilling and thought-provoking at the same time. The original score by Phillip Glass is sublime and hypnotic, adding to the uneasiness one feels for most of the movie; some scenes are very frightening and in my opinion it is best to watch Candyman in the company of friends or family members (this of course does not include children, as it is one of the scariest horror movies made post-1990). Before watching it, I remember reading a review where someone described Candyman’s ending as “something that makes you wonder whether you have just witnessed a Greek tragedy or a slasher horror film” and I ended up thinking so too, as the movie kept haunting me for days; I discussed it a lot with my mother, who is a movie buff like myself (we take after my grandfather, who was a cinephile and movie collector).
There are different themes that are examined throughout Candyman; the concept of urban legends and folklore makes you wonder about believing in something so much to the point that this belief turns fiction into reality (this also brings to mind Urban Legend, a 1998 slasher movie which I saw when I was a teenager and really enjoyed).
Candyman’s story is centered around the Cabrini-Green housing project, where most of the events occur; it is a place where terrible things have happened, including a string of murders, but no one does care about it. This element highlights the lack of care towards public housing and its residents, who are often left to their own devices (thirty years later, this still seems to be the case due to the same systemic inequities, not only in the States but also in many other parts of the world).
The movie also focuses on Black representation, not just for the figure of Candyman (it is quite uncommon to see a Black antagonist in a horror movie) , but also for the fact that it is set in what is mainly a Black neighborhood, even though this gets explored more deeply in the 2021 version.
The 1992 movie spanned two sequels;I only watched the second one, titled “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh”, which came out in 1995. It is not a bad sequel (I gave it 7 out of 10), but it is definitely less scary and the quality is not up to the standard of the first film ( same as with the Nightmare series). However, it is an entertaining movie whose story is set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The main character is Annie Tarrant, a school teacher whose father was murdered by Candyman a few years earlier; Annie does not believe in Candyman and wants to prove that he doesn’t exist. In order to do so, she repeats his name five times into a mirror but this leads to a series of murders that are traceable to him. It is definitely not as scary as the first one, but it has some good moments that are also fun to watch. I still have not seen “Candyman: Day of the Dead” which came out in 1999; it is considered Candyman’s third sequel but most of its reviews are negative and I don’t think it adds much to the story (plenty of people stated that it has a very bad ending, which is usually upsetting).
“I am the writing on the walls. I am the sweet smell of blood on the street. The buzz that echoes in the alleyways. They will say I shed innocent blood. You are far from innocent, but they will say you were. That’s all that matters.”
I was very curious to watch the 2021 version, which was directed by Nia Da Costa and written and produced by Jordan Peele, one of the best horror directors of this era. This is mainly a sequel, as it is set in present day and keeps referencing the events of the first movie. Thirty years after the events of the first film, what used to be the area that hosted the Cabrini-Green housing project has now been gentrified. Anthony and his partner have moved there and live in a modern luxury loft, as he is a talented artist who is going through a long creative block. He comes into contact with someone that knows about the urban legend of Candyman; he immediately gets inspired by this tale for his artistic work, but things start to get very dangerous for him and the people he cares about.
Not only does the movie star Black actors who are portraying wealthy black people, but also it is directed and produced by black movie professionals; it focuses mainly on the subject of violence against African-Americans, including the matters of race and social inequalities. I am a huge fan of Jordan Peele’s work and have enjoyed both Get Out and Us; I think they are brilliant horror movies that are rich in metaphors and symbolism meant to convey a deeper meaning and they also evidence the way white supremacy perpetrates isolation towards Black people, especially in the case of Get Out.
Nia Da Costa does a great job in directing a masterfully-crafted film, which has beautiful sequences and it is also great on a creative level; even though the structure is less linear, it makes perfect sense with the story it wants to tell. The plot goes deeper into the concept of a black man that, after being killed by white people, becomes an evil entity and gets revenge by killing black people as well; it is less a slasher movie and focuses more on social analysis and current issues like racial injustice and gentrification. I think it is a great companion to the original version, expanding the story and taking the spirit of the 1992 movie to the present day.
I recommend people to watch both these movies in chronological order, to see where it all started and to have a clear sense of the story as a whole, since it is still relevant thirty years after it came out.
The Candyman movies definitely leave space for social commentary; they make us reflect on important matters such as racial injustice and the inequalities of our time, making us wonder how much work still needs to be done for a more socially just world.
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