The Candymanathon – Pt. 1

As the internet has frequently reminded me, we are in the Spoopy Season. That means I’ll be watching a bunch of horror movies, which is…what I usually do…

Anyway, it’s been so long since we watch Candyman that we don’t remember it very well. With a new sequel on the way, courtesy of Jordan Peele, we decided to revisit the classic and check out the sequels for the first time.

Title: Candyman

Released: September 1992

Director: Bernard Rose

Cast: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Vanessa A. Williams, Kasi Lemmons, DeJuan Guy

Plot: Helen Lyle is researching the urban myth of the ‘Candyman’ as part of a thesis. As she begins to dig deeper and deeper into the supernatural mystery she attracts the attention of the real Candyman.

Review: Having come out in the years before Scream, during a time of horror movie fatigue following the home VHS boom, Candyman isn’t as well remembered as similar characters like Freddy and Jason. Candyman is well worth being included in the pantheon of great horror movie figures, and it you only know him from reputation then it’s well worth seeking out the original film.

Part of the film’s success comes from the utterly barmy approach of director Rose. He used hypnosis to put lead actor Madsen into a trance state for scenes when she encountered the titular spook, adding to the dream like feeling of the film. He also employed live bees for scenes in which Candyman (Todd) has bees crawling out of his mouth in spite of co-star Madsen having a severe allergy. In order to film in genuine settings, they had to negotiate with local gangs to set up outside their buildings. The dedication of the director and the performers elevate the material above genre expectations. Tony Todd contributes heavily to the character’s appeal with his rich voice, towering presence and approaching the role with the Phantom of the Opera in mind. The final product has a tone more in common with the best horror of the 1970s rather than the early 90s.

Helen Lyle (Madsen) and her friend Bernie (Lemmons) are deep in Candyman lore at the beginning of the story, recording a commonly told story about a babysitter murder attributed to the evil spirit. The prologue sequence (featuring a young Ted Raimi) plays into so many cliches of urban legends that it immediately feels as though Candyman is a real-world myth, in part due to the similarities to the Bloody Mary legend. The story goes that standing in front of the mirror and speaking Candyman’s name five times causes him to appear behind you to gut you with his gnarly hook hand.

When a couple of custodians tell the grad students about murders in their district attributed to Candyman. What they learn is that the low economic African-American communities take Candyman much more seriously, leading Helen and Bernie is investigate government housing projects in areas largely inhabited by gangs (with real gang members providing some realism to the roles). Although Helen seems to be debunking the idea of Candyman by working out how a killer got access to apartments through cheaply designed bathroom cabinets and encountering a gang leader who models himself on the Candyman, she finds herself drawn further into the truth behind the tale. She does, however, remain sceptical enough to perform the ‘ritual’ in front of a mirror.

Helen learns that Candyman is a ghost motivated and powered by the rage at the injustice of his death. Daniel Robitaille (a name revealed in sequels) was the son of a slave gifted with artistic ability. He became renown for his portraits of the wealthy and was hired to paint a young white woman, with whom he falls in love. When she becomes pregnant with his child the local community become enraged, mutilating him and smearing him with honeycomb to attract bees who stung him to death. Having ‘summoned’ Candyman, he begins appearing to her, wanting her to give herself to him. Candyman begins killing those close to Helen, leading to her being blamed for the crimes and eventually committed and kept drugged.

There’s plenty of discussion about the issues of race and systemic racism in Candyman, and this is not something I am in a position to discuss. It’s fascinating that the legend is largely embraced by a needful community and its initially believed that this is a coping strategy. Another point of the character that is less discussed is his tactics for luring his primary target to him. Tony Todd’s Phantom of the Opera approach is apt, as he’s seeking a romantic partner in death and seduces the lead character, but the way he achieves this is comparable to common behaviours found in abusive partners.

Candyman’s primary M.O. is separating his ‘beloved’ from those in her life that make her feel safe. A controlling partner will place restrictions, be emotionally manipulative, be financially controlling or even act as though they need you around to prevent you from maintaining other relationships with friends and family. Candyman does not do this, taking the simpler approach of murdering everyone. The end result is the same though – ultimately the victim feels trapped with the abuser, or reliant on them. Towards the end of the film Candyman says as much, telling Helen that she has no-one left but him. This isn’t a revelation that changes the meaning of the film, but it is an extra layer or horror to a horrifying character. Being a relationship we see play out in real life makes it all the more unsettling. It’s a controlling and abusive relationship, albeit one with a hook-handed bee-man.

From an undefined era in horror cinema, a time when more horror was cheap and following in a long line of sequels before them, Candyman is a real stand out feature. If you’re a fan of modern horror than this simmering pot of striking imagery and haunting music is a must-see.

Rating: EIGHT out of TEN