Director: Bernard Rose
Stars: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Kasi Lemmons
Growing up as a sheltered white kid on the Southern coast of England in the early ’90s, there was a wealth of then-recent horror to sate my appetite for excitement. The ’80s had been a boom-time for the genre as video exploded with trashy highlights and lowlights to indulge in (whenever the parents weren’t looking), but the ’90s saw the genre in significant decline. Mostly all a horror fan could hope for was an occasional new installment in one of several franchises long past their prime. The recent past would have to suffice.
But, occasionally, something new would come along, something… different. Candyman was such an example. It created a shitstorm of new terrors for the playground as its mythos entered adolescent vernacular. We would dare each other to recite His Name five times in the grimy washroom mirrors. I recall, quite clearly, a school assembly directly addressing the phenomena, as several kids had grown too scared of going to the toilet, for fear that Candyman might get them.
This was before most of us had even seen it. A few VHS tapes circulated, eventually, but I think the first time I saw Bernard Rose’s film was on television. Given the time it took for these things to filter down to one of our four stations, I image that would’ve been around 1994/1995. I would’ve been 11 or 12. It was one of those rare occasions when, for me, a film lived up to its reputation.
The immense foreboding of Philip Glass’ music combined with those overhead shots of Chicago already set it apart. An operatic sense of vastness. The horror movies I knew mostly took place in leafy suburbs, where the shadows and the quietude were weapons of their own. This was an urban horror movie, which already made it feel more adult, as though I’d unlocked some gateway into the next stage of growing up.
Candyman showed me things that conventional dramas on TV weren’t talking about. It showed me urban decay. It showed me the projects. It showed me black people. That last ought not to have been remarkable, but it was. Provincial coastal towns in England weren’t the most socially dynamic. My schoolmates all looked like me. And the TV and media showed me the same faces, too. And if there were black faces in the horror movies I loved, they usually weren’t there for very long…
It wasn’t just the husky, aggressive masculinity of Tony Todd as the eponymous spectre, either. One of my most vivid memories of the film from those furtive days is the performance given by Vanessa Williams as Cabrini Green resident Anne-Marie McCoy. She gave me a window into a very specific kind of vulnerability; that of an honest, hardworking person suffering undue hardships thanks to class and circumstance. Her horror on finding her butchered dog… the tribulation of her missing child… the raw intensity of Williams’ work haunted me more than Candyman did. Anne-Marie’s grief became a short-circuit to victim empathy for me.
The inclusion of Helen Lyle’s scholarly friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons – now a successful filmmaker in her own right) wasn’t to be diminished either. Elements of my family were vocal in their racist biases (I dreaded certain family gatherings). Candyman helped show me how unfounded these views were. Bernadette was a successful, forthright, confident woman, and she was black. Again, it seems crazy to say it, but at the time you just didn’t see that very much in film or television. It was an important perspective to me.
The film mesmerised me and became one of the select titles to enter my home video collection (leaning on the guilt of separated parents, who would buy me tapes with age ratings higher than I was legally allowed to purchase myself). Still, as VHS was replaced by DVD, it fell away and out of circulation. I moved on. Many years went by and Candyman was forgotten; his power diminished…
Flash forward to two years ago and I’ve become an Arrow Video-collecting film enthusiast. A deluxe edition of Candyman drops into their range. It’s a no-brainer. Youthful nostalgia engulfs me.
But more than that, now having a broader respect and knowledge of horror (and film in general), the film I rediscovered strikes me as more than just a bygone slasher with an urban legend fixation.
It struck me that few mainstream films of its time were addressing so directly how intrinsically connected classism and racism were (and are) in our urban landscapes. The film begins in bright and open spaces. Emptied lecture halls. Lingering shots of an open air amphitheatre. The affluent open-plan of the apartment rented by Helen (Virginia Madsen) and her husband Trevor (’90s-schmo casting favourite Xander Berkeley). Places that we associate with middle class comfort and relative safety.
When Helen and Bernadette drive across the city to do research at Carbini Green, we’re introduced to another style of living. Though the project builds are spaced out, there’s a sense that they’re hemmed in by the city that both surrounds and demonises them. People stacked on top of one another. Graffiti’d and soiled elevators and stairwells. Boarded up windows. Rumours abound of people “coming through the walls”; close-proximity danger. When Helen investigates a men’s public toilet, there’s an intense feeling of claustrophobia. Partly because we’re acutely aware that it’s a ‘forbidden’ space for a woman, partly because there’s only one exit, and partly because the walls are smeared in excrement. They’re ‘red like lava’. She can’t go near them, so she’s hemmed in a little further.
And there’s the constant threat of violence. Madsen and Lemmons nail the kind of insecurities felt by the middle class on entering impoverished neighbourhoods. It’s palpable and, arguably, the scariest section of the film.
Helen makes an intriguing discovery that Cabrini Green shares the same constructional dimensions as her own apartment, which we perceive as bigger thanks to decor and lighting. If the spaces are the same then what makes Cabrini feel so much smaller? Is it, perhaps, the fear of poverty, ingrained racial stereotypes, or the long-game paranoia of imagining living day-in day-out with street gangs and violence? Fear makes the world smaller. Williams’ Anne-Marie vocalises to Helen and Bernadette that, to her, the white people that visit her home aren’t too friendly, either. Journalists, cops, social services…. The film recognises that fear goes both ways.
When Helen climbs through the bathroom mirror into the drug-den squat to take photos of Candyman murals, it is as though she passes ‘through the looking glass’, exiting the comfort of her privileged lifestyle and entering the grim world of the film’s lore and legend. She finds herself – literally – in the jaws of a black man, and finds a treasure trove of sweets filled with razor blades.
Sweets filled with razor blades… The idea of something for children made dangerous and bloody. The Candyman myth is a fairy tale with a hard 18 certificate rating. The weaponisation of storytelling. Moreover the film comes to feel like a reflection of wealth fearing poverty so totally that only madness ensues. Tall tales and exaggerations are an almost inevitable byproduct of these terrors. We have to reconcile these feelings. Candyman didn’t encourage me to fear black people or poor people. I don’t. But it did encourage me to confront that these fears exist and cause problems.
Candyman gaslights Helen in a manner that strongly recalls this year’s breakout horror remix The Invisible Man. I’d argue that Madsen’s performance here is just as (excuse the pun) committed as Elisabeth Moss’ recent turn. And while we’re on the subject of the current horror release slate, we of course have Nia DaCosta‘s Candyman remake to look forward to later on this year. I’m excited for that. But I’m also excited that it’ll encourage a new generation to look back and seek out Bernard Rose’s evocative original; as intrinsic a part of my development as a film lover – and a person – as any other.