Main cast: Virginia Madsen (Helen Lyle), Tony Todd (Candyman), Xander Berkeley (Trevor Lyle), Vanessa Williams (Anne-Marie McCoy), Kasi Lemmons (Bernadette Walsh), DeJuan Guy (Jake), Gilbert Lewis (Detective Frank Valento), Carolyn Lowery (Stacey), Stanley DeSantis (Dr Burke), Michael Culkin (Professor Phillip Purcell), Bernard Rose (Archie Walsh), and Eric Edwards (Harold)
Director: Bernard Rose
Helen Lyle is a graduate student who, together with her fellow grad student and friend Bernadette, is collecting urban legends as part of her research. One in particular stands out: the legend of Candyman. You say that name five times before a mirror, and he will show up to kill you with a wicked hook attached to the stump of his right arm. As it happens, a janitor overhears her recording of someone recounting the story of Candyman, and tells Helen that the wicked fellow lives at the public housing project Cabrini-Green. Helen soon discovers that there are indeed a series of murder all attributed to Candyman in that housing project in the past, murders that are often overlooked due to the fact that the folks living there are predominantly poor people of color.
Intrigued, she decides to head on down there for further research. Her theory is that Candyman isn’t real; rather, he is a manifestation of the poor folks’ efforts to rationalize their miserable existence by blaming an urban legend for the things they can’t control.
I’m sure you can guess what happens when a well-off white woman rather naïvely waltzes into such a place. It’s not long before she gets beaten up by men under the orders of the local thug boss who calls himself Candyman – the fellow thinks that Helen is looking after him, heh. The human Candyman is arrested shortly after – a white woman has been assaulted by black men, so of course the cops spring into action – and the cops believe that they have found the villain responsible for the past murders in Cabrini-Green.
Amidst all this, our heroine of course says the name Candyman five times in front of the mirror. Well, guess who shows up eventually. The real Candyman is furious that Helen has killed his legend by getting a human to be pinned as the person responsible for the real Candyman’s kills. He revels in the fear of the people around here of him, viewing the fear as a form of worship by his “congregation”, and now he is going to make Helen’s life hell while sowing carnage all around her in order to stoke up the fears people have of him.
Now, Candyman is a horror film, yes, but at the same time, it’s more of a very dark and twisted love story. This movie breaks some new grounds when it first came out, as it subverts the rather rude scary black man trope by turning the murderous Candyman into a seductive, erotic scary black man.
A cultured black man who managed to eventually make his name as an artist back in those days, the man who would become Candyman fell in love with the daughter of rich, white plantation owner and, oops, knocked her up. Her father wasted no time seeking retribution: the man had Candyman’s right hand cut off before slathering the man with honey and let him be stung to death by bees. Then, the poor fellow’s corpse was burned and his ashes scattered over the area upon which the Cabrini-Green sits upon today. There are some hints given in the movie that Helen may be the reincarnation of Candyman’s lover, which explains his attention. Candyman isn’t trying to drive Helen mad as much as he is tempting her to embrace “immortality” by accepting his gift of turning her into whatever he is. When she refuses, he begins to frame her for a series of murder and finally, blackmails her with a baby’s life to get her to stay with him forever.
Mind you, the whole thing is actually quite romantic and even touching in a dark, twisted manner. Tony Todd is always a handsome fellow, and a much younger him as the Candyman with that sexy, sultry baritone voice… ooh. Virginia Madsen looks a lot like Dana Scully and she even plays the skeptic protagonist here, but she does a great job expressing the many nuances of fear, confusion, and vulnerability demanded of her character. The relationship between Helen and Candyman actually had the film distributor nervous when they saw the first cut because it is an interracial relationship that blurs the line between love and terror; I believe there was a scene that had Helen telling the fellow that she loves him being cut from the film because of this. Still, I’m fine with that being cut, as this lends a degree of ambiguity in the relationship that makes it far more interesting to follow as a result.
Everything else about this movie underscores the dark fairy tale-like erotic overtones of the relationship between the two lead characters, from the music to the lighting to even the colors of the prop pieces. All these come together to create a potent blend of atmospheric fear and sexual tension.
Also, this movie doesn’t shy away from also showing the class divide between the likes of Helen – whose main concern is whether her husband is shagging his student – and the residents of Cabrini-Green who have to deal with violence, death, and poverty on a day to day basis. Not too much or not too heavily, of course, as the focus of the movie is on Helen falling into the web of the Candyman, but still enough to make an impact on the viewer.
Candyman does have some horror elements. People who are scared of bees, beware: there are many scenes of bees being used to deliver the frights. The kills by Candyman are also pretty brutal, although most of the deaths take place off-camera. Hence, the head-on death scenes, when they occur, become doubly frightening. Admittedly, some of the effects of the death scenes can be hokey, but still, I can’t resist seeing a sexy man with a sultry voice murder the hell out of his victims. Don’t assume that Candyman is a misunderstood tragic martyr here: he is not a nice guy at all, far from it, as poor Helen will learn the hard way.
At any rate, this one is worth a look. Sure, the story can be on the hokey side, but the overall atmosphere, tone, and tension are all well done in this movie. And then there is Candyman himself. He’s like a non-loser version of the Phantom of the Opera, a mean SOB version to boot, and he is just unforgettable here. This one makes saying his name five times an almost tempting thing to do. Almost, that is. Those bees… shudder.