Written & Directed by Bernard Rose
Portions of major cities have been allowed to decay for one reason, the people that live there are not considered worth the effort to keep the area maintained. In America, this is typically seen in non-white neighborhoods, often low-income housing for Black people. I used to work at a school that serviced a nearby housing complex, and the city built a wall that blocked this neighborhood from the view of high-end hotels downtown so that guests wouldn’t see the area. The city spent money to build but not to improve that neighborhood but hide it from monied eyes. The same thing happens in the U.K., where Clive Barker set his short story “The Forbidden,” which would serve as Candyman’s basis.
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a graduate student in Chicago studying urban legends and how they take on a life of their own as people spread variations of them. A cleaning woman at the university shares the story of Candyman with Helen. Candyman is a bogeyman figure spoken about in hushed whispers at the Cabrini-Green housing projects summoned when you look into a mirror and say his name five times. There was even a murder in the last few years that was tied to the figure. Helen can’t help herself and goes to Cabrini-Green with her reluctant Bernadette. They find the victim’s apartment contains a hole that opens into the neighboring apartment where a shrine has been made for Candyman. Eventually, a logical solution appears that pins the killings on a gang in the projects. However, Helen comes to face with the real Candyman, and her life spirals out of control.
Bringing this short story to the States made it mandatory that the film had to be about Black urban populations, as they are likely to be left to the devices of a living nightmare by a justice system that disregards them anyway. The architecture of Chicago played a role in director Bernard Rose’s decisions, but he also cites the virulent racism that is always teeming beneath the surface in the Windy City. This means I felt a bit of a letdown that the protagonist is a white woman who is essentially embarking in poverty tourism. The film will sometimes touch on that subject but never really makes much of it. You can’t help but feel the throbbing pulse of racial issues at every turn as the story progresses, but then the script chooses to focus on Helen’s personal problems. There’s no sense of resolution to the themes of racism introduced, and the result is a messy third act.
I think Candyman does an excellent job showing how so many urban legends or “creepypasta” stories go wrong. There is a clear arc for the main character, and we get a beautifully horrific conclusion that expands the terror of the original legend. There is a moment where things go off the rails, and the absurdity increases exponentially, but it definitely works with the tone of the film. This shift coincides with Helen’s sanity coming into question, making sense that it feels as if the story has gone off the rails slightly.
I definitely feel that Bernard Rose was very ambitious in this venture, and he does a pretty good job of developing the atmosphere. However, you can quickly tell when we move from on-location filming to soundstage sets. I think this creates a tv movie feel at certain moments because the cinematography while shooting in those spaces is so stagey. The one magic element that elevates the film above these noticeable flaws is the remarkable Tony Todd as Candyman. His voice alone feels precisely on point for the monstrous character but the choice to make him less of a savage beast and more of a hypnotic seducer. You can understand why Helen would be drawn to this figure; he’s presented as almost an inevitable force of nature, something that cannot be escaped like a black hole.
Unlike its horror peers of the early 1990s, this is a picture that holds up remarkably well. The scares are genuine, and there are such cleverly constructed moments that create potent dread. I particularly like the use of flashbacks in a few instances that serve as dramatizations of stories floating around the neighborhood. I just wish the themes of racism and poverty had a clearer resolution in the third act and that it didn’t become a story about a wronged white woman in the end.