If the character Candyman never made an appearance in the first film that carries his name, Candyman would still be an overwhelming and fully functioning horror film. If the movie had excluded its villain and focused instead on Helen Lyle’s (Virginia Madsen) obsessive research and the Babadookian spiral of her sanity, pointing her fixation at a folklore concept without having the urban legend represented in corporeal form, we would still have an unsettling psychological horror film about obsession and class divide. Or, if the narrative lens had turned a few degrees to document Anne Marie McCoy’s (Vanessa Williams) perspective in the kidnapping of her son Jacob, Candyman would still work as a story of a struggling woman of color victimized by the implied maternal envy of a privileged white women whose lunatic obsession is driven by folklore created as a means of protecting a culture from its disgraceful history by way of turning black bodies into storytelling entertainment and whose disregard for McCoy as a mother further represents American commodification of black bodies.
Bernard Rose’s now celebrated 1992 exercise is a strange and ambitious amalgamation. Where the baseline and heavily advertised premise of the film borrows directly from the traditional “Bloody Mary” mirror spook test and its titular character is often mentioned in the same breath as undercooked cult classic slasher film villains, Candyman, on a scene-by-scene measure, is anything but familiar or basic. In fact, the film, which turns 25 on October 16, presents a distinct high-mindedness and artistic confidence that might have rendered it less palatable for general audiences during a decade in which mainstream horror (outside of Rose’s film and The Blair Witch Project) lacked innovation, invention, and general evolution. When the most popular horror series of an era is about standardizing the formula of its own genre (Scream), the trends leading up to that vacuous genre’s self-absorption likely scraped unfavorably against a film as unique as Candyman.
And to be fair, Candyman asks a lot of its audience by any standard, and that demand is presented almost as a cruel bait and switch. The description of the movie and its opening act all lead to an expectation that the film is about a hook-handed ghost who cuts open anyone who says his name in a mirror five times. That is not a template upon which one would expect to have built a cinematic essay on class divide and America’s history of violent racism, the perpetuation of dark folklore as cultural therapy for social shortcomings, and even a look at misogynist control of self-driven and successful women. But that’s exactly what Rose manages, in expressions that are subtle and blatant, symbolic and literal, concise and confusingly abstract.
But all of it fleshed by horror.
To ascertain and catalog the value of these more difficult interpretations, one must travel through the application of exceptional, straightforward horror expression. The imperative establishment of class divide in Candyman is illustrated by one of the best juxtapositions of reality and its darker underworld, a trope at least as old as Lovecraft, that we have seen put to screen. When Helen discovers that Cabrini Green, the housing project where the brutal murder that pushed the Candyman lore into her line of academic vision, was actually constructed in tandem design with her own upscale apartment building, her investigatory visit to the urban locale unleashes a dark reflection of her home. The Cabrini Green apartment where the purported murder of Ruthie Jean took place is laid out exactly like Helen’s, but the apartment and the hallways leading to it are presented as a dark reflection of Helen’s home, a comfortable structure made hellish by shadows, bad lighting, and dilapidation through social abandonment. Cabrini Green is a nightmare that reflects Clive Barker’s vision of doom (Candyman is based on the author’s short story The Forbidden) as much as any detail from any of his adaptations. Because superficially, it’s just a terrifying description of a terrifying place, but it is also a nightmare made of hope’s absence.
And it’s telling that in 1992, an era which saw destined hypocrite Bill Cosby celebrated for lecturing black youth about self-responsibility and liberal heroes inaugurated into the White House where they would introduce the world to the concept of “super predators” in order to push oppressive prison reform legislation, we shelved Candyman without asking ourselves in any earnest manner why this apartment building worked to trigger collective fear from its audience. Really, aside from darkness, what makes this living space look like hell to us? Graffiti? Failing utilities? McCoy’s Rottweiler (whose menace is deflated when the dog is murdered by a crazed white woman or a one armed man, depending on your interpretation)? All of these artifacts are so stereotypically associated with urban lifestyle in the paranoid and terrified imagination of the white middle class that the employment of these images to conjure fear might in and of itself be diagnosed as racist if the technique weren’t so useful and effective.
And that leads to why Candyman’s appearance and influence over the film is so vital in reading the film in spite of its being perhaps unnecessary in the horror execution of the film. Arguably, Tony Todd’s character has become more iconic than the whole of his film or the series it spawned, the way that Jason, Michael, Leatherface, Chucky, and Freddy all did prior. But Candyman, more than any other icon on that list, accounts for a smaller percentage of the root horror of his film, as his haunting is meant to be traced to its genesis and then mapped more thoroughly outward into a much more dreadful existential and historic truth.
In his living existence, Candyman’s father was a former slave who found prosperity in inventing a means of mass producing shoes. The son’s eventual artistic talent was also appreciated and commissioned by slave owners. When he impregnated the daughter of one of his paid white customers, the townspeople tortured and mutilated him, cutting off his hand and dipping him in honey, then leaving him to die by bee stings. Candyman’s century old death is an expression of the same thing against which his violent haunting lashes out in anger: the deadly gap between white people’s willingness to accept the art, skill, and even children of black people and their refusal to accept the integration of people of color within their civilization.
Rose obstructs any clean categorical reading of Candyman’s character beyond his murder being so tragic that sympathy is the rational (and perhaps self-protective) reaction. All of the victims of Candyman’s game are innocent, at least in terms on consciously wounding offenses against other characters. His ire is felt by persons of color inhabiting his disenfranchised haunt space, by a scholar who is outwardly sympathetic to both those victims and Candyman himself, and eventually, Lyle’s husband who almost justifiably (from his perspective anyway) begins a new relationship after his wife’s incarceration for killing an infant. It would be easy to bridge Candyman’s murder to his violent manifestation by adding righteousness or direct vengeance, creating a simpler A-to-B thematic reading. Rose does not do that and Barker’s story does not allow it.
After her act of grueling self-sacrifice, Helen’s funeral is attended by a marching line of the Cabrini Green residents who witnessed her crawling from the fire that eventually took her life. The image of the people of color marching in apparent political statement is bold and identifiable. Traversing a hill with two or three black-clad marchers, stepping shoulder to shoulder all the way back to the edge of the frame and presumably beyond, the procession conjures the image of Edmund Pettus Bridge. But if the symbol is clear in recognition, it is confusing in application. Is it a protest or a profession of solidarity or something else?
The ghost of Candyman is, after all, a selfish monster willing to disembowel innocent persons of color and to unleash torture, imprisonment, and a sort of self-serving damnation on a potential ally. His expression of anger isn’t serving any brand of justice that would be useful to the contemporary recipients of the same violent and systemic oppression that took his life. Rather, Candyman’s supernatural projection echoes the continued scream of hate and inhumanity started by America’s white European settlers that has continually poisoned the ability of our nation to grow beyond its original sins of slavery and genocide. In this sense, the march upon Helen’s funeral might best register not as support or protest, but a demand for recognition of the immeasurable and seemingly unstoppable evil that moves from our history into our contemporary inner cities. In a way, Candyman isn’t the ghost of a murdered slave’s son, but the ghost of the murder itself.
When Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a film that expresses race and class concerns peripheral to those in Candyman with less subtlety and equally precise horror language, was released to a wildfire of critical acclaim earlier this year, the adoration for the film amongst horror fanatics and regular film fans alike triggered the predictable discourse, including that old discussion about whether high-quality horror was a rare novelty or just a constant within the genre that only becomes noticed when a wide release hit finally gets recognized. I consider myself a horror fanatic, so I’ve thought about this a lot this year and Candyman offered a little more clarity on the topic. When I finished revisiting Candyman for this essay, I asked myself why this kind of horror was rare in the 1990s and why it had taken me so long to revisit it, thought immediately about what Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about Donald Trump in the conclusion of his The Atlantic essay “The First White President”:
The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.
Even as a horror fanatic, even as someone who believes Candyman and Get Out are competitive for the distinction of being the best horror films of their respective decades, and even as someone who frequently asserts my belief that horror at its best is the most effective cinematic instrument with which to investigate the human condition and all of its structures, I also count myself as one of those voices who thinks this kind of intelligent and useful horror is exceptionally rare. I sometimes struggle to explain why I believe this, but Coates and Candyman offer a great starting point. Perhaps the reason this sort of high-quality horror is rare is because it is relentlessly useful toward a goal that few people in the movie-consuming population care to pursue. Maybe it’s not the fault of the films or their creators or even their studios. Maybe it’s the cowardice of their audiences that inhibits the allowance of great horror films. It’s telling that the nightmare of Candyman only begins when one looks into a mirror and measures one’s courage. Horror this good opens us up, performs a deep autopsy, forces us to self-reflect and shows us the worst truth about being alive. It makes us see that we’re not just creating the monsters, we’re also creating the hell from which they come.