It is debatable which Clive Barker creation is the most iconic. Pinhead from Hellraiser or Candyman from, well, Candyman? Later in HorrOctober I plan to re-watch Hellraiser so I’ll offer a verdict then, but for now let’s look at Bernard Rose’s 1992 urban folk horror/haunting masterpiece. As that description implies, Candyman combines various elements with astute balance which ensures that we get an intriguing tale of various tensions, and a straightforwardly terrifying and at times very gory story. It’s a rare horror film that offers suspense as well as copious bloodletting without compromising its atmosphere, but screenwriter-director Rose pulls it off.
The racial and class tensions are foregrounded, as a white woman of privilege, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) researches the urban myth of Candyman by exploring a poor, black neighbourhood of Chicago. The people that Helen encounters, including Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) and Jake (DeJuan Guy) express a life and circumstances very different from her own, and pleasingly the film presents Helen as someone out of her depth. Furthermore, Helen is responsible for the increasingly horrific events, which says something about her position: push the poor and the black away from the markers of wealth and privilege, but the sins of the past still come back to haunt you.
For what is Candyman (Tony Todd) but the sins of the past, as recounted by Professor Philip Purcell (Michael Culkin)? The son of a slave who was permitted to enter polite (white) society, only to be brutally murdered because he crossed the line of miscegenation. He was a victim of racism, just as the inhabitants of Cabrini Green are. And while his haunting of the housing projects and indeed violence could be seen as revenge, it also serves as a vital legacy. Should racial oppression be forgotten, even if it must be remembered with blood? Candyman insists that he must be remembered, as the ‘writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom’, and his persecution of Helen serves to ensure that this memory of injustice will persist. Tony Todd’s imposing presence and deeply seductive voice gives his character genuine pathos as well as menace, making Candyman sympathetic as well as terrifying.
All of which adds to equal amounts of physical and psychological horror. It is notable that up to a point, Helen could be suffering a psychosis. She blacks out only to wake up with no recollection of what took place, on more than one occasion beside a bloody body with a weapon in her hand. She sees this mysterious hooked figure that no one else can see. Maybe she is actually crazy. Eventually it becomes clear that there is an external force at work, clarifying that we are in supernatural territory, but it is to the credit of Rose as well as Virginia Madsen’s fracturing performance that an element of ambiguity remains. As for the physical violence, it is shocking, brutal and horrific, the sound effects and bloodspray, plus the mutilated bodies as well as the sheer nastiness of a rusty metal hook, ensure that the murder scenes are visceral and sickening. Meanwhile, Candyman made great use of bees long before Nicolas Cage screamed about them in The Wicker Man. It is a fun and scary ride, but also a properly haunting film, one that lingers in the mind and has left an indelible imprint on horror cinema. I don’t know about you, but I still won’t look in the mirror and say his name five times…