I was in sixth grade the first time I saw Bernard Rose’s exceptional 1992 film Candyman.

candyman poster by you.

It scared the living shit out of me. I was at my friend Hayley’s house, trying to fall asleep in her bedroom, which suddenly seemed absolutely beset with mirrors.  I remember telling myself, “You’ll never be able to sleep if you don’t prove it’s not real.” So I walked into the bathroom, closed the door behind me, turned off the lights and said “Candyman” five times in the mirror.

film_candyman by you.

I cannot fucking believe I did that.

I re-watched this brilliantly atmospheric movie (based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden”) last night. And once again, it scared the living shit out of me. I honestly can’t imagine being so brave as to summon the Candyman these days. I’ve seen far too many horror movies to taunt fate in such a brazen manner. I’m either getting wiser or more cowardly as I age.

The film begins with a gorgeous sweeping shot high above the Chicago skyline, as a ghastly body of bees darkens the sky.  Philip Glass’s eerie score serves to instantly turn your courageous insides to pudding. Much of the film’s haunting, increasingly suspenseful quality is owed to ubiquitous cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond—his long, tracking shots dreamily pull back to reveal more of each grim scene, and you find yourself terrified to discover what waits behind the next corner. The cityscapes of Chicago are at once breathtaking and terrible. In the hands of Richmond and Rose, the Windy City seems to be some dreadful, mythical city from another time.

Helen (Virginia Madsen) is a grad student writing a thesis on urban legend. She becomes fascinated with the Candyman myth—a boogieman terrifying the residents of Chicago projects Cabrini Green. According to legend, Candyman was the educated and artistic son of a slave. After impregnating the daughter of a plantation owner, her father reaped a monstrous revenge—sawing off Candyman’s right hand, drenching him in honey and leaving him to be swarmed by bees. Candyman’s ashes were scattered over Cabrini Green and through his malevolent will, he refuses to die, instead terrorizing anyone foolish enough to summon him.

candyman-still by you.

You see how stupid I was in sixth grade?

Helen, too, sports a foolhardy academic skepticism and, with little fanfare, says Candyman’s name five times in her bathroom mirror. A string of atrocious murders quickly follows and is attributed to Helen as her innocence and soon her sanity are doubted by everyone who knows her.  She becomes intrinsically linked to the devastated streets of Cabrini Green and to its despairing residents.

candyman-torch by you.

This movie is absolutely terrifying. While Rose perfectly utilizes many of the typical jump-out-and-grab-you fright techniques, the enduring resonance of Candyman’s horror stems from the quiet, grim atmosphere, as well as from the truly awful ideas contained in this world. Although I hadn’t seen this movie in years, I remembered it in a more intuitive manner than my usual recall for dialogue and plot. I remembered how cold and breathless it made me feel, how dreadfully expectant I was for each upcoming act. Half a minute into the opening credits, I was that distressed 11-year-old again, though without her hubris.

Candyman is a serious, straightforward horror film. The story is intelligent and nuanced, and the performances turned in by Virginia Madsen, Xander Berkeley as Helen’s inconstant husband, Kasi Lemmons as her best friend and most particularly Tony Todd as Candyman are, to a note, perfect.  Urban legend is a phrase that has lost its meaning in recent years, but is unequivocally defined here with this grand, operatic mythos playing out in the graffitied streets of Chicago.  Using this legend as the fundament for the following action makes for a poetic tale that is still present and substantial.

candyman-mouth-exit by you.

The action develops in a wonderfully ambiguous way as to whether Helen actually has lost her mind or if Candyman is a true corporeal threat intent on destroying her life and possessing her. Virgina Madsen delivers such a poignant performance, never vulnerable despite the horrors she is forced to accept. Helen is not some flighty victim of terrible fortune. Every action she makes is a choice and she handles each increasingly gruesome consequence with strength and poise. Even when the consequence is this:

candyman1 by you.

While this is a tale about the abiding power of fear, Helen creates a legacy of a different kind, one of strength and spirit, and of knowing herself when all others have lost sight of her.

c8 by you.

6 Responses to “Candyman”

  1. I. too, remember seeing Candyman when I was but a wee thing. I was so terrified afterwards that I didn’t sleep for two weeks. And now I probably won’t sleep tonight. THANKS.

  2. Yeah, that movie is mega creepy. The score is ominously building the entire time. Tony Todd is the effing man too. I can’t ever imagine looking into the mirror to find out if that happens. Marla as a child is definitely more ballsy than I am as an adult.

    I think Candyman definitely belongs on the shelf of greatest modern horror–right next to Hellraiser. Hmmm, Clive Barker too. Funny.

  3. Whoa! Kickass review! I love it. I cannot wait to watch it now. “I remembered it in a more intuitive manner than my usual recall for dialogue and plot. I remembered how cold and breathless it made me feel, how dreadfully expectant I was for each upcoming act.” Nice.

  4. this review was breathtaking!

    and since i will never, ever, EVER permit myself to see this movie, i’m glad that you gave me such a compelling substitute in the form of this blog entry.

    also? i’m kind of glad we never had a slumber party together as little pantsers. i think i would still be scarred.

  5. I, like you, saw this movie as a 6th grader at a slumber party… that’s where the similarities end. I stayed up all night staring at the bedroom mirror from my sleeping bad on the ground, absolutely terrified out of my little head… clearly you were a brave kid. I’m still shocked I didn’t pee on myself. This movie completely cured me of watching horror movies, I can still count on 1 hand how many horror movies I have watched in my life after this one!

  6. josh katz Says:

    Great review; no doubt I saw this movie too around 7th grade with some friends, watching HBO late at night, and was terrified. But thinking about it now…this makes no sense. There were no plantations in Chicago, and I don’t think Illinois even allowed slavery. So why would Candyman’s ashes be spread over what is now a housing project in south Chicago?

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