‘Candyman’ – ’92 Cinema Revue

Candyman – #4 in the U.S. (Oct. 16-18)

All-Time Domestic: $25,792,310 | All-Time Worldwide: $3,587
All-Time Worldwide: $25,795,897

Candyman remains a horror favorite but lacks an authentic black perspective.

Horror cinema in 1992 seems scarce. The last horror film covered here (by default) was Alien 3, a lackluster affair that has its fans but does not deliver on scares. Unfortunately, our next one after this review is not until November (as far as all of you know). So revisiting Candyman feels like a treat, even more so a year after the 2021 reboot directed by Nia DaCosta. I was a bit cold on that reboot in parts despite enjoying the direction it went, but the gripes I have with that film have some presence here. 

Based upon the Clive Barker short story “The Forbidden” from Books of Blood, director Bernard Rose moved the story from tackling classism in Liverpool in the United Kingdom to covering race and classism in the Cabrini-Green project of Chicago in the United States. The change is a welcomed one considering the rise of black cinema in the 90s, including the prominence of black lead horror films1968’s Night of the Living Dead was the first black lead in a horror film with Duane Jones as Ben. Tony Todd played Ben in the Tom Savini remake in 1990, beginning his prominence in the horror scene that would only expand outward after becoming the titular Candyman. Todd has remained a staple of horror to this day.

Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a graduate student of the University of Illinois Chicago who comes upon hearing the legend of Candyman (Tony Todd) through murders attributed to him in the Cabrini-Green project. The tale is that if one says his name five times, he will appear and make you his victim. Helen decides to base her thesis on the Candyman legend and how it correlates with the residents’ current hardships in the projects. Yet, she gets in too deep, causing chaos for her life and those around her.

Candyman excels as a modern horror scares but depreciates given its handling of black pain. This whole film is about a white person invading black spaces. Helen may think this is a story worth telling, but it is evoking a myth that is rooted in the culture of Cabrini-Green. Her apartment was built on the former land as the city decided to gentrify the area. The gentrification idea is expanded upon in the 2021 reboot, but having the roots in this film is relatively unheard of, with the idea fresh in the minds of others thanks to Boyz N the Hood having Furious Styles explain it. Though she tries to mean well by understanding what came before her place and the remainder of the projects, Helen does not understand she should stay in her lane. When she does, Candyman does not hold back on making her his victim by torturing her, consuming her to the point of murderous chaos, and being seen as the modern-day Candyman because of it. 

Candyman (Tony Todd) holds onto Helen (Virginia Madsen) as the flames burn in the trash pile surrounding them.
Source: TriStar/Getty Images

Yet, there is the archaic notion of exploiting black pain for horror and entertainment. The main character is a white woman. Clive Barker is a white man. The director Bernard Rose is, you guessed it, white. There is no authentic black voice behind the scenes or involved in the story’s production or writing. Most black characters here are reduced to stereotypes from single moms working late, gang bangers in the park, and Candyman himself being the central fixture of black pain, having been brutally killed by bees and beaten for lusting after a white woman. I think it’s taken a minute to write about this film because there is something a bit off despite all the great scares. What that something off is the lack of authentic expression from a black voice. Carvell Wallace of The Atlantic goes more depth in his article “Don’t Go In The Basement,” which focuses on the 2021 reboot, “horror Noire” cinema, and problems with the 1992 film. I, a light-skinned Mexican-American, am not the one to talk about something I have very little knowledge about, so Wallace’s brilliant take is worth reading before continuing with the rest of this review.

For the horror aspect, this film is gruesome as they come. It’s not for the faint of heart to see people dismembered and animals being harmed. However, it does not hold off on showing the violence, much like Barker’s Hellraiser, and it adds to the story rather than takes away from it. It’s heartwrenching to see death in the film. I often turned to my partner and said, “this is way more brutal and grim than I remembered.” The central horror is seeing Helen dwindle in her psyche due to the possession of Candyman. Madsen sells the dissent with confusion and sadness before succumbing and accepting her fate. Todd, as Candyman, has a strong presence with a fantastic look to him that still resonates in the mind of horror fans. The fact that Todd also had it in his contract that for every bee sting obtained, he would get $1,000 in return is, for lack of a better term, king shit. Because of that, he earned an extra $23,000 on top of his salary.

Candyman (Tony Todd) appears before Helen in a parking garage.
Source: Univeral Pictures/Tri Star

A fault of the film I still cannot grasp is why Candyman would harm black people. Once again, not the person to speak on it, but why would Candyman evoke further pain in the black community? It’s a question I had during this rewatch and after seeing the reboot. Why would he not seek vengeance against the descendants of the people that destroyed him? I digress, but it’s something that does bug me. It would have made for much better reasoning for his return. The other gripe is the ending that is from the original story. Having Helen become the new version of Candyman may be off-putting for some. The sequels and reboot ignore this twist ending to tell their own stories without the need to hinge on the wrench.

Candyman does remain a solid favorite, but it is hard to overlook the lack of an authentic black voice. Instead, the film hinges on its exploitation of black pain and suffering for the sake of storytelling. It’s a narrative that has been done over against to the point of exhaustion. Yet, it looms large in the history of “horror Noire” and made Tony Todd a household name to horror fans.

Revue Rating: 4 out of 5

Next time, we meet a colorful cast of hitmen in an indie film that made Quentin Tarantino rise in stardom. It’s Reservoir Dogs.

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