Say Candyman once! Say it again! Say it five times! This lethal Beetlejuice will come for your soul!
Welcome to the first film of the 2019 season of 31 Days of Horror. I will be covering 31 horror films, one for each day of October. Some new, some old. This year I’m starting off with a modern classic that influenced many of the “urban myth” horror films from the last two decades, Candyman!
Based on the trailer, Candyman appears to be an early attempt to take on the urban legend of calling out to a spirit in a mirror, much like Bloody Mary. Virginia Madsen is a reporter or something similar investigating the strange stories of a creature called Candyman that haunts Chicago. The trailer provides some tension and chills without giving away hardly anything. There are some quick flashes to “scary” scenes but not enough to make out what they are. Welcome to the 2019 edition of 31 Days of Horror!
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
Helen (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are two grad students working on their thesis about urban legends. They interview freshmen about what they’ve heard regarding the tale of “Candyman,” a killer with a hook for a right hand that will appear when his name is called five times in front of a mirror. In this first iteration of the tale, babysitter Clara (Marianna Elliott) and bad-boy Billy (Ted Raimi) summon the monster, which eviscerates the girl and leaves the boys’ hair white.
As the pair continue to investigate, they hear from a pair of black custodians at the school that Candyman killed a woman in the projects at Cabrini-Green, the derelict slum on the North Side of Chicago. Helen and Bernadette discuss the viability of the information, and Helen decides to say Candyman’s name five times in front of her bathroom mirror to no effect. The next day, Helen, who is white, forces Bernadette, who is black, to come with her to investigate. Moving past the gang members, they find the apartment where a black woman was eviscerated and discover a hole in the wall behind the medicine cabinet/mirror. Helen crawls into the derelict apartment and discovers much graffiti, including a giant head with a hole where the mouth is.
On the way out they meet with Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams), a neighbor with a new baby that tells the duo of the recent murder. Helen returns later to investigate by herself and is possessed by Candyman. She passes out and awakens in Anne-Marie’s apartment covered in blood. It appears as if she killed Anne-Marie’s dog and abducted her child. She is arrested and bailed out the next morning by her husband Trevor (Xander Berkley), a professor at her college.
Trevor’s colleague explains the “true history” of Candyman at dinner one night. He was the son of a slave and a masterful artist that was hired by a white family to paint their daughter. He fell in love with a girl, Caroline Sullivan, and fathered a child. When the townspeople heard about this, they cut off his right hand, and beat him, finally dragging him into an apiary where he was smothered in the honey and stung to death. His ashes were scattered in the location where Cabrini-Green now stands.
Only partially believing the story, Helen is once again possessed by Candyman. But instead of killing Helen, he kills Bernadette in Helen’s apartment. Now Helen is committed to an asylum and under restraint. Candyman visits her in the asylum telling her that she has taken away his power by revealing his true nature. When he appears and kills her doctor, he frees her. She escapes the hospital only to find Trevor has replaced her with a college girl. She realizes where Candyman has hidden the baby and returns to Cabrini-Green to save it.
She discovers the baby in another abandoned room in the slum, which contains murals of the life and death of the man that became Candyman. Helen realizes that she looks like Caroline Sullivan. In a final attempt to rescue the baby, Helen follows the Candyman into a large bonfire structure in front of the building. A young boy sees a meat hook that Helen is using to defend herself with and assumes that Candyman is in the structure. He urges the residents to set it ablaze. Helen saves the baby while Candyman burns. She too falls victim to her burns and is buried. The residents of Cabrini-Green show up at the funeral and throw Candyman’s hook into her grave. That night, in a final moment of grief, Trevor says her name five times in front of the mirror and her spirit rises from the grave and eviscerates him, leaving his young lover standing over him with a knife.
“l am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing. So now, l must shed innocent blood.” – Candyman
Candyman was inspired by a Clive Barker story called “The Forbidden.” The story is mostly the same, but set in England. The film relocates the setting to Chicago. It’s an incredible return to form for Barker, who was not involved except for the story credit. His previous adaptations received mixed attention. Hellraiser was well received but Barker’s Transmutations, Rawhead Rex, and Nightbreed were not as well liked.
The film features all the hallmarks of the nouveau-horror cinema from the 1980s: a wronged soul coming back to take revenge on the living, teenagers being killed while seeking “forbidden” knowledge, and the overall parable of caution with the unknown. But that’s only the apparent setting for the film, it has a much greater story and tone that it sets, and is probably why it endures after nearly 25 years. On the surface it’s an updated telling of the urban legend “Bloody Mary,” in which a malevolent spirit will awaken when her name is chanted into a mirror. The film was also the first in a long line of movies that would attempt to tell the tales of well-trod urban legends, such as the killer with a hook for a hand, or the mothman.
On one level, the character of Candyman is kept alive by the stories and tales “whispered” between friends. His life force is created by the decay, and violence of the building he hides in. The commentary being that to shed a light on such crimes as urban gang violence and abuse takes away the power of the “monster.” The film even creates a gang member who calls himself Candyman, named after the legend, and proceeds to carry out violence under that name. To the viewer it’s unclear if the murder in Cabrini-Green, or an additional story of a boy who was castrated in a local public restroom, were victims of the demonic Candyman, or simply the would-be gang member. Not that it matters, as the deeds all have the same outcome. They feed the rumor mills, and gossips. They create the urban legend that Candyman will come for you.
A second reading of the film exists on a societal level. Helen, who uses her white privilege to poke around in places she doesn’t belong, upsets the social balance of this lower class building. She is first threatened, with a pretty severe beating by the gang-member Candyman, before falling victim to the demonic Candyman. Her similarity to Candyman’s lover is not just a coincidence, as she seems fated to make up for the crimes against the artist, by becoming subsumed by the spirit or whatever it was keeping Candyman alive. She is now the next victim, getting payback for years of social imbalance.
The use of mirrors in the story presents a whole separate reading of the notion of self. Mirrors and reflections have a long history in horror cinema, reflecting back not just the characters but the creatures as well. A long-used trope of the medicine cabinet mirror being closed to reflect the killer shows the mystical aspect of the device. Mirrors also often exist as portals, allowing the reflection to reach into the “real world,” or as in this case calling the spirits in from another plane of existence. Helen is “infected” by Candyman, having changed the perception of others around herself by speaking the ritual words into the mirror. In essence, creating a backwards version of herself.
Whether the viewer chooses to read the film as a parable on fear, or as a socially charged story about the power imbalance between class and race, Candyman does a super job of freaking the audience out. I doubt few would enter their bathroom to speak into his name into a darkened mirror after watching this film.
- Helen name checks Dracula and Frankenstein to young Jake when telling him that Candyman isn’t real.
- Tony Todd’s portrayal of Candyman is extremely iconic, and he would return for two sequels Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999). He is reportedly playing Candyman a fourth time in a new version of the film due out in mid-2020.
- Ted Raimi, who usually appears in his brother Sam’s movies (Evil Dead), make a small appearance as the “bad-boy” Billy.
- A mirror in this film becomes an actual portal not only in the physical sense (between apartments) but in the metaphysical sense (transporting the spirit into another body).
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.