Revisiting the Canon: Candyman.

What, you don’t think Candyman, directed by a white man, written by a white man, and starring Virginia Madsen, should have a place in the black film canon? Given those facts you may have a decent argument. But! Candyman himself is black, it’s set in the projects, and there are Rottweilers and gang-bangers. Plus, it’s almost Halloween people; don’t act like this movie didn’t scare the be-jesus out of you when you were little. Into the canon it goes.

The 1992 film is set in Chicago, and Candyman’s turf is the Cabrini-Green projects on the city’s Near North Side. Helen Lyle (played by Madsen) and her trusty sidekick Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are determined to uncover the truth behind the story of Candyman for their graduate theses on urban legends.

Since I hadn’t seen this film in a good ten years, I found myself impressed with the lengths the writer Clive Barker (of Hellraiser fame) went to give Candyman a backstory. He isn’t just some boogeyman that terrorizes yall’s neighborhoods for no good reason; Candyman has suffered. Legend has it that he was the artistic son of a well-to-do former slave in the 1890s when he got a young white woman pregnant. The mob that came after Candyman hacked off his hand with a rusty saw (hence his hook), then slathered him in honey and unleashed a swarm of starving bees on him. He was stung to death, and his bastard baby was presumably “taken care of.” His ashes were scattered on the ground where the projects now stand.

Predictably, it doesn’t take long for Helen to go too far in the name of thesis research — she crawls through a hole in a dank, blood-spattered bathroom wall in Cabrini-Green to retrace Candyman’s path through adjoining apartments and into a victim’s unit. But it is on a subsequent solo visit that shit really starts to get weird.

Before Helen can say “Candyman!” she is bopped upside the head by a local drug lord for snooping around, caught holding the knife next to a decapitated Rottweiler, and accused of stealing/possibly killing a baby. Candyman is behind all of this, but how can Helen prove it? She can’t, so the killing keeps on going. Of course Bernadette gets the hook (heh), because she is black/refused to believe in Candyman. The film denouements with the residents of Cabrini-Green lighting a huge bonfire in hopes of killing the villain, but they kill our dear Helen in the process as well.

In addition to the effort put into Candyman’s lore, there  a few other details that elevate this film beyond the average B-movie horror flick. Phillip Glass, the prolific composer behind The Hours, Notes on a Scandal, and The Secret Window, scored the film. Glass’s sweeping orchestral overtones make driving down a sunny highway feel ominous. Candyman is brilliantly portrayed by Tony Todd (so much so that all he’ll ever be is “Candyman” to me), as Todd is subtle and sometimes even charismatic in his haunting of Helen. Then there are the bees. It was the bees, more than anything that stuck in my mind as a kid; they show up in toilets, crawl over Helen’s entire body in one scene and pour from Candyman’s mouth. The bees are worthy of their own horror movie.

On a narrative level, Candyman is actually quite meta. Candyman sets his sights on Helen because she favors his long-lost lover, but also because she encourages residents in the projects to stop believing in him. Candyman is nothing without his story. He needs to kill her to revive the residents’ belief in him, thereby ensuring immortality for himself through their constant retellings of his deeds. Although he dies in the end, his legend lives on through Helen as she’s now the one with the hook who has a score to settle (her husband had been cheating the whole time). So in essence, the film is a story about a story that is determined to keep being a story that people tell.

It’s not without its problematic elements. There is an obvious criticism to be made about Candyman, the black villain, being obsessed with white women and cutting people “from groin to gullet.” Bernadette dies, leaving Candyman and over-the-top Vanessa Williams as the only black characters. And although she dies and becomes a villain in a way, Helen is still shown as the redeemer of the projects who finally rids them of Candyman, because, you know, they couldn’t do it by themselves.

Candyman makes a few interesting, albeit feeble, attempts at social commentary. Characters observe that the earlier murders could have been prevented if the police had shown up in a timely manner, but project life isn’t a priority to the department. Cabrini-Green is shown as a graffiti-covered wasteland that gang members and drug dealers control, but it’s also shown as a place where families and children are trying to live with dignity. While the film doesn’t address the gentrification that eventually lead to the recent demolition and displacement of many of Cabrini-Green’s residents, it does hint at the role that segregated neighborhoods and access to public services played in the projects’ demise.

I dare you to say Candyman five times in the bathroom mirror on Halloween. Just don’t blame me when you find bees in the toilet.

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5 comments to Revisiting the Canon: Candyman.

  • young_

    Very insightful writeup. I don’t usually analyze movies this way, but the more that I think about it though, the film’s plot and themes seem almost like a caricature of white racial liberalism. First and foremost, it connects and lays the responsibility for dangerous urban conditions on America’s original sin. It then offers the solution to these problems as the intense committment and sacrifice of an open-minded, highly-educated white woman. The inauthentically black character gets destroyed and discarded along the way. I bet Shelby Steele thinks that this is how all white liberals see America’s racial issues… Anyway, I enjoyed the piece; pardon my rambling musings.


    • First and foremost, it connects and lays the responsibility for dangerous urban conditions on America’s original sin. It then offers the solution to these problems as the intense committment and sacrifice of an open-minded, highly-educated white woman.

      That’s an astute analysis, and Bernadette totally gets the hook cause she’s not “down” enough to enjoy project snooping. What I find interesting though is that instead of having Candyman haunt white residences, he’s shown as one of many plagues on the black community. The “original sin” of slavery does cause suffering, but not for those behind the sin. It’s clearly the type of liberal viewpoint that encourages whites to see the “failings” in the black community as their responsibility to fix.

      • tedra

        I remember really liking this movie but haven’t seen it since it came out. That said, the post and Young’s comment make me want to watch it again as an adult. I do remember finding the race/history angle in it part of what set it apart as a horror movie.

        The “original sin” of slavery does cause suffering, but not for those behind the sin. It’s clearly the type of liberal viewpoint that encourages whites to see the “failings” in the black community as their responsibility to fix.

        Yeeesssssss…. maybe. I actually would look at this another way (and I do remember thinking this at the time): that part of the tragedy/horror of the thing (as with tragedy/horror generally, if you’re doing it right) is that the effect of the sin is *not fair*. The point, I think, isn’t that it’s the (moral) responsibility of blacks to fix the effects of slavery; if anything, it’s that it’s the practical responsibility. (Because the larger, white culture, obviously doesn’t care.) And that that’s a horror and a tragedy. No?

        (That said, haven’t seen the movie in a while, so I could be way off base here. And I didn’t know that Kasi Lemmons also acted. Heart her.)

  • I saw this film as a junior in high school and it was the only movie that scared me enough I couldn’t sleep – all night – and went to school the next day with it still on my mind. (I don’t think today I could handle it at all for reasons totally different than the creepiness that so scared me as a teen – I’m much more sensitive to/devastated by bad stuff happening to babies, small children, or animals).

    Even at that age though, the actor playing Helen’s wormy husband, Xander Berkeley, I just *knew* he was going to get it!

    I like the analysis and I like the “rambling musings”. My kind of movie review, thanks!

  • I just added this feed to my bookmarks. I have to say, I very much enjoy reading your blogs. Thanks!

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