I haven’t seen the recently released Candyman, but the original that was released in the Fall of 1992 is one of my favorite horror movies and an underrated classic.
Written and directed by Bernard Rose based on a short story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker, he does what Alfred Hitchcock used to do with making a story set around the history of a location. In this case, a good portion of the movie is set in and around the now (thankfully) demolished Cabrini-Green housing project in the Near North Side of Chicago.
The housing project’s history is far more frightening that anything Barker or horror writer Stephen King could fathom, because it was a true story of decades living in substandard housing with utilities that didn’t work. At one point, the Chicago Housing Authority, put up chain link fence on the exteriors in an attempt to keep resident from tossing garbage (or people) off the sides. This only made matters worse because the project resembled a prison.
In a terrible attempt at public relations, in 1981 Jane Byrne, mayor of Chicago at the time, and her husband, moved into Cabrini for about three weeks. She had to have bodyguard presence at all times.
When Candyman opened in theaters in October of 1992, a seven-year-old boy, Dantrell Davis, had been fatally shot in the head while walking to school. And filmmakers said they were shot at while filming. They had to negotiate with some of the street gangs that hung around the project for safety.
But a true crime story used in the movie is the murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy, who was killed by an intruder that came through her medicine cabinet. This happened at the nearby Abbot Homes housing projects.
Before I got any further, let me say there are spoilers ahead so if you haven’t seen the 1992 version, please don’t read further or else.
Set during the cold winter of the Midwest, the movie focuses on Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a graduate student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, learns of the Candyman urban legend while speaking to undergraduates. She later is told by a cleaning woman who overhears her recorded interviews that the Candyman lives in Cabrini-Green. Another cleaning woman working in the same building tells Helen about the murder of a tenant Ruthie Jean, who died in similar fashion to McCoy.
Right here, Rose is showing the demographic differences of the time. All the undergraduates are predominantly white, while both of the cleaning women are black. Helen’s friend and fellow student, Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) is black, but it’s obvious that Bernie has a lighter skin than the cleaning women.
When Helen and Bernie do go to Cabrini-Green, they are initially mistaken for police officers, because why else would two middle-class women come to the housing project. They meet a single mother, Annie-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Estelle Williams), who lives next door to the apartment where Ruthie Jean lived. Annie-Marie has an infant son, Anthony, a Rottweiler for protection.
In her research, Helen discovers that the condo she lives in with her husband, Trevor (Xander Berkley) was originally a housing project decades before and was originally inhabited by mostly white people. Then some developers spread plaster on the cinderblock walls and other improvements turning them into high-priced condos. The outline of her condo is similar to the Cabrini-Green which she notices while looking over Ruthie Jean’s apartment which is filled with graffiti on the walls and garbage strewn everywhere. But there is a painting of the reported Candyman on a wall.
One scene when Helen and Bernie look out her window to see the Cabrini-Green in the night skyline emphasizes how many cities used redlining and other factors to divide neighborhoods among people of certain races and demographics.
The home town I grew up had the prominent city high school and middle school literally a few blocks from the projects and other substandard housing neighborhoods. The only thing that separated the school was some industrial buildings. And when the county built its high and middle schools in the mid-1980s, they located near the nicer neighborhoods at the time. While they’re never were any problems when I went there, I do recall one time at recess, we watched the police arrest someone on a warrant.
The school benefitted mostly because it was close to the downtown area and the historical district. Even though my mom at one time worked a few blocks away at a dental office on the outskirts of the projects and there were a few bullet holes in the windows. While some people referred to it as the “projects,” others called it a different name that I wrote repeat here but it involved a racial slur.
It was worse in the southwest Georgia town I lived in where the school board controlled both the city schools and the county schools. When they had discussed merging the students into one high school, there was opposition because the city school was more predominantly black. I probably don’t have to tell you the town of Andersonville was nearby and the Civil War was still romanticized there much worse than it is now 20 years later.
Candyman is a very telling story about the Chicagoland area. I remember in the movie Widows in which a particular scene starts in one of the lower-income neighborhoods and then we follow the characters in a car driving to one of the nicer neighborhoods.
The opening title sequences of Candyman involve an aerial shot of the streets of Chicago. Highways, expressways, train tracks, etc., are what we have to separate people.
At a dinner party, Trevor and Helen listen to one of his colleagues, Helen hears the story of how Candyman is based a real-life man who lived in the Chicago area in the later part of the 19th century. He was the son of an enslaved man, and an artist. But he was killed by a lynch mob after he had an affair with a white woman and got her pregnant. The mob cut off his hand and smeared him in honeycomb from a nearby bee apiary and subjected him to be stung to death.
The honey on his body led to the name Candyman. The corpse was burned on a pyre and his ashes scattered on the land where Cabrini-Green is located.
Going back to the housing project, Helen meets a young kid, Jake, DeJuan Guy, who tells him about another younger boy who was mutilated with his genitalia cut off when he walked into a public restroom. When Helen goes into the restroom to get some pictures, a gang called the Overlords walk in and the leader knocks her out with a metal hook to the left side of her face.
She later identifies him to authorities and thus exposes that the Overlords were using the myth of Candyman to commit their crimes. The detective Helen speaks with is Det. Frank Valento (Gilbert Lewis) a black man. And the ruler of the Overlords is dressed as a thuggish character.
While this isn’t the most political correct even for 1992, it shows how divided America was. America was going through a bad economy recession for a while. The polices of the Reagan-Bush Administrations were sugarcoating what middle Americans were seeing. While The Cosby Show, 227, Amen and A Different World were showing a different side of black people than what some may think, the fact that Family Matters had to resort to a minstrel character with Steve Urkel to stay afloat, was very telling.
The L.A. Riots that had happened the previous spring was an eye opener that America was very racially divided and not much had changed in the 30 years since the Civil Rights Act. In many way, Helen represents the naivety and gullible of what is now called Wokeness.
Even though she is comfortable talking to the cleaning women because she has a black friend, both her and Bernie feel nervous when they pass by some young men mistaken them for cops. Det. Valento tells her that people were not wanting to identify any of the Overlords, but with Helen’s testimony and more importantly, a white woman’s testimony, it should help.
Up until now, Candyman (Tony Todd) hasn’t appeared on screen and this is a wise choice by Rose. Steven Spielberg didn’t show the shark in Jaws until much later in the movie. Rose doesn’t show Candyman until Helen is certain he doesn’t exist. And some people have speculated that he was a manifestation of Helen’s mind.
Thelma & Louise and Terminator 2 had come out the year before it and women were no longer the damsels in distress. In some ways, Rose is also showing the changing views of how women are viewed. Helen is very assertive and independent. She also notices Stacey (Carolyn Lowery), a student of Trevor’s, may be interested in him.
Berkeley is six years older than Madsen and I speculate that Helen was once probably a student of Trevor’s. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When Helen does see the Candyman he is dressed in a 1970s pimp-style fur coat and he speaks in a deep voice with a thriving echo. Notice that there is a hook in his blood stump where Helen was told his hand was cut off. But his words and his look entrances Helen to the put that she blacks out.
Some could say Rose is playing on a stereotype that was also exposed in Soul Men that white women are attracted by black men while at the same time being scared of them. Trevor seems to be ignoring Helen and she senses that Stacey might be more than a student.
When Helen makes dinner for her and Trevor, she notices something is up and asks him if he has already eaten to which is replies he hasn’t after a pause. But there’s a hint that he probably has. Trevor is also out late at night in an earlier scene.
Did Helen’s traumatic experience and her limited knowledge of non-white culture cause her to hallucinate that Candyman is real? Or is the character a haunting presence that really exists and responsible for some of the violent crimes at Cabrini-Green.
Candyman is actually a combination of multiple other urban legends, most notably the Blood Mary myth that if you say the name so many times in the dark, you will see her. However, with Candyman, it is saying it in the mirror but turning the light off. The myth of Blood Mary comes from the real-life mind games about how people will hallucinate if they are alone for a long period of time or in solitary confinement.
The hook is based on an urban legend of a maniac scraping on the side of a car while a young couple is making out in the woods. There’s reference to the urban legend of people poisoning candies and sweets as well as putting sharp objects like razor blades in them. This is actually based on a true case in the Houston suburbs in which Ronald Clark O’Bryan, intentionally put cyanide in Pixie Stix containers, to give to his son and daughter, and some children of people he knew. O’Bryan was wanting to collect huge life insurance payments and he thought if it appeared as if others ate the tainted candies, no one would suspect him. But O’Bryan managed to killed his son, but no one else ate the candies. Incidentally, O’Bryan was called the Candyman himself.
You could also argue that the turning on and off the lights in the mirror is from the urban legends of a college student coming back late at night to their dorm and getting into to bed without turning on the lights, not to disturb their roommate who they think is in bed with their significant other. Only that in the morning, their roommate has been murdered and in blood on the wall or bathroom mirror is written: AREN’T YOU GLAD YOU DIDN’T TURN ON THE LIGHTS? There’s also the urban legend that grew in the 1980s following the HIV/AIDS epidemic of someone having a one-night stand and then seeing written on the wall or bathroom mirror WELCOME TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF AIDS.
Trevor, himself, is doing a course study on urban legends which Helen is also studying for her thesis. When many nursing or med students are in college, they begin to learn about new diseases they never heard of and there’s been cases in which some students think they have these diseases. They call it “Med Student Syndrome.” Could Helen be having a similar psychological issue?
The movie switches to Helen passing out after her first seeing of Candyman only to awaken in Annie-Marie’s apartment. Anthony is missing. She’s crying and freaking out. And the Rottweiler has been decapitated with a meat clever on the floor. Helen picks it up and accidentally or intentionally attacks Annie-Marie before the cops come to arrest her.
Now, Det. Valento is treating her as a criminal. She can’t get ahold of Trevor and spends the night in jail. Bailed out, but suspicious of Trevor, she comes in contact with the Candyman again in her own condo, who later kills Bernie when she stops by.
Trevor comes home to a bloody scene and notifies police. Helen is taken to a psychiatric hospital where she sees the Candyman descending from the ceiling. However, she later learns that she’s been heavily medicated on Thorazine for a month and CCTV footage only shows herself screaming.
After calling out Candyman, a doctor is murdered and Helen escapes, knocking out a female orderly to steal her clothing so she can leave. Returning home, she discovers that Trevor and Stacey are repainting the condo. Trevor has anticipated Helen either going to prison for murder or being in a hospital for the rest of her life, he’s turn to Stacey.
Older men date younger women mostly for control rather than love and affection. What Trevor wants is a woman he can control. When Helen becomes too independent and assertive, he switches focuses on Stacey. Both her and Helen are blondes. He has his style of women.
In the end, Helen returns to Cabrini-Green in hopes of finding Anthony and confronting the Candyman. But when she tracks them to a huge pile of trash set for a bonfire, she is mistaken for the Candyman and residents decided to set fire to it.
Helen is able to rescue Anthony but suffers burns that kill her, even though the residents come to her aide to put out the flames on her body. They later show up to her funeral and leave the hook in her grave.
While I’ve given away the entire plot, Rose manages to show the diversity. Trevor and Helen represent the yuppie culture or Chicago, while Annie-Marie, Jakes and the residents of Cabrini-Green represent the people everyone else wishes to forget. More or the residents show up to Helen’s funeral than her friends and colleagues.
The movie is open to a lot of interpretations which I think has led to its legacy. When it was released, marketing made it appear to be just another slasher. The Silence of the Lambs had just won at the Oscars and horror movies were now considered “psychological thrillers.” If Helen was doing it all herself, how is Anthony able to survive for a month? How is Helen able to get out of her straps?
Or could it be the both of them working together? Is the Candyman working through Helen forcing her to commit these acts? The ending where Trevor gets what’s coming to him and that Stacey might even implicated hints that Helen may have more to do with the events all along.
Watching Candyman many times over the years, I still can’t tell. And like other horror movies The Shining and The Village, I find myself discovering little things I missed. There is a supernatural element to Candyman but the movie also works as exposing harsh realities through social commentary.
It made $25.8 million at the box office, which was impressive at the time, despite mixed to good reviews. Over time, the movie has been reassessed. I remember one prominent film critic saying he liked it but was afraid the character would become another slasher franchise. I’ve seen the sequels but can’t really comment as they weren’t too memorable.
Candyman was later referenced in the Scream movies which I think helped boost its legacy. But what has really helped it is the events of the last 30 years since its release. Cabrini-Green is no more as it was torn down 10 years after the movie was released. The community has also reportedly changed as the result of gentrification, something I’ve heard the new movie focuses on.
The election of President Obama and the backlash and racial tensions that led to the election of Donald Trump and our current issues with Black Lives Matter and the anti-Asian violence further shows that little has changed as America remains divided along demographics and race.
When Candyman was released in 1992, “urban” and “inner-city” derogatory terms used as white flight pushed WASPs into the suburbs. Now, according to the 2020 Census, less people are living in rural and small towns and moving to more populated and more diverse areas.
The original Candyman needs to be focused on more. Todd and Madsen pull off some of their best work. Todd has a presence to him that just looks terrifying but charismatic. Just like Hannibal Lecter, he’s hardly in the movie much but you feel it throughout.
Madsen has been one of those actresses Hollywood and audiences have never really appreciated or utilized to her best despite her versatility and talent.
Phillip Glass delivers a haunting musical score, even though he later criticized its use. But Anthony B. Richmond doesn’t get enough credit for his use of cinematography top present the coldness of Chicago during the winter. One of Richmond’s earliest credits was the classic thriller Don’t Look Now, so he definitely knows what he’s doing.
With much hope, the latest version will encourage younger viewers to seek out the original for comparison. I hope they like it just as well as I do.