Critic's Notebook: 'Candyman' Still a Superior Slasher Movie at 25

Courtesy of Photofest

In the year of the Rodney King riots in L.A., director Bernard Rose used a horror film to explore America's fraught racial history.

It was a year of scandals, protests and explosive racial tensions. In 1992, riots rocked Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial verdict, the U.S. sent military forces into war-torn Somalia, Mike Tyson was jailed on rape charges, and Bill Clinton was elected to the White House. In cinema this was the year of Basic Instinct, Malcolm X, The Bodyguard, Batman Returns, Bram Stoker’s Dracula — plus a little word-of-mouth hit by a young unknown director: Reservoir Dogs.

But the 1992 release that left a deeper impression on me than any of those listed above was Candyman. A superior slasher movie on the surface, a subversive political parable beneath, it struck a smart balance between pulpy bloodshed and gothic romance, between primal horror tropes and self-aware commentary on the creepy urban legends that we share when we want to scare ourselves half to death. There are hints of Dracula and Beauty and the Beast in the mix, but also Shakespeare and Hitchcock and David Lynch too.

Candyman was the U.S. feature debut of Brit director Bernard Rose. The source material was also British, a short story by horror maestro Clive Barker called "The Forbidden," set in Liverpool. In the original story, a skeptical female academic looks into a fanciful urban myth about a monstrous killer who haunts a run-down city apartment block, only to become his next victim. Barker first heard a version of the story in folklore form, passed down from his own grandmother.

Rose’s inspired choices for Candyman involved expanding Barker’s slim blueprint to incorporate elements borrowed from other urban legends, transposing Liverpool to Chicago, and swapping evergreen British anxieties about class for the perennial American psychic wound of race. One vital reason the film felt so fresh in 1992, and remains so today, is its sharp racial subtext, needling away at the contemporary real-life fears of its target audience instead of relying on tired genre cliches about haunted mansions and undead Middle European monsters.

In Candyman, the hook-handed African-American antihero is the vengeful, unquiet spirit of Daniel Robatille, a slave’s son who became a successful businessman and artist in the late 19th century, only to be tortured and murdered by a racist lynch mob for fathering a child with a white woman. After being smeared with honey and stung to death by bees, his body was burned on a pyre, then his ashes scattered across the Chicago neighborhood where the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects were later erected. A century later, according to the film’s mythos, he will materialize and exact his revenge on anyone who simply gazes into the bathroom mirror and chants his name five times.

In 1992, it was still rare for a horror movie to feature a multiracial cast, and even rarer for such a film to draw its scary power from the real-life historical horrors of slavery and lynching. Although George A. Romero touched on the racial tensions of the late 1960s with his color-blind casting of Duane Jones in his seminal zombie classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), most black characters in horror cinema have tended to be campy caricatures, from William Marshall’s undead African prince in Blacula (1972) to Grace Jones as a bloodthirsty femme fatale in Vamp (1986) and Eddie Murphy’s misfiring star turn in Vampire in Brooklyn (1995). Only recently did Jordan Peele’s instant horror classic Get Out (2017) eclipse Candyman with its savagely funny evisceration of white liberal angst about blackness.

Shooting several scenes at the real Cabrini-Green towers, Rose and his team had to tread carefully, negotiating truces with neighborhood gangs and recruiting locals as extras. Police advised the film crew to shoot only during limited daylight hours, and warned about sniper fire from the rooftops. In the end, one camera truck was struck by a bullet. Just three years after Candyman was released, in 1995, the Chicago Housing Authority began demolishing the city’s most infamous high-rise projects.

During preproduction, Rose struggled to calm studio anxiety that a black horror villain might stoke racial tensions, even meeting with the NAACP in a bid to defuse potential controversy. On its release, African-American film-makers including Carl Franklin berated Candyman for buying into white middle-class fears of poor, marginalized, ghetto-dwelling blacks. While such criticism is hard to refute, the film’s real bogeyman is not its chief villain but racism itself. On the 2005 DVD audio commentaries, Rose says Candyman is about “the dark heart of American history… a country built on slavery” while co-star Kasi Lemmons calls it “an exploration of our ancestral traumas" and concludes "we are responsible for the monsters we create.”

With its cast of relative unknowns, Candyman has a refreshingly un-Hollywood screen chemistry, unburdened by starry baggage. Tony Todd plays the eponymous phantom menace while Virginia Madsen plays Helen Lyle, the Chicago grad student bent on debunking the Candyman myth, only to become his latest victim, lover and accomplice. Bizarrely, in a parallel universe, Eddie Murphy and Sandra Bullock might have played these parts. Murphy was first choice for the title role, but his fee was beyond a modestly scaled $7 million production. This was probably a lucky escape, since the superstar comedian’s blockbuster fame and high-voltage screen persona could easily have unbalanced such a nuanced, subtle, tonally ambivalent story.

The Candyman role went instead to Todd, a relative novice with just a handful of screen credits at the time, notably Platoon and Star Trek: The Next Generation. A handsome, imposing 6-foot-5 figure with a booming baritone voice and solid Broadway chops, he proved to be a good fit for a Shakespearean villain who is part serial killer and part tragic antihero. Todd later called Candyman “my own personal Phantom of the Opera.” Revisiting the film 25 years later, his regal performance feels more like a modern-day twist on Othello.

A young rising star at the time, Bullock auditioned for the role of Helen, but Madsen edged it. A Chicago native and future Oscar nominee, Madsen was then married to Rose’s friend and frequent collaborator Danny Huston. She also came strongly recommended by David Lynch, who had cast her in Dune. Madsen had mostly played glamor roles prior to Candyman, but Rose asked her to cut her hair and gain weight to play a less idealized, more down-to-earth heroine.

Madsen has a sassy, androgynous cool as Helen. But she can switch into classic Hitchcock Blonde mode too. Among the film’s strongest visual motifs are the dreamy, gauzy close-ups of Helen’s face when she falls under the Candyman’s darkly romantic spell. Madsen agreed to be hypnotized on set by Rose, and these shots still have an eerie magic, her unblinking eyes both sinister and sublime.

For sheer originality and technical panache, Candyman towers above most midbudget horror thrillers. Partly inspired by Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the crisp aerial footage that frames the opening titles was captured high over Chicago from a helicopter using a new technological development called a Skycam, which gave the shot its elegantly smooth glide. The pulsing Philip Glass score is also a classy touch, with its spooky neo-gothic mix of pipe organ and surging choral voices. According to Rose, Glass later protested that he had been unaware he was working on a slasher movie. But he went on to call the score a “classic” and the film “scary as hell.”

Released in October 1992, Candyman grossed a healthy $26 million domestically, enjoyed a long afterlife on VHS and DVD, and spawned two lesser sequels. After 25 years, the film’s eerie jolts and chest-ripping murders have lost some of their shock value. A few interior scenes now look a little flat, some prosthetic effects a little cheap. But the uncanny ambience, political subtext and generally high production values still make Rose’s rebooted urban legend a gripping, perennially timely cult classic. Decades later, Candyman still holds up a dark mirror to America’s shameful history and dares to chant its name five times.