Clive Barker’s The Forbidden is one of the most tragic stories in his own bibliography, but seeing how Bernard Rose had adapted it to the screen in 1992 is a whole different story. Candyman carries everything that made Clive Barker’s stories so wonderful, but it’s also quite stunning to see how the film’s social commentary can play in today’s age, especially given the nature of its concept. This isn’t so much a horror story all about the impact that urban legends have upon the communities where they originate, but also the ways in which generational racism has bled its way into the minds of those who have still suffered at its hands. Yet knowing what it is that the Candyman himself has represented for the many people who’ve believed in him and been terrified of his existence over the years, Clive Barker and Bernard Rose have not only formed one of the defining horror films of the 1990’s but also one of the most tragic stories of its own sort, given the circumstances behind the birth of his legendary status.
The legend of Candyman says that if you say his name five times into a mirror, he will brutally murder you with the hook on the bloody stump of his right arm. Fascinated by the origins of this legend, the graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) decides to write her thesis paper on Candyman, and upon further research she finds that many murders that could potentially be linked to the Candyman in a peculiar neighbourhood. Although she remains skeptical of the circumstances regarding the murders, she ends up accidentally summoning the Candyman (Tony Todd) and now she finds herself on the run from the murderous spirit, following the kidnapping of a local child for which she is framed. Given the time period in which it came out, Candyman isn’t any other horror movie about the origins behind an urban legend but also a socially conscious tale about the way in which its lore is understood by people who have lived under its shadow for so long and those from the outside. For although Candyman himself may have made himself out to be a feared legend, there’s more to him than what meets the eye underneath the bloody hook for a hand and the bee-infested body and Bernard Rose enters those cracks to show how such monsters are formed.
Everything about Tony Todd’s onscreen presence as the titular demon is every bit as frightening as one can ever imagine it to be, whether it’s the way in which the film builds up the lore surrounding the Candyman himself. Equal parts horrifying, and equal parts tragic, what makes Candyman so powerful is the notion that his spirit is understood in different ways by those who have been haunted by its vengeful soul for so long and those who doubt the very powers that he can possess. Of course, the mere sight of Tony Todd would already be enough to leave one frightened but Bernard Rose also begs the question as to why he became the hideous monster that we’ve seen him as for so long. When you see the Candyman, it’s worth noting that bees are always present in his hollow body, as if it were a beehive and they were making honey because there’s something sweet on the inside of him – just like candy. Those who live outside of the lore only see an image of fear from the mere thought of the Candyman’s presence, but Bernard Rose doesn’t limit the perspective of the spirit only to seeing his worst aspects. There’s still a sense of humanity present in Candyman given the way in which he had originated, but only those who recognize the history of the myth would be able to see that.
Among the more resonating aspects of Candyman comes its exploration of the class divide especially between settings: for our protagonist Helen Lyle is a white woman coming from a privileged background exploring the impact of the Candyman legend in a poor ghetto. Helen’s obsession with the legend also comes at the expense of her normal life, but after her skepticism in the legend ends up getting into trouble with the monster himself, it becomes clear what happened as a result of her naive curiosity. Everything looks as if the damage that Candyman has caused has happened at the result of Lyle’s, for only she knows that his presence has intruded her own life though she also doesn’t seem to know what Candyman has symbolized for the people whose lives she had invaded. As she experiences the Candyman’s rampage up close, as people are mercilessly slaughtered around her, there comes the wrath from slavery that only those who have lived under his shadow have experienced for so long. Everything that’s surrounded the Candyman’s lore has its own roots to generational racism and has only become eternalized because of such, and as on-the-nose as the metaphor may make it out to be it still finds itself working effectively.
Candyman is not any ordinary slasher but every bit of it that’s terrifying also has a tragic and romantic edge to it, made even clearer from the cues of Philip Glass’s enchanting score. This isn’t so much a film all about a vengeful spirit coming back after his existence has been doubted for so long, but it’s a film all about how an understanding of history can find its ways to fight back and live out its wrath. Like every other Clive Barker adaptation out there, you can expect a great amount of gore but Candyman isn’t a film that showcases nothing but gore. It’s a film that investigates the Candyman lore through a more procedural means before we finally get to see the monster up close, as we understand how the legend has haunted generations since his murder. You won’t have the urge to say his name five times in the mirror, but the more we understand about how his legendary status has come to be, you certainly won’t leave the film doubting his presence – for Candyman’s tragic shadow is one that has cast itself over many. And for all we know, there’s a chance he might even come back to exact his vengeance once more.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via TriStar Pictures.
Directed by Bernard Rose
Screenplay by Bernard Rose, from the short story The Forbidden by Clive Barker
Produced by Steve Golin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Alan Poul
Starring Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons
Release Date: October 16, 1992
Running Time: 102 minutes