Clive Barker’s patented blend of deep mythology and dark, often disturbingly erotic nightmares has left a major footprint on popular culture. Though you might not know his name, you likely know his creations, which include the long-running “Books of Blood” series and “The Hellbound Heart,” a novella featuring the first appearance of Pinhead, the central villain of “Hellraiser,” which he also directed (not to mention its seven sequels, which he did not direct).
However, just as compelling as any Cenobite is Barker’s other franchise ghoulie, the Candyman.
“Candyman,” adapted by Bernard Rose from Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” tells the story of a young graduate student (Virginia Madsen) who must face racial and class divides as she tries to research her master’s thesis.
OK, so maybe it doesn’t really sound scary. But maybe it’s worth mentioning that she’s researching urban legends, and how a local gang appears to have taken on the name and aesthetics of this particular boogeyman as a tool for intimidation. Oh, and also, this boogeyman is real, and he’s got a hook for a hand, and he’s covered in bees and he’s got Tony Todd’s wonderfully gravelly voice saying things like, “What is blood for, if not for spilling?”
For the first third of the film, we do not see the villain. Instead, we are introduced to his lore, first in the form of a “Bloody Mary”-style urban legend, and later, in the context of a horrific, real-life crime that seems somewhat inspired by the story of Kitty Genovese. Then, we hear the 1890s origin of the myth, which revolves around miscegenation. Only after seeing a sociopathic gang leader taking on the part of Candyman do we finally see the real supernatural variant.
Even without the titular supernatural apiarist, “Candyman” would be a pretty interesting movie. There are some really meaty issues of class and race at play here. You have Madsen, who is supposed to be our hero, as this very academic, blonde, white woman traipsing around the projects (which happen to be a mere eight blocks from her own upscale apartment) and barging into people’s homes with this fairly grotesque sense of self-entitlement. Of course it’s cool to just go check out the old murder scene. Of course the janitors (who are all elderly, female and black) have time to sit and chat while they’re working.
In one scene, Madsen mysteriously wakes up drenched in blood on the floor of a project bathroom. None of the blood is her own, but there is a loud crying coming from off-screen. Cautiously, she steps out into the hallway where she sees the decapitated head of a pit bull on the floor next to a butcher’s knife. Scared, she grabs the knife. Eventually she comes upon the source of the crying — a young black mother standing over her son’s empty crib, which has been slathered in blood. The mother comes rushing at Madsen, enraged. The two fight, and Madsen stabs her in the arm with the blade just as a fully armed S.W.A.T. team bursts through the apartment door. And that’s just the midpoint. It goes a whole lot further than that.
But “Candyman” is not just torture porn. In fact, it’s the polar opposite. Every single element of the film is carefully considered and artfully arranged. The film is an early entry into the ’90s subgenre of postmodern horror films, and many of the scenes are taken from common urban legends. Some are obvious like the boy who is castrated in the public bathroom stall, while others, like the consistent depiction of black males as hypersexual, Mandingo-style monsters are more subtle.
Madsen’s character is relatable and active, but at the same time, she’s kind of scummy. She treats service workers with little respect, wanders into murder scenes without so much as thinking to ask permission, and when she narrowly avoids death at the hands of a serial-killing gangster all she can do is gush that the local news coverage is enough to get some interest from publishers for her thesis. It doesn’t seem like a mistake that the child’s bathroom castration that becomes a motif within the film is a story most often tied to racist fears of “the other.”
And the film is full of interesting little juxtapositions like this. Where in another film, it might seem like a cheat that Madsen’s upscale apartment is made with an identical floor plan to that of the project building, here it makes perfect thematic sense. There is also a pretty funny bit involving Madsen fending off catcalls from a group of B-Boys, followed almost immediately with a scene of her facing the same kind of harassment (in more eloquent terms) from her academic colleagues.
This careful construction carries over to the fresh approach to tired horror movie tropes. Almost ever supernatural thriller ever made has a second act where everyone thinks the protagonist is crazy and/or the killer. In most cases this subplot is engineered through lame coincidences and ridiculous, romantic comedy-esque misunderstandings. Not so in “Candyman.” Madsen pretty rightly earns that title here as her character slowly transforms into the urban legend of the escaped mental patient who goes home to find her husband with a new woman.
Later films like “Urban Legend” and “The Ring” borrowed heavily from “Candyman.” But none of the knockoffs ever reached the depth, artistic value or even shock value of the original. “Candyman” is the rare film that is scary not just because it is gross, but because it packs an emotional wallop. The most disturbing parts aren’t the blood-drenched explosions but rather the quiet moments that reflect ugly truths about our humanity. But, you know, it’s cool too.