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Before ‘Get Out,’ There Was ‘Candyman’

The urban legend about the hook-handed terror was a radical, sophisticated examination of race, history, and love that feels as powerful and essential today as when it was released more than 25 years ago

Leonardo Santamaria

“I know I’d rather have him do it, someone with intelligence, who’s going to be thoughtful and dig into the whole racial makeup of who Candyman is and why he existed in the first place.”

That’s Tony Todd, the actor best known for playing the suave, hook-handed killer in Bernard Rose’s cult 1992 horror film Candyman, talking last week about a potential remake of the most iconic film of his career. (He wants Jordan Peele to be at the helm.) After this year’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s Halloween by David Gordon Green, it would make sense to have Candyman return, updated for today’s particularly horror-savvy and -literate audience; with its themes of race and class, some critics might even call Candyman “elevated horror.” It would also make a lot of sense, as Todd claims, to have Peele put his own spin on the material: his 2017 debut, Get Out, satirized and made explicit the hypocrisy and the danger still at the core of racism today. Candyman, in many complicated ways, was a precursor to Get Out’s embedded social critique and sophisticated use of genre cinema language.

Like Get Out, Candyman sees a character enter a place that is typically not welcoming, but the dynamic is reversed. Where Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris Washington feels the need to get out of the wealthy mansion owned by his white girlfriend’s parents, Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle in Candyman is afraid of being intrusive as a white grad student entering the predominantly black and lower-class social estate of Cabrini-Green in Chicago. Chris, with his photography, and Helen, with her community-based research, are both aiming to document the reality of those milieus as outsiders. But where Chris is anxious about being exploited (more or less literally), Helen fears being perceived as exploitative.

Virginia Madsen in ‘Candyman’
TriStar Pictures

The young woman is visiting the inhabited but derelict estate to study its urban legends, particularly the one about Candyman, the local bogeyman rumored to have actually recently killed some people in their homes. But literal-minded Helen doesn’t believe in such myths, and even if it is with some hesitation, she does pronounce the murderer’s name five times in the mirror—and he doesn’t come, as people say he should. Scary campfire stories are perfect horror movie material: they’re meant to stretch credibility to keep us awake at night. And they can be as gory and fantastical as one wishes them to be, which can make for some powerful images. Urban or folklore legends get their power from their imperfect believability and our wild imagination. They’re too awful to be real ... but what if they were?

In Get Out, the creepy story that Chris is afraid to believe in is racism. How could a young black man like himself be afraid of being surrounded by white people in our woke day and age, when slavery no longer exists in America and his own girlfriend is white? And yet, the fear persists and finds itself justified in the increasingly strange behavior of the liberal-seeming Armitage family (in this scenario, “If I could, I would have voted for Obama for a third term” is as scary an utterance as “Candyman” five times in a mirror). But how could Chris be sure that it isn’t his paranoid mind playing tricks on him? After all, it’s normal that he should be anxious to meet his girlfriend’s parents. But of course, his fears will prove to be legitimate. Get Out plays as a modern fable; in Candyman, fables turn out to be factual.

The very first sentence of Clive Barker’s 1985 short story The Forbidden left its mark on Candyman: “Like a flawless tragedy, the elegance of which structure is lost upon those suffering in it, the perfect geometry of the Spector Street Estate was only visible from the air.” For his adaptation, Rose relocated the story from Barker’s native Liverpool to Chicago but kept his fellow British man’s point of view and poetry to make his setting gloomy and doomed. Aerial shots—using Skycam technology, a new device at the time allowing for elevated but smooth images à la The Shining, but without helicopter shadows—of the residence, combined with an operatic score from none other than Philip Glass, give Cabrini-Green an air of quiet death but also a majesty, like a mesmerising gothic church or an ancient sinister pyramid.

In 2015, Rose explained why he was so intrigued by this aspect of Chicago: “The fear of the urban housing project, it seemed to me, was actually totally irrational because you couldn’t really be in that much danger. Yes, there was crime there, but people were actually afraid of driving past it.” For Rose, what makes dilapidated buildings like Cabrini-Green so scary to people on the outside is, again, a sort of superstition—prejudice: “It’s sort of a kind of fear that’s at the heart of modern cities, and obviously, it’s racially motivated, but more than that—it’s poverty motivated.” Similarly to Get Out, the rampant anxiety that seizes most people approaching the estate in Candyman is their preconception regarding the lives of a group on the other end of the social spectrum—but this time, the protagonist comes from a position of greater power and privilege.

Where Candyman differs most crucially from Peele’s film is the position its main protagonist occupies with respect to the Other: while Chris was anxious about the Armitages, Helen is afraid neither of the buildings themselves, nor of their people. She is a white, college-educated woman who is genuinely curious about this community and worried about its safety—which makes her a complicated character, always on the slippery slope of serving a white savior narrative. What greatly complicates her role and the film’s approach to class and racial discrimination is how directly she ties into the myth of Candyman himself.

Rose heavily reworked Barker’s short story, not only adding backstories for both Helen and Candyman, but connecting their fates in doing so—which in turn makes the story’s social discourse that much richer and more difficult to pin down. The young woman learns early on that the building she paid a fortune to live in was actually first intended to be another social housing residence, constructed following the exact same plans as those that shaped Cabrini-Green. As a result, Helen’s detachment from this poorer social strata now seems almost superficial, a stroke of luck and an injustice. This first connection to the desolate place, however, is only a hint of what’s to come.

A male academic soon mansplains to Helen the origins of Candyman, and with a subtle but piercing feminist touch, the film highlights his arrogance for sitting contentedly on this piece of information and delivering it with such disdain toward Helen and the people it concerns. In Rose’s film, Candyman is African American and his demise is an explicit product of racism: not only was his father the son of a slave, but Candyman himself, although highly educated and a respected portrait painter, was lynched for falling in love with and impregnating a white woman. In the fact his acquired social status didn’t protect him from the same racial hatred that plagued his ancestors, we see hints of the thesis put forward in Get Out, namely that no amount of social progress can prevent outright evil from existing; worse yet, moral advancements can serve as a front for the enduring, darkest, most violent heart of intolerance.

While the academic tells this somber story in a strong British accent, the camera slowly zooms in on Helen’s increasingly teary eyes. As punishment for following his heart, Candyman had his arm sawed off and the stump that remains adorned with a rusty hook, and his body covered in honey and attacked by killer bees. Behind these rather bizarre circumstances is a reference to the Old Testament story of Samson, who shocked his family by wanting to marry a Philistine, and on his way to his beloved, slayed a young lion in which bees nested and made honey. Rather than showing us Candyman’s mutilation, Rose instead focuses on Helen’s reaction to those images forming in her head. The effect is pure gothic terror, with the narrow ray of light on Helen’s gaze recalling the original 1931 Dracula film, but also transmits a great deal of sadness. Helen is more heartbroken than horrified by Candyman’s story of forbidden love and implacable cruelty. “The idea always was that he was kind of a romantic figure. And again, romantic in sort of the Edgar Allen Poe sense—it’s the romance of death,” said Rose. It is Helen’s compassion for Candyman’s doomed love that will push her to continue her investigation despite the risks, and that will slowly turn into a macabre attraction.

Helen doesn’t meet Candyman until the 44th minute, almost at the film’s midpoint. Until then, he was nothing but the graffiti of a man’s face on an abandoned house’s wall, with the door for his mouth, his teeth surrounding the opening and his glistening eyes wide open. He was the tales that the residents would tell about his killings, and the fear that crept up their spine as they did so. When Candyman finally appears to Helen in a parking lot, he is at first only a dark figure in the distance and a deep, resounding voice calling her name. “Helen, I came for you,” he says and she starts to feel weak at the knees—both literally and figuratively. “You doubted me,” he complains as he walks toward her, not exactly threatening but rather captivating and almost enticing with his soothing voice.

The slow and elongated pace of his speech is that of a magician, or a seducer—here, there’s no need for this distinction. Is he blaming her for doubting a killer’s existence, or a lover’s passion? Soon, Helen is entranced, her face numb, her eyes blank and unblinking—like in the film’s opening minutes, when she first heard of this urban legend—and her feeble voice mechanically responding to Candyman’s questions. Virginia Madsen was actually hypnotized for her scenes with Tony Todd, which explains her authentically passive and glassy-eyed look. It was the director’s own idea to set up a keyword for the actress to go under on his command: he thought that instead of reverting to a typical strident scream, a state of rapture would be a more cinematic and narratively appropriate reaction to encountering a strange and strangely seductive monster such as Candyman. Like love at first sight, Helen is immediately under his charm, no longer the fearless and capable woman climbing inside his scary drawn face in a dodgy building, but instead helpless and paralyzed by Candyman’s calm words. Finally, he uncrosses his arms to reveal his great hook, planted on his bloody stump, and commands Helen, although solemnly and politely, “be my victim.” It’s an offer she can’t refuse. Candyman could kill Helen right there, but he wants not just her permission, but her will to die.

Daniel Kaluuya in ‘Get Out’
Daniel Kaluuya in ‘Get Out’
Universal Pictures

The protagonist of Get Out is also—famously—hypnotized to reach the “sunken place” and become a victim of the Armitages, thus maintaining their system and tradition, much like Candyman wants to keep his legend alive through Helen’s death. But Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) is more of a maternal figure to Chris and there is not a speck of romance between them: she makes him remember traumatic events from his childhood to break him. Candyman, on the other hand, wants Helen to connect to his own pain with her empathy, and he knows that her own life as well as his manipulations bring her ever closer to feeling the same heartbreak he experienced and has come to be defined by.

One aspect for which Candyman doesn’t get enough credit is the brilliant way in which it uses the cliché of the average-looking and arrogant college professor having an affair with one of his young hormonal female students (see also: The Squid and the Whale). Helen has her doubts about Trevor (Xander Berkeley, who would iconically lean into the shitty partner role a few years later in Heat) early on, but it’s when she’s arrested and wastes her one phone call to try to reach him at home that she knows for sure that he’s been cheating. Madsen’s performance in that moment is particularly impressive as she combines terror, confusion, and raw heartache. It’s also a key narrative point since it brings together the pain in her sentimental life and the suffering she goes through in the police station as no one believes her tales of the Candyman. She is blamed for the kidnapping of a baby belonging to Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams), a resident who had generously answered her questions and told her more about Cabrini-Green, and also for trying to murder her.

As events spiral out of control, Rose’s savvy direction makes us share in Helen’s nightmarish experience, where the passing of time becomes ungraspable and the line between hallucinations and reality evaporates. Candyman now appears undoubtedly and terrifyingly real. But he is not framing Helen for his horrendous crimes simply to bring her down and prevent her investigation; his goal, rather, is to make her feel the degree of his own pain as a black man denied love and life. Ostracized by her husband, left without any friends—Candyman, intentionally cruel, kills her best friend and colleague Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons)—and institutionalized, Helen is utterly alone and reviled by all. On top of her natural empathy for Candyman’s own suffering, she now understands his anger and despair more than she ever thought possible.

And so Helen finally gives in—this isn’t a horror film where the girl triumphantly comes out of her scary adventure alive. Again in a trance, she lets herself become Candyman’s victim, but this capitulation is double-edged. “All you have left is my desire for you,” the tall dark stranger tells her. As a fresco-slash-graffiti she discovers makes clear, Helen is the spitting image of Candyman’s long lost lover. “It was always you, Helen,” he finally explains. By accepting to die by Candyman’s hook, Helen also surrenders to his advances and enters his mythology as his beloved, joining him in death at last. Candyman gets to correct history and have his lover by his side for the rest of time, and both he and Helen find comfort from the hypocrisy of white men in each other’s arms.

A white woman’s betrayal by a disloyal husband, even if coupled with accusations of insanity, is not an ordeal that can be compared to a black man’s torture and death at the hand of racist white people. Instead of such a distasteful analogy, Candyman suggests the less graspable but more potent possibility for compassion and desire for justice. What keeps Helen from being just another white woman exploiting the racist persecution of a black man is that she truly considers Candyman as a human being worthy of empathy and respect, and whose story needs to be discovered. She is after the truth, however ugly it might be, because she has no desire to protect her white ancestors’ reputations—much like Candyman’s lover fell for him despite her family’s intolerant outrage. She is so devoted to Candyman’s sorrow and to his past that she would—and does—die for it.

In a harrowing but also rather amusing epilogue, it is revealed that Helen has become a myth unto herself. At her funeral, the residents of Cabrini-Green come to deposit a hook in her grave—at once accusing Helen of all the crimes that Candyman actually committed, and showing their fearful respect. Although wrong, these allegations are welcome since Helen has truly embraced her place in Candyman’s legend as well as her reputation as the cuckold wife and murderous woman. Devoured by grief and regret, Trevor is seen hiding in his apartment’s bathroom while his college-age girlfriend half-heartedly starts cutting some steaks for dinner. Trevor quietly whispers Helen’s name to the mirror five times, at once expressing how much he misses her but also, without fully believing it himself, trying to make her appear behind him—and she sure does.

When the girlfriend finds his body—and gives a rather good scream—she is perhaps not-so-coincidentally holding her sharp kitchen knife, which should help Helen make her look like the murderer.

This you-go-(white)girl ending, with Helen avenging herself but also now appearing like an angel of death on the mural where the story of Candyman’s killing used to be, may not be the film’s strongest moment: even though it is thanks to Candyman that Helen achieved this legendary status and, like him, uses it to attack white heartbreakers, she is still a white woman stealing the spotlight from the black hero and his particular struggle. In 1987, writer Steve Bogira wrote a long piece in the Chicago Reader about the murder of a woman in one of the city’s housing projects. John Malkovich soon reached out to him about adapting this harrowing story for the big screen, but suggested the lead character be a white investigator. Bogira “was uncomfortable with the idea of a movie about poor black people focusing on a middle-class white person,” but Malkovich “explained that movies whose dominant roles are black usually didn’t get funded.” Bogira never heard back from Malkovich, but recognised elements from his investigation in Candyman when he saw the film; Malkovich may have shown the article to some fellow producers.

In 2016, Peele’s Get Out was much less compromising: it lets its black lead not only survive, but kill the emissaries of the racist myth (although Get Out sadly didn’t end racism) and, exhilaratingly for both Chris and the audience, escape with his best friend (interestingly, the original, discarded ending left him in the sunken place). Where Helen had to get in and die to celebrate Candyman’s pain and vengeance, Chris manages to get out, refusing to be defined as yet another victim of intolerance. If Peele remade Candyman, perhaps he would refocus the film’s denouement more squarely on its title character, or make Helen’s own pain as a betrayed and disbelieved woman another interesting theme to explore alongside that of racism, and not an eventual substitute for it. In any case, we are not fully content with the story, so he is obliged to come.