Look into a mirror. Say his name five times. He will appear…and you will pay the price. A terrifying thriller starring Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd.
eyelights: Philip Glass’ score. Tony Todd. Virginia Madsen. its creep factor.
eyesores: its heaviness. its nonsensical bits.
“I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom.”
I saw ‘Candyman’ in cinemas when it first came out. A friend of mine wanted to go see a horror film with his girlfriend and I’d heard good things about this one. I wasn’t much into horror then, but the reviews were actually quite solid – and that’s rare for the genre.
So we gave it a shot.
My friend and his girlfriend weren’t exactly enamoured by it, but I loved the atmosphere. It wasn’t the greatest film I’d ever seen, or the scariest, but it was creepy as !@#$, leaving an unmistakable impression afterwards. It would be hard to forget seeing ‘Candyman’.
Released in 1992, the Bernard Rose picture (which is based on a Clive Barker story) follows Helen, a university student writing her thesis on urban legends. After hearing about the gruesome “Candyman” murders, she investigates – and discovers the truth about them.
Or does she?
What’s really fascinating about ‘Candyman’ is that it constantly makes us second-guess Helen’s sanity, even though the titular villain’s appearances strongly suggest that he’s real. By subjecting her to blackouts yet making her a central figure to the murders, we can’t help it.
Even she seems unsure of herself.
So it’s easy to understand why anyone around Helen would come to question her mental health. And though our eyes would tell us differently, one by one, seeds of doubt are planted. It’s remarkable how much the picture manages to keep us teetering on the edge.
Another interesting aspect of ‘Candyman’ is the atmosphere that it creates. Though it always leaves me feeling a bit grotty, as though my soul needs a shower (Clive Barker-related films do that to me), it has an urban Gothic quality to it; there’s darkness even in the light.
While most of the picture is set in the day, it still manages to be eerie. Part of the tension is cemented in the location of the Candyman murders and its threatening presence (ex: real gang members were paid to be extras, to make peace with them while filming).
The decrepitude of Cabrini Green, the tenement building, which is tattooed with graffiti and stained with filth, makes it feel like a rotting corpse. We are, in effect, spending our time inside a cadaver. It’s chilling. To think that some people experience this daily.
This can be a pretty heavy movie: ‘Candyman’ delves into racism, gang warfare, infanticide, mental illness, and more. It’s not your traditional slasher flick, even though our villain guts his victims from the groin up with a meat hook; the killings are almost secondary.
And yet, few though they may be, the murders are etched into the audience’s brain by their traumatic quality: Helen always goes into a trance-like state before waking up to screaming, pools of blood and chaos. Rose managed to capture her state of shock and confusion.
That‘s what we remember, not the violence.
The Candyman himself is menacing and creepy, but he’s also not your traditional slasher villain; he’s supernatural, but he doesn’t appear superhuman. He’s no more than a ghostly presence seeking revenge, and happens to be over six feet tall with a meat hook.
Tony Todd is quite excellent in the part; not much is asked of him emotionally, but he has the right kind of presence. And his voice, though enhanced by studio trickery, is spooky, loud and echoey; it would halt anyone right in their steps and any heart right in its beats.
He’s perfectly complemented by Virginia Madsen, as Helen, who’s smart, capable, courageous, yet vulnerable. We have every confidence that Helen is formidable, so watching her subdued only to rise again is quite the experience. Madsen brings her to life beautifully.
But the picture’s most beautiful quality is its iconic score by Philip Glass: rooted in piano, it has a disarming musical box-like motif that is both playful and eerie. Add to it some choirs and a pipe organ and the score, though not quite religious, is incredibly dramatic.
It’s unforgettable, a classic.
If the filmmakers had gone with a more traditional horror score, the film would probably have proven too dour to enjoy; Glass’s compositions provide a much-needed balance. As with any self-respecting Barker tale, there has to be pleasure intermingled with the pain.
The picture holds up nicely some 25 years later, but it’s not without its flaws. For instance, Helen got off pretty easy after meeting the “Candyman” and his gang. And it’s a bit far-fetched that autopsies wouldn’t reveal the use of a hook instead of a simple knife.
Those issues are entirely script-based and didn’t play well back in the day either; it leaves one wondering about the film’s plausibility as much as watching Tony Todd allow bees (Candyman’s “congregation”) to crawl in and out of his mouth is truly distracting.
Can this be happening?
Yes, it can.
Thankfully, the picture is steeped in fantasy, rooted as it is in an urban legend and supernatural forces. So it’s possible to take some of it with a grain of salt, to overlook contrivances and allow it its indulgences. It’s not like it pretends to be a gritty, realistic tale.
Still, fantastical though it may be, ‘Candyman’ leaves its audience with a disquieting, uneasy feeling. While it does indulge in a couple of easy scares, it’s generally quite atmospheric, slowly burrowing into the mind. Like it or not, it’s a picture that leaves an impression.
Seriously, years later, I still haven’t said Candyman’s name five times in a mirror.
I would never dare.
Date of viewing: October 15, 2017