Candyman (1992)


In life, the Candyman was an artist, so he was already paying the bills by theoretically making things that would outlive both the maker and the subject. A lot of Clive Barker’s works deals with the many and various ways humans pursue immortality and making art is certainly one of them. Probably the one that involves the least amount of bodily fluids…though you never really know until the end of the story with Barker.

Every other successful path to immortality tends to come at the cost of what we’d usually call our humanity…whatever that means. So whole zombie repertory companies populate Barker’s early stories and the living regularly come into contact with either the dead. or with creatures that are going about their own particular sort of living.

In “Human Remains” a statue takes over the protagonist’s life to the point where he watches it weep over his father’s grave with total marbled indifference. In “Son of Celluloid” the title character is a tumor – the last remains of a long dead ex-convict – that gains sentience after years of absorbing the collective emotions of theater audiences. And in “The Forbidden,” an urban legend manifests to a graduate student whose unbelief he considers an existential threat to his survival. Probably the only kind of existential threat you can have if you’re an urban legend. “I am rumor,” he says “it is a blessed condition, believe me. To live in people’s dreams, to be whispered at street corners but not have to be. Do you understand?”

Yes. To be, as Hamlet taught us, is to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. To be rumor is to live an open-ended, everlasting existence, as long as your story is told. And retold with each new telling adding new and interesting permutations. At least, theoretically. Because that’s how we get legends in the first place, urban or otherwise.

“The Forbidden.” is about bourgeois academia’s separation from, indifference towards, and even paranoid distrust of the working classes of Thatcher’s Britain. But we in America are just now, 30 years after this movie premiered getting to a point where people can even talk about “class” in public. So of course, we’re also in the middle of a sustained and violent backlash from our homegrown right wing, which unfortunately is the only political wing in this country with organization and literally all the money….like, all of it..yeah, sorry, but: facts.

Over here, unlike in the UK, class is thoroughly racialized because our systems of power and oppression…Oh, dear…Put a check mark on the Critical Race Theory Things That I Can’t Say in School Anymore, apparently. Yeah. There’s your “freedom of speech”…our systems of power and oppression have worked very hard for over 500 years to make sure that over here class is racialized. In the last century alone, we capped off both World Wars, and the Cold War if we’re being honest, with domestic Red Scares. Anything to keep the working classes from organizing enough to take any real power. Or even see it off on the far horizon. And this includes housing policy in northern cities. No better way to keep people from talking to each other than segregation. And once you’ve crammed them into cheaply built public housing you can just give away all the maintenance and upkeep money to your already rich friends. Or the cops, as people respond to the decaying conditions of their lives with whatever desperate measure they can find and, oh well, suddenly you gotta throw him in jail.

And then you can slander people who still live in public housing as responsible for the decay you yourself have caused, right? You can call them “homo urbanus,” a new subspecies of human, grown callous and indifferent by the evolutionary pressures of living in the big scary city…even though that’s not how evolution works…except in the X-Men. “Oh no, this totally isn’t something we just completely pulled out of our ass to justify our own prejudices, oh no. This is totally real.” Because this is America, where we love any excuse to just write off entire populations of our fellow citizens, right? Because we’re the land of the free, you see. We’re free to just callously write people off, you know? Don’t even have to think about them unless you’re doing a true crime podcast. Or a graduate thesis.

It’s just one of those things that pisses me off. Kitty Genovese dies in 1964, right? And we get fifty years of scholarship about “bystander apathy.” Fifty-two-year-old Chicago high-rise resident Ruthie Mae McCoy dies in 1987, after calling the cops (they mislabeled her reports of somebody breaking in as a “disturbance with a neighbor”), after her actual neighbors called in to report screams and gunshots from her apartment, and after the cops took two days to even break the door down, okay? Because they were scared, you know? And as far as I can tell, all Ruthie Mae McCoy’s death inspired was the inciting incident in the 1992 horror film Candyman. No thirty years of articles about “police apathy,” oh no. Better to believe the cops were just so afraid of what might be behind that door that their fragile souls can only be soothed by the purchase of more tanks.

In these kind of environments, effectively cut off from a wider society that no longer even believes it exists if we’re being honest…I mean, isn’t that what Maggie said? “No such thing as society”? Well, here you go…These kind of environments are breeding grounds for rumor. Rumors grow into legends and legends turn into myths as they age. “The unselfconscious reflection of the fears of urban society,” Helen’s trifling husband Trevor calls them. Which is a crude academic assessment but there’s a whole theme of mirrors going on here so might as well drop it in early, right? “Reflection”?

The film Candyman, then, is a very self-conscious reflection about white bourgeois fears of the American Black lower classes. Specifically the white bourgeois fear, which by 1992 had already been stoked by 30 years of right-wing propaganda, that any attempt to help would only make things worse, both for them and for the population they were trying to help. A vast gulf of capital and privilege and experience separates white bourgeois academia from the Black working classes. Some managed to bridge this gap during the Civil Rights movement and the forces of evil in our society have been openly conspiring to make sure nothing like that ever happens again ever since. Try to do anything about that and you’ll wind up a martyr, like Helen does here, best case scenario. Worst case scenario is jail. Or at least that’s the story we tell ourselves right? One might even call it an “urban legend…”

And we start off situating the Candyman within basically an Urban Legend’s Greatest Hits album. We got alligators in the sewers. We got babysitters oven-cooking their charges, and/or getting “unhooked” for cheating on their boyfriends with Bad Boys. (Played, hilariously, by Ted Raimi.) The fact a babysitter’s story introduces us to the Candyman is not coincidental. Throughout the 60s and 70s, as the social institution of “the babysitter” increased in power, owing to the increased need for a two wage-earner household to even make it in the middle class, and the attendant complexes this gave white middle-class patriarchy, urban legends about babysitters proliferated to the point where they basically became a shorthand for urban legends in general. And that’s why the original Halloween, co-progenitor of the slasher movie, was originally titled The Babysitter Murders. There’s an alternate universe out there where they’re on “The Babysitter Murders Kills,” or whatever they’re calling it over there, I don’t know. Hopefully they’re still using roman numerals. That at least had some class to it, you know? Now they just stick a subtitle on there and we give them points if the first two letters aren’t “RE.” Or they make twenty-year-after-the-fact sequels that have the same name as the original, so there goes my entire filing system! But again…we’ll get there.

There are those who classify Candyman as a slasher film because otherwise the whole subgenre’s a Congress of white boys. But if Candyman is a slasher film, its an artifact from the brief-but-glorious middle of the slasher movie’s post-modernist period, which ended with New Nightmare two years later. Scream would bury it in a shallow grave two years after that. Then, of course, my generation of critics would come along and try and reanimate its corpse until the J-Horror and the Found Footage Horror boom came along to distract us. But for a brief time there seemed to be some awareness within at least some practitioners of the craft that they were part of something larger than themselves. Chroniclers of america’s collective neuroses…there, that’s better than “the unselfconscious reflection of fears of urban society,” Trevor. You fucking asshole.

Not that they were ever anything else, but they were usually not so consciously. Here we have a scary story about how scary stories work. The social functions they fulfill the ways they spread like viruses made of words. That’s not what William S. Burroughs meant when he coined the term “word virus,” but i like that lot better than what we’d call it today with our internet poisoned brains: memes. The Candyman is a sentient meme. And it’s about how scary stories are discovered, chronicled, and then rationalized by bourgeois academia, where the scariest thing one usually encounters is a board cutting your funding or an interminably awkward dinner party. Or your trifling husband eyeing the freshies. And he gave the urban legends lecture early after he said he wouldn’t too, spoiling your sample population, the bastard.

Cloistered as she is in the Skinner Box of academia, Helen Lyle changes tracks when a couple of janitors tell her that the Candyman lives at Cabrini-Green, and that he killed a lady there. She’s “Ruthie Jean” here instead of “Ruthie Mae,” but still. This unsolved murder leads Helen to believe that she and her friend Bernadette might have “a shot.” At what, you ask? Immortality, of course! Though not for some thesis that only three people were ever going to read anyway. In true Clive Barker fashion, Helen achieves immortality through the unwilling sacrifice of everything that anchored her to the human world: her friends, her relationships, her reputation, even her sanity if you’re allergic to the fantastical elements of flicks like this…though if you are, why in god’s name are you watching a review of Candyman (1992)?

“If you would learn, the Candyman tells Helen, “just a little from me you would not beg to live.” And in the Gothic tradition Barker very much worked in at this point in his career (and still does today sometimes) Helen learns way too much. About how the urban poor live, and how she was always closer to them than surface appearances would indicate. About how high the cost of entering white upper class patriarchal power structures really can be, even if it’s only the farm team at a state university, and how eager they are to kick you out for the “transgression” of trying to enter them in the first place, no matter what eventual excuse they come up with. Even her apartment is part of this: once a housing project, constructed the same way as Cabrini-Green, with the same structural flaws. Only a coat of plaster and an inflated price tag conceals the line between privilege and precariousness, because that’s all that ever concealed it in the first place.

YBut in his life, and for his time, the Candyman was not underprivileged. Quite the opposite in fact. He had all the same dubious benefits of a bourgeois striver’s education that Helen has in the present day, and he got kicked out of the class he was trying to enter in the most violent way possible. Meanwhile, in the present, a couple of ghostly frame jobs are all it takes to send Helen tumbling down the socioeconomic ladder, into that true font of bourgeois American horror: our health care system! Where no one will believe you about anything until your ghostly stalker pops up give your shrink the ultimate prostate exam. “Oh don’t worry, he only had five years left in him anyway. Too much red meat.”

What’s funny to me now is, in Barker’s original story there really isn’t all that much to learn. The dinner scene, which in the film reveals Candyman’s origin story (quite well. I do love the Dracula lighting, and the way the sounds of it come in on the track, showing us that Helen is experiencing this – seeing it with her mind’s eye – without having to actually show it to us. I mean, talk about “classy”) is in the book more of a sly, slightly snide commentary on how generic the Candyman is, as a concept. It’s like Barker’s making fun of himself before anyone else can, through the character of Purcell. The “say his name in the mirror” bit is straight from Bloody Mary, and hook hands have always been popular, especially in port towns like Barker’s native Liverpool. And while I can’t prove that tales of hook-handed maniacs had a renaissance after Disney made their Peter Pan movie, I can say that it came out the year after barker was born and then just let the correlation and causation confusions do my work for me. Because that’s something we YouTubers love to do. A lot. So…

I think it’s indisputable to say that this movie would not hang together without Tony Todd to make the Candyman more than the skeleton of bees he was in print. My fellow Star Trek fans, and those who watched the Night of the Living Dead remake, already knew Todd was one of, if not the greatest, character actors of our time. so casting him was already a great choice. His voice, for one thing, turns Barker’s dialogue into some New God-tier level Evil Monologuing. Even before they add the reverb, which…I get why they did it. It’s supposed to be uncanny. Make you think he’s talking in your head because he’s probably talking Helen’s head. Like, I like the shots where he talks and his lips don’t move. That’s cool. But still…

The stroke of actual genius came when he was given free reign to flesh out the Candyman’s origin story. Everybody was, according to the director, but quite frankly. some needed it more than others. Bernard Rose has spoken of the Candyman as a quote unquote “Black Dracula,” either ignorant of, or intentionally ignoring, Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Scream. But like Prince Mamuwalde, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, released the same year, we have here a murderous immortal, painted in the sympathetic light of his backstory. Played, in all three cases (and this is just one of those cool coincidences), by theater veterans who were not afraid to go big so that even the cheap seats know that they got skills. And how does Helen finally escape? Same way you escape any vampire: with a stake through the heart. Or the beehive where the heart would be.

As a portrait artist who fell in love with his subject, before achieving immortality by becoming the subject of other people’s scary stories, Movie Candyman is actually so perfect a Clive Barker protagonist that he could be a self-insert character. The fact Todd came up with all this instead of Barker just makes it ironically delicious. Barker obviously lacked the perspective to come up with this type of character, but Todd was born in Washington DC, and raised in the northeast theater. And in America, you basically have two choices: you become the monster, or you become some other monsters victim. You’re probably going to be both at some point in your life, so even that isn’t really a choice, but you can see which one is preferable, right? Victims have some rights, yes, but monsters have power and agency. The two things our society denies almost everyone except the stupid rich.

Tony Todd’s cool as hell, is the point. Virginia Madsen’s pretty cool, too. Got a whole Young Dana Scully look going on here. The two of them did ballroom dancing for this role, and while I didn’t know that when I started this, I really should have figured. Movie Helen is more sympathetic than Book Helen, though that’s not a knock. Barker’s willingness to give us unsympathetic, if not outright alienating, protagonists was always the flip side of his obsession with sympathetic monsters, and it did just as much to set him apart from his contemporaries. But by being played by a flesh and blood human whose every petty thought I am not privy to I can at least see and feel some tragedy in Movie Helen’s downfall.

If you really want to call Candyman to you, the truly magic words you should use are “Candyman’s not real.” The whole saying his name in the mirror bit is pretty much just a formality. There are all of two short scenes between Helen saying “Candyman’s not real” to her Cabrini-Green tour guide, Jake, and the real (for like a better term) Candyman appearing to her in the flesh…so to speak. Vampires eat what they kill but legends like Candyman eat belief, so he kills to perpetuate belief in his story because that is the only way to continue his existence. And he implores Helen, “Believe in me.” When she denies him he begins killing those around her in an attempt to turn her into what he has become: another urban legend. The scholar, driven mad by her studies, like something out of Lovecraft.

But he’s also trying, in his own hook-handed (as opposed to ham-handed) way to communicate how they are reflections of each other. He tried to enter the upper crust once, too, to the extent that he could, and they kicked him out in the most violent manner possible for the “crime” (in massive air quotes) of falling in love. By denying him, Helen is really denying the precarious position they’re both in, and the righteous anger a knowledge of that precariousness can create. Anger, in Candyman’s case, at the road America went down after the Civil War and the abandonment of Reconstruction. A hundred year long opportunity that America thoroughly, ignorantly, and proudly missed. If anybody other than Andrew Johnson had been president after Lincoln caught that bullet, we might have skipped out on the intervening hundred years of segregation and misery and lynchings and state-sponsored terrorist campaigns that just wiped out entire neighborhoods.

By saying, “oh a community attributes the daily horrors of their lives to a mythical figure,” Helen is denying the Candyman’s entire life, as well as his grisly death. That is why he comes to her and singles her out for the full head game/frame job treatment. “Oh you’re saying I’m not real? Well, how real are you? What is reality? How do you define ‘the real?’ If you define your reality through the relationships you keep, or through the social position you’ve managed to climb to, well, those can all be taken away at the drop of a hat. Here I’ll show you. The kindly detective will be bringing you coffee one minute then accusing you of baby kidnapping the next. Isn’t it better to be a monster?” The ability to make people afraid of you, like Moroni would go on to say in Batman Begins, that’s power you can’t buy. Better than having people ignore you, or blame you for the problems that you were born into. That’s just insulting.

The problem with being a monster is there’s no real end to it. All the people who killed Candyman are arguably even deader than he is, and his lashing out at random babysitters or the citizens of Cabrini-Green isn’t helping anyone but himself. To truly be a monster, you have to give up on the idea of helping anyone but yourself ever again. The Candyman’s “congregation” at Cabrini-Green is as caught up in this vampiric dance as Helen is. Far from the willing worshipers of the Spectre Street Estates in print, their fear gives Candyman more power than anyone’s love or money or artistic recognition ever did, so only an equal and opposing faith can even hope to challenge him.

Not faith in Helen, though she does wind up taking over the mural in his shrine by the end. Twenty years before The Hunger Games, here’s Helen Lyle, the first Girl on Fire. A “white savior” in both the literal and the sneering, pejorative sense. She is white, and she does save baby Anthony, which is more than her book counterpart could manage (another point for Movie Helen, there). And she also parachutes into the poor folks’ hood, thinking that she’s helping by stirring shit up, only to leave a trail of bodies in her wake. No, the faith Cabrini-Green’s residents have is in each other and in cleansing flames because they literally have nothing else.


You always want to smoke out a beehive before you smash it. Makes them drowsy, increases the chances you’ll get them all. Plus bonfires are communal rituals of renewal – a rare and special thing in a culture of atomized individuals who are all supposed to be looking out for Number One. They’re the opposite side of the same coin as funerals. Like Helen’s which the residents of Cabrini-Green attend. To pass on a weapon to a new legend. Say “Helen,” in the mirror five times and she’ll kill your cheating boyfriend. As far as immortalities go, I could think of worse.

But that could just be my bourgeois sentimentality talking because I love this movie. In an era of dull sequels and flat cinematography, it was a breath of fresh style and actual substance whose like i have not seen again. And that’s the most horrifying thing about it to be honest. I love more things about it every time I see it. I love how grimy the interiors are, not just in Cabrini. but even in the supposedly clean, sterile spaces, like the hospital. I love the cast because every one of them is a perfect embodiment of their character type: Xander Berkeley, the perfect trifling husband. Michael Culkin, the perfect pretentious mansplaining asshole professor whom you, of course. have to get your thesis through. Stanley DeSantis , the perfect unbelieving shrink. And DeJuan Guy, the perfect young storyteller, ready to pass all of this on in classroom whispers.

And of course our leads are perfect and I love them. Hell, I love this so much that I hadn’t even seen the sequels before I started this project. I never wanted to see Candyman go the way of every other slasher movie series. From all I’d heard, this series decayed faster than one of those elements at the bottom of the periodic table. And oh boy, did I ever hear right. But I watched Candyman 2 and 3 after I filmed this anyway because (and this sounds really stupid when I say it out loud, but we have a commitment to radical honesty around here), the Wikipedia entry for Candyman 3 incorrectly states that it takes place in the year 2020.

I don’t blame whoever wrote that Wikipedia article, you see. That was just an overly exuberant fan. Because we see the grown-ass protagonist of Candyman 3 as a little girl at the very end of Candyman 2. Hell, technically we see the beginning and afterglow of her conception. If we assume Farewell to the Flesh takes place in the year it premiered, 1995, then simple math would lead us to conclude that Candyman 3: Day of the Dead takes place in 2020. We figure, “Eh, 25 years, yeah, that’s more than enough time for that little girl to grow up into this Baywatch babe.” But see, to do that math is to already do more work than the makers of Candyman 3 either had the budget or will to do. Candyman 3 takes place in the year 1999, no attempt’s made to conceal it, and quite frankly, that’s the least of its many in various crimes. But like I said, we’ll talk about that later. Happy thoughts! Positive vibes! It’s Halloween time, baby! So I’m gonna hand you back to Past Me now.

Nothing to do here now but to wish you all a happy and safe Halloween.

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