From IMDb: The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.
If you want to have chills nearly the entire time you watch a movie from start to finish, watch Candyman. I first watched the movie as a sweet summer child back in the day, but watching this as an adult that lives in Chicago is a whole other experience. I’ve heard the saying that when you revisit a story even though it hasn’t changed, you have changed and how that makes the same story feel different. And I don’t think I have ever felt that sentiment as strongly as I do about Candyman. This movie is so Gothic and haunting, while still delivering enough gore and disturbing violence to feel like you also watched a slasher. It is one of the best horror films from the 90s hands down, a decade that otherwise feels like a drought after the flood of 80s horror.
I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago. Once when my sister was driving us into Chicago, she pointed to the Robert Taylor homes and said, “do you see those buildings? Do not ever go there. You will get killed. And if you go there and you don’t get killed, I’ll kill you for going there.” White people are trained by other white people to have a very particular perspective of the projects, and the predominantly Black people who lived there. Not to say there wasn’t crime or gang activity, but merely to say just like the urban legends discussed in this movie, the mythos of housing projects like Cabrini-Green surpassed the reality of the situation in ways meant to instill a sense of fear. All this without giving the additional context of the governmental failures that resulted in decrepit conditions, or the thousands of families who formed a community there.
This video does a great job of highlighting some of the complexities of this movie and the way it frames race, and gives some insights in the perceptions of Cabrini-Green that informed the movie (but be forewarned this contains many spoilers for the film I’m trying to convince you to watch!):
The film is based on a short story by Clive Barker, and was adapted and directed by Bernard Rose. Both were white Englishmen, so it is interesting that Rose decided to take the story out of Liverpool and set it in Chicago:
Where Barker’s story revolved around the themes of the British class system in contemporary Liverpool, Rose chose to refit the story to Cabrini-Green’s public housing development in Chicago and instead focus on the themes of race and social class in the inner-city United States.Wikipedia
I bring up my personal experience and this background on the film to highlight the fact that it is a very white perspective in the film, and that I’m coming to it with the perspective of a white woman who grew up in the Chicagoland area. We are quite literally in a white woman’s perspective during the film with Helen. And while Rose says he intended to show the humanity of the people living in Cabrini-Green, the film still predominantly associates the place with violence and depravity. Most of the people Helen interacts with when in Cabrini-Green are gang members, with more sympathetic characters like Anne-Marie and Jake thrown in. Helen’s friend and fellow scholar Bernadette is Black, but voices a lot of the same fear of Cabrini-Green as white people would. Also, she is light-skinned compared to almost all the other Black characters, especially the residents of Cabrini-Green. Despite good intentions, the implicit bias of the filmmaker shows through in the presentation.
I know I sound very critical of this film, but I really do think it is a groundbreaking and fascinating horror film. It is ripe for critical analysis, and I still have about five different reads of the film and its allegories. It is just loose enough in its presentation to open the door to all sorts of theories, while still feeling satisfying in its delivery and conclusion. This is a horror film that will make you think a lot to unpack its messaging, but you won’t regret spending time thinking about it.
In the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, writer and producer Ashlee Blackwell describes Candyman as, “the personification of racism in the United States…what it looks like and what it can conjure. All that negative energy what does it look like, and what does it do?” This movie isn’t without problematic tropes (besides the ones I mentioned it also features a Black man being obsessed with a white woman, and a definite sense of Helen functioning as a white savior), but that reading of the film helps reframe the way it is using these tropes. In that way, it feels like the Candyman is saying, “your racist fear of me has made me into the very thing you fear.”
Candyman himself is a sympathetic villain, the victim of a lynch mob who discovered his romantic relationship with a white woman. He is like Dracula or the Phantom of the Opera, talking poetically about his existence as a legend and his desire to have Helen join him in immortality. Unlike villains that are meant to create an instant sense of disgust, Candyman is dauper and enchanting (literally seeming to hypnotize Helen with his presence) until he is not.
This would be a very interesting double feature with Get Out, which manages to make a sharp political commentary about race relations and white, liberal fears while coming from a Black perspective. It uses tropes about race to satirize and scare in equal turns.
Fortunately, later this year we will be treated to a direct sequel to the original from a Black filmmaker. The trailer looks like a promising commentary on the themes of the original, while tapping into the gentrification of Chicago:
All this to say, I absolutely recommend this film to anyone wanting to see a unique and particularly socially charged horror film that balances commentary with scares. The soundtrack is haunting, with somber piano melodies and choral segments that really create a powerful atmosphere. And as I alluded to earlier, this is a particularly important movie for anyone from Chicago or familiar with Chicago history to watch.
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