“You want to know about Ruthie Jean? They all been here, you know? Newspapers, cops, case workers… they all want to know. I heard her screaming. I heard right through the walls. I dialed 911. Nobody came. Nobody came. Everybody scared. He could come right through these walls, you know? I’m scared. Scared for my child. They ain’t never gon’ catch him.”
Most people at one point or another have had a guilt nightmare, a distressing dream where something terrible has happened and it’s all your fault. But what if you woke up and it really was your fault? What if somebody desperately needed to tell their story, and you didn’t listen or didn’t believe? What then would be your nightmares?
A horror movie of uncommon power and insight, Candyman is one of those rare films which guts you every which way. Its highbrow story of an arrogant grad student whose researches into contemporary urban legends leads her to a narrative made flesh is as chilling as it is thought-provoking; while its dreamlike undercurrents of racial guilt and sexual desire invoke a disturbing personal journey into the unspoken. It’s an attempt to add a black man to the pantheon of classic Hollywood monsters; to critique Chicago’s civic institutions and legacy of racism; and to showcase the tragedy of betrayal and gaslighting. Candyman is operating on so many different levels that it shouldn’t work at all. But it manages to be both unique and excellent, a rare combination for the genre.
Part of the reason for the film’s success is that it represents a collaboration of many, many talented people. The story and ideas come from novelist Clive Barker, whose Books of Blood (“Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we’re opened, we’re red”) was thrown into the horror genre like a pulled pin grenade. Published 1984-85, the multi-volume anthology of short stories was a phantasmagoria of incredible breadth, depth, and originality. Stories like “In the Hills, the Cities” or “The Midnight Meat Train” found totally new, surreal corners of the genre to colonize; others, like “Pig Blood Blues” or “Dread” went farther than ever before down the dark holes of the human psyche. Barker’s writing, which often incorporates extreme sex and violence on a fundamental level, tends to read like the text equivalent of an optical illusion–it seems perfectly lucid until you realize the unreasonableness of its subject matter. Barker’s original Books of Blood story, “The Forbidden,” is the reason Candyman blends so many influences and ideas together, particularly the very Barkerian idea of a self-aware mythic being who thrives on the belief of those who fear him; his influence is also the reason so many of those ideas (particularly the racial aspects) were new to cinematic horror.
Barker may have invented the concept, but others contributed considerable talent to the production. Director Bernard Rose, who also authored the screenplay, has a very unique eye that does this film good service. His 1988 Paperhouse also featured a dreamlike atmosphere of menace and notions of the imagination supplanting reality. Composer Philip Glass got his start with the classic documentary Koyaanisqatsi, and has made significant contributions to both documentary and fiction cinema since; his score for Candyman is one of the all-time great horror movie themes, an innocuous piano riff that deepens into a spiraling choral mass for the film’s dark priest:
And then there are the performers, who are uniformly excellent, even those in very small parts. The highlight, of course, is Tony Todd, who came out of this film a legitimate horror icon of the sort who like, say, Sigourney Weaver, can just spend the rest of their lives being stunt cast in roles to signify genre bonafides. That’s the kind of fame you get for having a seriously creepy deep voice, and also for agreeing to fill your mouth with bees to get the shot.
Why bees? Bees are not just any insect; they’re social creatures, highly organized. They live in complex hives and work to produce honey, a sticky, sugary sweet substance. Honey is the root of candy, a product that is alluring and addictive. Candy is seductive (“sweets to the sweet”), but also associated with darker sexual situations (don’t take candy from strangers) and danger (remember the tale about the Halloween candy with razor blades in it?). The residents of Cabrini-Green also live in a tall, complex hive-like structure, where they work to produce drugs, a product that is alluring and addictive but also dangerous. The bees’ song emerges not from one bee but many; like honey, it rises from the swarm. Candyman, his legend, is the song these Chicagoans sing. It, too, arises from one voice and many, from the graffiti that adorns the complex’s walls to the gang leader who bears Candyman’s hook and name to women like Kitty Culver, the janitor who tells Helen Lyle about the Candyman.
Kitty (Sarina C. Grant) seems a little reluctant to speak, but she does tell the story of Ruthie Jean, a woman murdered with a hook at Cabrini-Green–murdered, so they say, by the Candyman. This deliberate act of listening by Helen (Virginia Madsen) is like the first peek into Pandora’s Box; it opens up a whole world she’s never considered before. Ultimately her attempt to navigate that world leads to her destruction–or transformation.
This a woman whose graduate thesis is on urban legends but has never heard of Candyman, a black (or “urban”) legend before. Her ignorance of the topic reflects the broader social strategy of ignoring African-American communities and impoverished communities altogether. Part of the story of Ruthie Jean is that the police ignored her and her neighbor’s calls for help: “I dialed 911. Nobody came. Nobody came.” Helen will later learn that the police have allowed a violent drug gang to exist there unimpeded, that they acknowledge they can’t protect any of those residents. In the absence of government, is it any surprise they turn to other organizing principles? In the absence of an upheld social contract, is it any surprise they turn to Candyman? Candyman’s rule is law, and his laws, however brutal, are enforced without exception. Say his name five times into the mirror, and he will appear. No such luck with 911.
The first step to discovering a world you’ve been ignoring is realizing that that world was always closer than you thought. Ruthie Jean was supposedly killed by a man who crawled through her bathroom mirror; Helen learns that her own upscale apartment building was once public housing, so similar to Cabrini-Green that the floorplans are identical. This includes the secret portal between adjoining flats–no wall exists between the two apartments’ medicine cabinets. The bathroom mirror belies a hidden vulnerability: out of the repository of the self and the self-image comes forth the secret depths of violence and desire that live within the human heart, waiting to be acknowledged. The medicine cabinet is Helen’s box; open the lid/door and beyond it is mirror space where her other self lives.
Mirrors and mirror selves imply duality, and the film itself is divided into two halves. The first, mostly rational, concerns Helen’s investigation into Cabrini-Green and the Candyman legend. She works with her friend Bernadette, her classmate and thesis co-author played by Kasi Lemmons, who between this film and The Silence of the Lambs the year before spent a lot of time being the white female protagonist’s black sounding board. Bernadette’s presence in the film as a kind of shield against both the violence of Cabrini-Green’s black gang and the uneasy racial implications of turning black folklore into fodder for white academia goes unacknowledged but is certainly felt; the difference in tension between when Bernadette accompanies Helen to Cabrini-Green and when Helen returns alone is palpable. Even Bernadette, of course, is scared of the dangers the complex may hold. “No way, Helen. We’re out of here,” she says when Helen wants to go back through Ruthie Jean’s medicine cabinet to take more photos of the apartment beyond. In that place, Helen first encounters a visual representation of the Candyman, a vast mural of a face, out of whose open mouth Helen crawls like another bee in his hive. It’s one of the film’s most iconic images, a moment of unexpected unease suggesting on a primitive level that Helen has been swallowed up whole, like in the old fairy tales. The shot itself is a zoom out; like many shots in the first half of the film, it operates by pulling out to reveal context and patterns previously hidden.
Later Helen and Bernadette get Ruthie Jean’s story from Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams), a young mother hoping to raise a good, safe son within the filthy Hell that is Cabrini-Green. Anne-Marie suspects Helen of having ill intentions: “So you say you’re doing a study? What you gonna say? That we’re bad? Hmm? We steal? We gangbang? We all on drugs, right?” Helen gives Anne-Marie her card, something Bernadette suggested earlier would be a totally inadequate gesture: “What if someone’s packing drugs in there? You’re just gonna apologize and give them your card?” But Helen believes her status as an academic is like a magic shield protecting her from guilt as well as harm.
Helen’s ego is all wrapped up in her graduate study. She encourages Bernadette to take the risk of investigating the events at Cabrini-Green by appealing to the goal of writing a thesis that isn’t boring, and later at a dinner with one of her professors, Helen can’t stop herself from smirking at him. “Actually, Purcell, we’re about to bury you.” Like many who are just beginning to learn of a world beyond their privilege, Helen believes she’s the only one with this forbidden knowledge–until Purcell (Michael Culkin) disabuses her of the notion. He’s not only familiar with Cabrini-Green and Candyman (“Well, if you’re after the hook man, Helen, you really must read the paper I wrote about him 10 years ago”), but he also knows the origins of the spirit himself. I’ll let Purcell tell it:
“The legend first appeared in 1890. Candyman was the son of a slave. His father had amassed a considerable fortune from designing a device for the mass producing of shoes after the Civil War. Candyman had been sent to all the best schools and had grown up in polite society. He had a prodigious talent as an artist and was much sought after when it came to the documenting of one’s wealth and position in society in a portrait. Well, it was in this latter capacity, that he was commissioned by a wealthy landowner to capture his daughter’s virginal beauty. Well, of course, they fell deeply in love and she became pregnant. Hmm… poor Candyman. Her father executed a terrible revenge. He paid a pack of brutal hooligans to do the deed. They chased Candyman through the town to Cabrini Green, where they proceeded to saw off his right hand with a rusty blade. And no one came to his aid. For this was just the beginning of his ordeal. Nearby there was an apiary. Dozens of hives, filled with hungry bees. They smashed the hive and stole the honeycomb and smeared it over his prone, naked body. Candyman was stung to death by the bees. They burned his body on a giant pyre and then scattered his ashes over Cabrini Green.”
As Purcell tells this long story, the camera stays on Helen’s face. It’s a soft-focus shot, with a light subtly drawing attention to her eyes. Her hand frozen holding a cigarette, she stares at Purcell, imagining Candyman’s groans and screams of pain. She seems interested, almost entranced, maybe even hypnotized by it. This is the heart of the film: to hear a scary story, and to feel yourself responding toward it. The shot itself is a slow zoom in; like many shots in the second half of the film, it operates by pushing in to express subjectivity and powerful emotion.
Soon–in that very moment, in fact, as the editing blurs the boundary between the two scenes–Helen returns alone to take more photographs at Cabrini-Green. There she runs into a young boy, Jake (DeJuan Guy), who tells her the story of a boy brutally castrated and killed with a hook in the public bathroom on the Cabrini-Green grounds. In the climax of the first half of the film, Helen is confronted and attacked in that bathroom by a gang leader who has been using Candyman’s name to kill and terrorize the other residents. With her help, the police are finally able to arrest him–now, it is implied, that he has attacked an upper class white woman instead of his fellow lower class blacks. Helen seems to take this as a kind of victory over the eerier intimations of her experience–including the moment of surreal horror when she flips up the lid of the toilet where the boy in Jake’s story was murdered (opening another bathroom Pandora’s box) to discover the bowl filled to the brim with crawling, buzzing bees. “Candyman isn’t real,” she tells Jake in the police station. “He’s just a story. You know, like Dracula or Frankenstein.” Jake’s belief wavers.
In the second half of the film, all of these threads–Helen’s attraction to and repulsion from the misery of Cabrini-Green, the undertones of white society’s racial neglect, the sweet seduction of narratives, the power of belief–are drawn together and pulled through into the dark side of the mirror. The first half of the movie is almost entirely rational; with the exception of the bees in the toilet, the film could be exactly what Helen thinks it is: the story of a violent gang leader using a persistent urban myth as a cover for his crimes. The second half reveals the further world beyond that story, and replays Helen’s encounters, desires and fears in horrifically violent and exaggerated fashion.
First Helen is confronted in the university parking garage by Candyman himself (Tony Todd). Calling her name in his deep, ominous voice, he tells her exactly what’s going to happen:
“Be my victim. Be my victim. I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing. So now, I must shed innocent blood. Come with me.”
Candyman cuts an imposing, self-assured figure. He wears a white ruffled shirt of the type common among the upper class of the late 19th century, and over that a more contemporary coat with a furred lining. (Later we’ll learn what he’s hiding under there.) His hook protrudes from the bleeding stump of his wrist, a wound turned weapon. Helen first sees him standing silhouetted against the brilliant sun coming through the open areas of the garage wall, hand and hook behind his back, face turned upward. It’s a dramatic entrance that calls back to the classic Universal monsters, especially Lugosi’s Dracula:
Candyman as a concept is meant to recall these existing literary icons. Like them, his roots are in the Victorian era (although he is distinctly American, a remnant of post-slavery racial violence); like them, he speaks in florid but open language about his intentions and nature; like Dracula especially, he is a hypnotic seducer of women. It’s subtly terrifying how little chance Helen has to withstand his invasion; as images of his painted face on the wall fill her mind, she becomes just as hypnotized as she was listening to Professor Purcell tell Candyman’s story, something emphasized by the same soft-focus shot, the same accent lighting on her eyes. A single tear runs down her cheek. And then she’s his.
Much of the rest of the film jumps in time and space from one scene to the next, the way things shift in a nightmare, but all of it revolves around the same themes of guilt and betrayal. Where Helen’s actions and interactions reminded us of racial neglect, of advantage taking and the implicit racial violence of the state against the Cabrini-Green community, now those subtexts are replayed as full, bloody text. Helen wakes up in Ann-Marie’s apartment, covered in blood; Ann-Marie’s dog is dead and her baby is missing. Later Bernadette gets the same treatment the dog got. Throughout, Helen is confused and distressed; she believes that Candyman is some person framing her for these crimes, but that notion is discarded or disbelieved by the police, by Helen’s husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley), by the mental institution she’s brought to. Now it’s her turn to be ignored and neglected by the system. Like many of Hitchcock’s films, these sequences play on the fear of being an innocent person, wrongfully accused; but Candyman twists this further by layering on the guilt and horror of seeing those around you murdered and knowing that the only rational explanation is that you are somehow responsible. From removing her bloody clothes at the behest of an uncaring officer to media hostility to the drugs and shackles of her imprisonment in the mental hospital, it’s an awful, humiliating process that moves Helen step by step into a realm of nightmarish despair–a journey metonymized in the unsettling ride to the hospital as blue and red lights flash and Candyman’s words invade her thoughts.
The final straw: to the betrayal of the city’s institutions, add that Trevor’s been cheating on her with one of his students. When Helen escapes from the hospital (with Candyman’s help, of course), that fact makes her homecoming reeeeally awkward, as Stacy (Carolyn Lowery) is already redecorating. Rejected, her faith in reality shaken, Helen goes to a bridge and stares at the shimmering water, contemplating suicide. That’s when Candyman gives her one last push:
“They will all abandon you. All you have left is my desire for you.”
It’s then that Helen goes to him. But with what intention? Candyman has offered her a deal: be his victim, and he will return Ann-Marie’s child. Has she succumbed to his seduction, or is she taking the deal? To the film’s extensive racial thematics, add some exploration of gender dynamics. What Candyman does to Helen has all the trappings of an abusive relationship. He shows up out of the blue, demanding gratification (“Be my victim”), although not purely of a sexual nature; he aggrandizes himself and tries to convince her to stay with him forever; and he purposefully destroys Helen’s support network. It’s an expert course of gaslighting and abuse, and for a little while we’re not sure how well it’s worked.
As Helen enters Candyman’s lair in Cabrini-Green (a filthy, decrepit place filled with candles and art, like a shrine), we’re perhaps reminded of Jonathan Harker entering Dracula’s tomb. Like Harker, she brings a weapon with her–one of the hooks dangling from the ceiling of the lair–and like Dracula, this monster also sleeps in regal repose, as if waiting to be slain. But it’s not that easy, and instead of killing him, Helen finds herself trapped by his gaze. She decides to take the deal, surrendering to Candyman’s dizzying spell, and the rest of the scene is a swirling torrent of symbols and symbolic acts. Sex, death, and the promise of an afterlife lived as myth intertwine. “Come with me, and be immortal,” Candyman promises, his hook pulling up her skirt. Seduction meets horror as Helen discovers Candyman’s body bloody and swarming with bees–even in his mouth, as he leans down for a kiss.
Candyman’s plan for Helen, and the film’s plan for her, is that she accompany him into legend. Her death by fire at the hands of the Cabrini-Green residents is meant to mirror his death at the hands of white men. It’s vengeance and ascendancy, love and destruction all rolled into one. Worse, Candyman tries to renege on his deal, meaning to burn himself, Helen, and the baby in a final act of murderous mythmaking. That Helen manages to save the infant before she dies, handing him out of the bonfire to Ann-Marie, is the film’s one true moment of hope–the idea that history need not fully repeat itself, that connections can be made to bridge the racial and economic and cultural divides between.
But that may be cold comfort to Helen, who now learns the true meaning of “Sweets to the sweet.” A kind of invocation that recurs several times within the film, usually graffitied on the walls of Cabrini-Green, taken literally the phrase is an overture of love, but it originates in Hamlet:
Sweets to the sweet. Farewell! (scatters flowers)
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife.
I thought thy bride-bed to have decked, sweet maid,
And not have strewed thy grave.
Flowers intended for the “bride-bed,” where husband and wife consummate their marriage, are now left upon Ophelia’s grave instead. Like Ophelia, Helen finds madness, and the possibility of death by drowning. She goes to face Cabrini-Green’s self-appointed king; love lost, she takes his kiss and finds death instead–and a column of residents of Cabrini-Green arrives at her funeral to give their own offering to her grave.
A hook is both tool and weapon, and now tribute, too, in honor of violence threatened and mercy delivered–a God-like power. But a hook is also the beginning of a story, the moment that draws you into an engrossing fantasy. Helen is hooked from the first moment she hears the story of Ruthie Jean and the Candyman, and, having been destroyed, is now transformed into her own myth with her own sharp beginning. Her fate is laid out by Candyman himself, in a dark twist on Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” suicidal contemplation:
“Why do you want to live? If you had learned just a little from me, you would not beg to live. I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.”
At the end of the movie, Helen gets what Candyman promised her: immortal unlife as an urban legend, the ghost behind the mirror. What an honor, to be promoted from drone to queen! Burned and beautiful, violent and vengeful, Helen has, well, what he always wanted for her… I can’t help but feel that Helen truly is a victim. After all, in the real world, what name lingers on in cinematic immortality? Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman…