A few weeks ago, I sat down to watch Chiller’s “13 Greatest American Slashers.” Being a horror buff, I am always interested in commentary. My parents joined in watching the show. In the number eleven spot, the show honored Tony Todd as the Candyman. In the course of the five-minute segment, I witnessed two reactions from my parents. From my mom, a fellow horror enthusiastic, there was a mocking chuckle. After being scared by Linda Blair as a child, a hook-handed killer isn’t scary. From my dad, not a horror fan, there was a raised eyebrow after a commentator remarked that Candyman could be interpreted as a socialist film.
I am not surprised by these reactions. Candyman struggles to maintain relevance in the horror genre. Non-horror fans don’t find it scary. Horror fans don’t think it stands up to films like The Exorcist or The Silence of the Lambs. On the surface, Candyman doesn’t argue against these criticisms. The film quality looks dated. The CGI is as cheesy as the jump scares. Fear is not outwardly prevalent. Those weaknesses were enough to make me dislike the film at first. As I returned to the film over the years, I realized it had been first judgments, from both horror and non-horror fans alike, that caused audiences to miss the real strengths in the film.
For one, it’s excellent storytelling. The film is completely within the perspective of protagonist Helen Lyle, played by Virginia Madsen. Director Bernard Rose does well to trick audiences in believing they have a handle on the film and then pull the rug from underneath. In the scene where Helen is committed, she watches a tape of the night she was admitted to the hospital. She—and the audience—remembers her being tormented by Candyman, yet she is alone in the tape. Suddenly the fear is not toward Candyman, but toward the fragility of our minds. Adding to the storytelling is pacing, crucial in manifesting fear. Candyman doesn’t appear until halfway through the film. Rose wants audiences to listen to the stories and get absorbed in the rumor. Meanwhile, various overhead shots suggest an outside force dictating the lives of those below. When Candyman, played by Tony Todd, finally reveals himself, he brings these stories to a terrifying head. As he tells Helen that his visit was an obligation, he is also sending that message to the audience. Stories can manifest the fear, but really the fear is just beginning.
Violence, as it is portrayed in the film, is visually stunning. It is then of no surprise that horror author Clive Barker is listed as a producer of the film, for it carries his signature of making violence beautiful. Violence in Candyman is a sensual experience. One smells the copper in the pool of blood Helen wakes up in after meeting Candyman. One feels its stickiness as she peels off her shirt at the police station where is blamed for the kidnapping of a child. Cinematography, along with acting and dialogue, accentuate this theme. In the climatic scene of the film, Candyman claims Helen as his victim, playing out like a marriage ceremony. The piano music played in the background is romantic. The camera encircles the characters as Candyman sweeps Helen off her feet as if dancing. Candyman’s monologue of pain and immortality is spoken like wedding vows. For the most part, the hook is absent from the scene, making Candyman absolutely dashing. All the while Helen is meeting the same fate of Candyman as per legend, getting stung by bees. Actor Tony Todd is hypnotizing in this scene. His voice comprised of a hushed whisper and sorrowful expressions garner audience sympathy. We fear him, but at the same time he mesmerizes us. Though it is the most horrific moment of the film, it is also the most intimate. Each act of violence incorporates different sensations, all to be experienced by the audience.
Another compelling theme, to touch upon the remarks of the Chiller commentator, is how fear acts as a class barrier. Class and fear operate parallel of each other in the film. They are institutionalized through media, law enforcement, and academia. They are given physical form by the train lines and freeways that cut off Cabrini Green from the rest of Chicago. Other characters of the film are quick to blame racial tensions and social breakdowns for the problems of Cabrini, not realizing that they are symptoms of class structure. The legend of Candyman feeds into this class structure. Fear of him plays out with religious sentiment to silence the masses. He is the invisible ruler, watching over his flock to make sure no one escapes. Helen is the only character who can break down other variables and track fear down to its purest source. The class argument loses strength at times in favor of the racial argument, but it is still consistent, ultimately making it a more intelligent film in the process.
Candyman will never dominate horror movie listings, but its hidden complexities demand a second viewing. Perhaps several.
Author’s Note: This review is a first of a new weekly column here at The Moviola, where I will review classic and cult horror films.