Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman. One silly sounding word repeated five times into a mirror, which unleashes all kinds of mayhem — and, as it happens, one of the more original horror creations of the last few decades. The hook-handed son of a slave (as embodied by Tony Todd) summoned by the chanting of his name, created by horror legend Clive Barker (along with writer/director Bernard Rose), he’s appeared in three films to date. And while the substandard sequels saw the character lose his luster, it doesn’t change the fact that the original “Candyman,” which was released twenty years ago today on October 16th, 1992, is a fairly superior and unusually intelligent horror flick.
It began with a short story. British author Barker’s major breakthrough came with his “Books Of Blood” series in 1984, and in the fourth installment (published in 1985), there was a story named “The Forbidden” — which shares a title, but little else, with a short film that Barker had directed in the 1970s. Involving the power of myth and rumor, the tale involves a Liverpool university student who discovers graffiti on a housing estate referring to a figure called The Candyman, and ends up becoming his latest victim.
The book came to the attention of Bernard Rose, a music video helmer who’d made inroads into features with the underrated 1988 fantasy film “Paperhouse,” and he picked out “The Forgotten” in particular because, as Barker told horror magazine The Wild Side, “he wanted to deal with the social stuff. He liked the idea of taking a horror story with some social undertones and making a movie of it.”
After wrapping the 1990 Kiefer Sutherland-starring British crime movie “Chicago Joe and the Showgirl,” Rose managed to get an option on the story from Barker — the pair shared an agent at CAA, and Barker had liked “Paperhouse” — and took it to music video company Propaganda Films. The company, where David Fincher and Michael Bay among others got their start, was just moving into features, financing “Wild at Heart” in 1990, and were convinced to fund development despite Rose never having written a screenplay before (boss Steve Golin was furious when he found out, but ultimately liked Rose’s script).
Rose and Barker began meeting to develop the story, and quickly agreed that retaining the Liverpool setting wouldn’t fly with the financiers and decided to move the story into the deprived Carbrini Green area of Chicago. Rose summed up his approach to Fangoria on the film’s release, saying ” ‘Candyman’ ‘s thrust is metaphysical instead of political. My element of social criticism asks how people can be expected to live in squalor, because the housing authority has allowed Cabrini Green to rot instead of trying to maintain it. But Candyman really poses the question that if God exists because we believe in him, what would happen to him if the worship ceased?… People have a deep need to believe in something beyond themselves, especially when they’re living in an appalling place like Cabrini Green. They could be shot at any time, but a creature like the Candyman could do something far worse to them. That belief allows the people to dodge bullets in the stairwells.”
What he ended up with was a surprisingly rich and socially minded horror script, which like the source material, sees graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, who just beat out Sandra Bullock for the part) hearing about the legend of the Candyman, who has reportedly been responsible for attacks in the Cabrini-Green projects, including the castration of a young boy. She jokingly summons the Candyman — reportedly the son of a slave who became an artist, only to fall in love with a white woman and fall victim to a lynch mob — to no effect, and initially puts the legend of the Candyman down to a local gang member who dons a hook on his hand. But the real Candyman (Todd) soon appears, and Helen is blamed for his attack. Or is she really the one responsible?
It doesn’t end well for anyone and has a particularly bleak conclusion, with Rose telling Cinefantastique at the time: “I’m rather bored with happy endings. They reduce the sense of danger. It’s like having the absolute feeling that however complicated or convoluted the problem any character may be going through in a movie, you feel so confident in most movies that at the end there is going to be a deus ex machina that’s going to solve everything. There is almost no suspense to the story anymore.”
The film isn’t perfect, occasionally falling prey to horror movie silliness. But it has more ideas in its head than a dozen other horror movies, from the social deprivation of the film’s environment (nicely observed by Rose), its smart, modern take on race, its discussion of the power of urban legends and myth, and its progressive gender politics — as star Virginia Madsen told Fangoria, “Bernard immediately takes out that scene of ‘getting punished for your sins’ which is so exploitative of women. Our traditional role has always been as helpless victims. But now we’ve had the ‘Alien‘ and ‘Halloween‘ films, where women get chased but still remain strong. Helen never allows herself to be a victim in Candyman. Horrible things might happen to her, but she fights back.” And, perhaps most importantly of all, it’s genuinely scary, and prepared to go to grim places that most sequel-chasing horror movies won’t.
Filming wasn’t easy, particularly given they were shooting in the Cabrini-Green projects themselves (Todd, who stands an intimidating 6’5″, said that “I tried to come there with no expectations, but I still felt fear. Anybody who didn’t belong there was subject to danger. The cops told me to keep my eyes on the rooftops for snipers”). The Candyman’s trademark bees were almost as dangerous — Todd had real bees in his mouth for the climactic scenes, protected only by a throat guard, while Madsen was, according to Barker, hypnotized by the director for a number of scenes.
The film — complete with a score by, of all people, Philip Glass — premiered at the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1992 and went on to pick up atypically strong reviews for a horror flick (Roger Ebert called it “a horror movie that was scaring me with ideas”), and made a healthy $25 million back at the box office, inevitably inspiring two sub-standard sequels — 1995’s “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh” (directed by “Dreamgirls” and “Twilight: Breaking Dawn” helmer Bill Condon, who three years later would win an Oscar for his screenplay for “Gods and Monsters“) and 1999’s direct-to-video, mostly disowned “Candyman 3: Day of the Dead.” The second tries to add some extra pathos to the title character through flashbacks, mostly diminishing him as a result, while the third is simply a cheap slasher movie.
The third film pretty much killed the franchise, though Barker and Todd have discussed a fourth film that would be set in New England, with Todd playing dual roles. And Barker also wanted to get the rights to the films back, possibly for a (seemingly ill-advised) crossover film with his other franchise, the more enduring “Hellraiser” series. Word’s been quiet for nearly a decade now, and it surely can’t be long before someone floats the idea of a remake. But if it does come to pass, they’ll have a tough task coming up with a picture as interesting and as terrifying as the 1992 original.