"I take orders from the Octoboss."

CANDYMAN and the racial divide

FROM THE VERN VAULT: Don’t worry friends, I’m not about to start doing reruns all the time, but there are two pieces that were written for One.Perfect.Shot that disappeared after they were bought out by Film School Rejects. Prompted by Rumsey Taylor I located them on Internet Archive and I’m reposting them for posterity.

Maybe I’m full of it but it seems to me this piece from October 26th, 2015 was a little ahead of the curve. At the time I knew of no one else who considered CANDYMAN the best horror movie of the ’90s and I didn’t think people talked enough about its exploration of the legacy of slavery in America. I’m proud of this as well as my 2005 take on the movie. (It’s not dangerous until I review it five times, is it?)

P.S. I am responsible for the headline but that term “the racial divide” bugs me now – I wish I called it “WE’RE NOT COPS – WE’RE WITH THE UNIVERSITY.”


“These stories are modern oral folklore. They are the un-self-conscious reflection of the fears of urban society.” –urban legends lecture by Professor Lyle (Xander Berkeley)

“What if a person had this thing done to him and what if he had the opportunity to come back and say, ‘Watch out!’ to the world that created this person and the conditions?” –Tony Todd to Fangoria Magazine, March 1995

American horror movies have played off of all manner of primal and societal fears: tensions between social classes, the invasion of the sanctity of the home, the dangers of trespassing in forbidden places. But leave it to a couple of British artists – writer/director Bernard Rose and executive producer/short story author Clive Barker – to explicitly tie those themes to the racial atrocities of our history, creating a truly American horror story.

In CANDYMAN, Virginia Madsen stars as Helen Lyle, an ambitious (and white, it’s relevant to mention) graduate student at the University of Illinois. She’s working with her partner Bernadette (EVE’S BAYOU director Kasi Lemmons) on a thesis about urban legends, and one of the stories they’ve studied is about a hook-handed killer called Candyman who’s supposed to come after you if you say his name five times in front of a mirror. When Helen discovers a real murder with parallels to the Candyman legend she finds herself snooping around a crime-ridden low income housing project and being courted by the avenging ghost of a tragic figure from the reconstruction era.

The first thing to note about CANDYMAN: it’s fuckin scary. Like all the most iconic horror movies, this one has stuck around primarily by working incredibly well on the mechanical level of being an effective scare machine. Rose sends an innocent into a forbidden place where he creates great tension, mood and atmosphere, and sets us off balance with surreal encounters and surprises, punctuated occasionally with intrusions from the supernatural world that result in visceral, gory violence. It veers into the fantastical, but never at the expense of the grounded. The gritty on-location photography of Anthony B. Richmond (LET IT BE, DON’T LOOK NOW, THE INDIAN RUNNER) is given gothic grandeur by God-like helicopter shots of the city’s geography and a guaranteed-to-get-stuck-in-your-head organ/choir/synthesizer score by Philip Glass.

Tony Todd (NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 1990), who plays Candyman, not only has a tremendous, commanding presence, but was actually willing to film a scene where real bees crawl around on his tongue and fly out of his mouth. This being just before the digital era, the bees that live in Candyman’s ribcage are the real deal. Rose reports that Madsen was in an actual hypnotic trance for those scenes, adding even more phantasmagorical weirdness to the proceedings.

There’s a common format of horror story, used often in ghost movies, that I’m not really a fan of. It’s the one where the heroine or hero keeps seeing horrible, weird things, but then wakes up or snaps out of it, and doesn’t suffer any consequences, just goes on with life again until something weird happens again, and then wakes up from that. Repeat ad infinitum. After it happens so many times it’s hard not to catch on and no longer worry about whatever weird shit she encounters. CANDYMAN completely upends this technique in the shit-hits-the-fan moment when Helen is approached by Candyman in a parking garage.

It happens at a time of celebration. She’s been the victim of an assault but is now out of the hospital, her thesis having taken a fascinating turn that actually put a murderer behind bars. She’s learned that photos she thought were lost have been recovered and that publishers are very interested in her and Bernadette’s work. She’s smiling and excited and right then the angry ghost whose existence she thought she’d disproven walks up to her and speaks to her telepathically.

Suddenly she’s waking up, and in any other movie that would mean maybe it was all a dream, maybe it wasn’t, but either way phew, she’s safe for the moment. Not this movie. Helen doesn’t wake up peacefully at home, but in the apartment of Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams, NEW JACK CITY), a hard working single mother she had interviewed about the murder of a neighbor. Helen is on the floor and covered in blood, but she figures out it’s not her own. Anne-Marie’s dog is laying nearby with its head chopped off. Helen picks up the hatchet on the floor next to it. Who did this? Candyman? Is he still here?

Anne-Marie is screaming in the other room. Her baby is gone. The crib is filled with blood. She sees Helen, assumes she killed her baby, screams at her, tackles her, bangs her head against the floor. Helen can’t get her off and then, oh jesus, she swings the hatchet into her arm. And then the cops kick the door in and she’s in this woman’s home, on top of her, holding a weapon, covered in blood.

Each step of the way, as it gets more nightmarish, as she digs the hole deeper, I’m thinking okay, she’s going to wake up again.

But she doesn’t. She gets arrested. We realize we won’t be returned to safety and comfort around the time we’re watching her shakily submit to a strip search, crying helplessly about wanting a shower to clean the blood off. How the hell will she get out of this? (Spoiler: she won’t.) She begs to talk to the friendly detective who helped her when she got attacked, only to be chewed out and read her rights by him when she does. She calls her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY) and he doesn’t answer. She has no one. Kind of like Candyman.

If you look at some of the controversies in the headlines from the last year or two it’s hard to deny that we still have a painful racial divide in the United States. Different segments of the country react very differently to, for example, the frequent police shootings of unarmed African Americans, the subsequent protests and the police response to those, even the presidency of Barack Obama and whether he is who he says he is or actually a secret Kenyan Muslim anti-American socialist, uh… whatever it is they think he is. Last summer a gun massacre committed by a white supremacist inspired a new movement against the Confederate battle flag that still flies over some Southern capitols, and there’s bitter disagreement over whether the flag used by the army that fought and died to preserve the institution of slavery represents… well, the army that fought and died to preserve the institution of slavery, or something called “Southern Pride” which they claim is separate from race and slavery even though that’s the flag they chose to use.

CANDYMAN is all about the way our traumatic racial past still haunts us in this country. It’s both literally and figuratively about the legacy of slavery. According to a story told by Professor Purcell (Michael Culkin), Candyman (who is never given any other name until the not-as-good sequel) was the son of a slave. After the civil war his father made a fortune from the invention of a machine used in the manufacturing of shoes, so young Candyman lived well, received a good education and became a sought after portrait artist for the ruling class. But this freedom and opportunity ended as soon as he fell in love with a white property owner’s daughter. Then the locals sawed off his arm, smeared him with honeycomb and burned him alive. So much for equality.

These things had improved in Chicago by 1992, but not as much as we’d like to think. A major theme of the movie is the unofficial racial segregation of modern cities. The scary place that Helen dares to go to – what in the old days would be a haunted castle or mansion – is the notoriously neglected and violent Cabrini-Green housing project. The fear is real: Rose filmed on location at the real Cabrini, having to negotiate with gang members (who appear in the movie as extras). Even the Candyman himself, Tony Todd, admitted to Fangoria at the time that he was scared while filming there. Police had told him to watch for snipers on the rooftops.

The intrusion of a white academic (or film crew) in an all black, lower income building adds a racial component to the trespassing and class tension themes of movies like THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES. Helen comes here unashamed to act like an anthropologist interviewing the natives. Bernadette, who is black, says she’s afraid to even drive past Cabrini-Green, and is more conscious of being a tourist there. When Anne-Marie sees the two snooping around a derelict apartment and tries to shoo them away, Helen explains cluelessly “Uh, we’re not cops. We’re from the university.”

“Well you don’t belong here, lady,” Anne-Marie scolds. “You don’t belong going through people’s apartments and thangs.” A little later she says, “You know whites don’t ever come here ‘cept to cause us a problem.” Bernadette gives Helen a look like “See?”

There’s a parallel here to that defensiveness and resentment that many white people feel because they don’t consider themselves racist but assume other people think they are, or that people connect them to the crimes of previous generations. The opposite of white guilt. Helen keeps finding herself in these situations where it looks like she did something horrible, but as far as she remembers she’s innocent.

“No matter what’s going wrong,” she says, “I know one thing. That no part of me, no matter how hidden, is capable of that!” And she may be right. It depends how you interpret the movie.

To be fair, Helen is not completely unaware of her white privilege. After being assaulted in Cabrini she points out the disparity in the way the system values white crime victims vs. black ones. “Two people get brutally murdered, and the cops do nothing,” she says, “Whereas a white woman goes in there and gets attacked, and they lock the place down.”

(“But all lives matter!” interject your most frustrating Facebook friends, missing the point.)

Helen being an outsider here is actually a mirror image of Candyman’s history. When his ashes were spread across these grounds he was the minority, doomed by his relationship with a white woman. Now it’s the other way around. In fact, he and Helen’s fates seem to be intertwined. “IT WAS ALWAYS YOU HELEN” he says, and writes on the wall. The graffiti desecrates an old mural depicting the white land owner’s daughter whose love led to the lynching of Candyman, and she looks just like Helen.

In horror tradition this resemblance means that Helen may be a reincarnation of Candyman’s lost love (see also THE MUMMY and various versions of DRACULA, including BLACULA). But on another level it shows how the events of the past echo through today. Generations later the white land owner’s family is still well off, living on the good side of the L-train, owning a condo, going to graduate school, maybe not even conscious of being born into opportunities that the residents of Cabrini-Green were not.

This imbalance is underlined by Helen’s discovery that her building is identical to Cabrini-Green. Underneath they’re the same, but Helen’s is plastered over and repackaged as condominiums. Anne-Marie’s is covered in graffiti, controlled by gangs, and intentionally geographically segregated from the white neighborhoods.

So these are the conditions and injustices that still exist in the wake of our history. Now what do we do about them? Maybe one thing we have to do is get rid of the myths we stubbornly hold onto about each other. CANDYMAN is also about the immortality of stories. He comes after Helen because she threatens the power of his legend, in part by convincing a kid named Jake (DeJuan Guy, ONE MAN’S JUSTICE) that Candyman isn’t real. The killer needs a “congregation” to believe in him in order to continue. He exists not as a life, but as a story. “It is a blessed condition” he says, “to be whispered of on street corners, to live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.”

He’s a legend. A lie. And his plan is to turn Helen herself into a racially divisive myth: the white lady who attacks innocent black women, chops them up or kills their dogs and steals their babies. He manages to turn her into a reverse of himself: an innocent white woman burned alive by a mob of black people (though their ignorance is different from the white mob; they’re after Candyman and don’t know that Helen is inside the bonfire as well).

It is (SPOILER) not a happy ending. Helen ends up dead (and with her hair burnt off). Trevor attends the funeral not only with his young student mistress, but also his pompous friend and Helen’s academic rival Purcell. The guy she said she’d “bury.” I guess that didn’t work out.

But then Anne-Marie, Jake and what seems to be the entire Cabrini-Green community show up, and they bury Candyman’s hook with her. Could this symbolize a chance to put the past behind us? Maybe the racist superstitions that Anne-Marie has to struggle against, that caused city planners to strand the poor on the other side of the tracks, that inspired the shooter in Charleston, that cause some of your white relatives to call young black men “thugs,” are like Candyman himself. They’ll fight viciously for survival at a time like this, when massive change is on the horizon, when it seems like people are about to stop believing in them. But eventually, hopefully, they’ll fade away, dissipating like a swarm of bees.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 1st, 2018 at 4:03 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “CANDYMAN and the racial divide”

  1. Even though I know it’s just a film, it’s a testament as to how effective it is that there’s no way I’m ever saying you know what even once let alone five times into a mirror.

  2. Yesssss, I’m glad that piece is back! It was so frustrating to only have that internet archive link.

  3. One of the best horror films of all time that keeps getting better and better every year. I’ll always remember this for being the movie that got me into Philip Glass, and I’ll always remember watching it in the theater with a crowd and everyone collectively shitting their pants during that opening jump scare.

    Side note: I hate the idea of this being remade, even if it’s supposedly going to be remade by Jordan Peele. He obviously has his own stories to tell; I don’t know why we need another version of this when this is as close to horror movie perfection as we’ll ever get. (Yeah, yeah, this was written and directed by white people so I’m sure there’s internet thinkpieces out there already explaining why it needs to be remade by a person of color). On the other hand, I’m not opposed to it being a legacy sequel – if I remember correctly the 2nd one was already a reboot of sorts and completely retconned a lot of the first one, but it was still pretty enjoyable in its own right – if they tell a new story while keeping the same premise (and retain Tony Todd) I can see it possibly working.

  4. Not only is CANDYMAN a GREAT movie but it has an even more relevant message for modern America than you may realize.

    Candyman has a pretty good reason to have a chip on his shoulder, but he’s let his resentment turn him into a literal monster, the dude doesn’t care about justice, he cares about being a self perpetuating misery machine that makes the world a worse place, he’s not a righteous anti-hero, he’s the villain of the story, to the point where he’s willing to kill a baby to keep his legend alive, to kill the ultimate innocent to prove… what exactly? He got a raw deal so he’s gonna make other innocents suffer? What will that achieve?

    While obviously the movie is making a point about evil begetting more evil, any ambiguity about Candyman is cleared when he tries to kill the baby at the end and as a result is destroyed and Helen becomes the new martyr and legend, the residents of Cabrini-Green realize that they have their own prejudices as well are willing to forgive Helen and give her the respect she deserves.

    Letting something go isn’t the same as forgetting, I’ve noticed in modern America that a reckoning with our racist past too often turns into resent and an ugly “eye for an eye” attitude that as the saying goes, makes the whole world blind.

    The only way to kill the ghosts of our past that still haunt us and affect our behavior is to move on which takes away their power to keep hurting us.

  5. But don’t you think the movie illustrates a direct line between slavery/racism and the inequality between how Helen lives and how, for example, Ann-Marie lives? It would be awfully convenient for Helen to say “hey, just forget about it, let’s move on.” But that wouldn’t change the inequality. Anne-Marie would still be paid less, living in a shittier version of the same building, intentionally segregated from Helen’s half of the city, without the same help from the police.

  6. i thought i was so alone for so long believing this to bee the best horror movie of the 90s, and of course it was Vern who made me realise that there were others like me out there. really glad to have this article back up so i can recommend it to people who remember Candyman as being “that dumb 90s movie about that guy with the hook whose name you’re not supposed to say or something” or, even worse, people who confuse the sequel to the original and then get disappointed when they realise that you’re showing them Candyman and not Farewell to the Flesh, even going as far as to say that the original “sucks compared to the other one.” and no, i am no longer in a relationship with that person.

  7. Sorry Vern, I was trying to keep things focused on the movie itself as much as I could rather than going off on a tangent about America as a whole.

    CANDYMAN doesn’t offer the solution to solving racial inequality, is it just a movie after all, but it is a cautionary tale about the wrong path to take, Candyman is obviously a tragic figure, which is what makes him compelling as a character, but he’s still an evil villain.

    As for real life, well….

    While obviously there’s still a lot of work to be done for solving racial inequality, the path the left wing has gone down in this decade has been the wrong one, there’s a scarily vindictive and resentful tone that’s been adopted, like they really do want white people today to feel personally guilty for America’s racist history or at least to have to pay some sort of vague “debt” to atone.

    People simply don’t like that, it pushes people away, nobody likes to be made to feel like they’re doing something wrong just for simply existing, that’s why we’ve now seen so much of a backlash come from the right wing side, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    I know exactly what you’re thinking and that’s “but what about Truuuuuuuuuuuuuuuump!!!!???”, people on the left are so blinded by their hate for Trump they can’t take a good hard look in the mirror at themselves, that’s not good.

    What changed so drastically between 2012 and 2016? Do you honestly believe things went south so fast without it being the fault of anything the left wing started doing over those years? That seems painfully naive to me, what pushed so many people away?

    That’s been the number 1 question on my mind for the last two years is just what the fuck went wrong and how can we prevent it from happening again? The only answers we’ve offered though always want to give the left wing a free pass for everything.

    But as Nietzsche said “be careful when fighting monsters that you do not become one” or to put it another way film geeks like us would get, remember when Luke Skywalker went into that cave and chopped off Darth Vader’s head only to find oh shit, his own face under the mask?

    That right there is what it all comes down to, always being willing to take a look at yourself and question what you are doing is crucial, anyone who believes that they’re so righteous that any single thing they do is justified is already on the path to evil (or the Dark Side if you will)

    All I’m really advocating for is that people exercise caution and pay attention to what they’re doing, but that’s not the attitude of the modern left wing, they barrel ahead so convinced of their own righteousness that they interpret the slightest criticism or difference of opinion as an attack from the MAGA hat crowd, I’ve gotten flak time and time again from people around the net for trying to snap them out of this.

    I just don’t like mob mentality, there’s a shitload of that going around now and while I don’t mean to say this is only a problem for the left wing, Trump and what he represents and the reasons why it’s bad should be obvious to anyone with half a brain, but the faults of the modern left wing people have a much harder time to come to grips with.

  8. To put it a simpler way, some people come on too strong with negatively and hostility and that pushes people away, it doesn’t win people over to your side, intimidation and guilt tripping are not productive tactics.

  9. You definitely have felt this way for a long time. I don’t really know specifically what or who you are talking about, and your description doesn’t seem representative of the left-leaning majority of the country to me.

  10. I’m sorry Vern, with all due respect you haven’t been paying enough attention if you don’t realize there are problems on the left side too.

    This is my personal experience around the net, I’ve gotten called ugly names for simply trying to have a dialog with people, I’ve encountered people who literally cannot handle a difference of opinion.

    And I’ve just kept a close watch on the culture as a whole and what’s been going around in modern America, it’s a very bizarre mindset that has taken hold of people in this decade, I would even go as far to say that it’s a cult like mentality and it creeps me out.

    In all seriousness if you want an extremely informative book about what I’m talking about, read “The Coddling of The American Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff.

    If not you’ll just have to trust me, there are toxic attitudes and ideas on the left wing side too, now there’s some toxic shit on the right side too of course and I don’t think there’s any debate over which is worse, but that doesn’t give the left a free pass either.

    In a broader sense I’m just upset over how fucking hard America has nosedived over the course of this decade, I don’t mean to sound like I’m only mad at the left wing, I’m mad at it all, but part of the problem is too many people don’t understand the toxic elements of the left side that are not helping.

  11. And I’ve pretty much stated my peace on this topic and don’t feel the need to say anymore, I’m just gonna recommend everyone read “The Coddling of The American Mind” and leave it at that.

  12. I have never seen CANDYMAN. I guess I should. All I know is that any time Tony Todd comes on screen as Kurn, Worf’s brother, in STAR TREK: TNG (I am currently rewatching), he is impossible to ignore. The guy has some serious charisma and screen presence.

    As far as “the left” vs “the right”… The left doesn’t typically elect its fringe wackos into public office. Every once in a while you get some local politician spouting the extreme weirdness you hear from far-left feminists and professional victims on college campuses, but it is pretty rare and it usually comes up because right wing media loves to find these special snowflakes and set them up as strawmen and bogeymen for their base.

    On the right, we have full blown racists, white supremacists, and dog whistling race baiters on full display, in elected office, some of them in the highest offices in the land I don’t think all “conservatives” these days are racists, but they sure do make a lot of excuses for them.

  13. Interesting piece with quotes from Bernard Rose and Tony Todd in todays Guardian:

    How we made Candyman: 'I got a $1,000 bonus for every bee sting'

    The director and star of the horror classic remember acting with swarming insects – and using hypnosis to get a deeper performance from Virginia Madsen

  14. Just watched this one today for the first time since I was probably 12 or so and god DAMN is it a banger. I was surprised how much of it had stuck with me, but obviously a lot of it was going over my head as a kid. It’s such a disorienting, unusual “slasher”, and Todd brings so much strange dignity to the role. It might have just supplanted HELLRAISER as my favorite Clive Barker adaptation (much love for LORD OF ILLUSIONS too, but I couldn’t find a copy in time for Halloween this year).

    It’s such a queasy escalation of events. Like Vern mentions in this piece, it does so much of what you kind of expect to see in a horror movie, but then instead of letting the protagonist off the hook (SO TO SPEAK), instead it follows events through to their logical conclusion, which makes it even scarier. Like, by the point she’s locked up in the asylum, like, you get it. There’s no other choice- this woman is clearly a menace!

    Plus, so much good almost poetic writing in it. “What is innocent blood for, if not shedding?” The creepy-ass repeating “SWEETS TO THE SWEET” graffiti. The whole sequence where the kid is telling the story of the kid who got casterated and the horrific cutaways almost reminded me of THE RING and that scene where you see the girl in the closet at the beginning.

    Just damn. What a stone cold classic.

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