Two graduate students — Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) — are doing research on the Candyman urban legend for a thesis paper at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Helen’s husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) is a professor at the school and teaches a course in urban mythology. Through the course of their research, the two women learn that the residents of a dangerous area in the city known as the Cabrini-Green projects believe that Candyman (Tony Todd) haunts their building. I like that the film shows Helen’s methodical approach to her subject. She interviews several people who have heard of the supposed incidents involving Candyman and she also scans newspaper archives. This all establishes Helen as an intelligent protagonist steeped in the rational. She believes that the Candyman myth is just that.
Helen soon uncovers a news clipping of the mysterious death of one the building’s residents — Ruthie Jean — that may have links to Candyman. She and Bernadette decide to go to Cabrini-Green and check things out for themselves. Helen is driven and has the conviction to brave the dangers of the place to further her research paper so it will have something more than just the same old stories recounted endlessly before. She’s willing to risk potential life and limb to get what she wants. But she’s smart about it. She and Bernadette dress conservatively (they’re even mistaken for plain clothes cops) and are careful not to provoke the gang members that greet them at the building’s entrance. As the film progresses, she becomes obsessed with her work, going back to Cabrini-Green by herself. The deeper Helen investigates the Candyman legend, the more her perception of reality becomes skewed. She starts seeing him in broad daylight. Her life gets more complicated when he frames her for several horrific murders. Helen begins to question her own sanity as her world rapidly unravels before her very eyes.
Candyman opens with a rather apocalyptic image of the Chicago skyline being engulfed by thousands upon thousands of bees and then we hear the ominous deep voice of Candyman saying, “I came for you.” Director Bernard Rose fades to the image of Helen’s face which foreshadows that this horror film is also an interracial love story between her and Candyman, a pretty daring concept back in 1992 which met with some resistance from the studio, according to Rose. The film also touches upon the sexism inherent in the world of academia as one of Trevor’s fellow professors acts condescendingly towards Helen and Bernadette but Helen is defiant and yet also captivated when the professor recounts Candyman’s backstory.
Rose has a strong visual sense. He does not shoot Candyman like a traditional horror film. For example, he uses overhead shots of the city to establish several scenes — it’s a powerful, God’s eye view of the streets and buildings that creates an unsettling mood. Rose presents truly disturbing imagery, from the swarm of bees that engulfs the city in Helen’s dream, to a toilet bowl filled with swarming bees that she finds at Cabrini-Green. This imagery is complemented by Philip Glass’ experimental, elegiac score. It is never overused but instead insinuates itself into the film, lurking in the background.
Candyman stands apart from most other horror films in that Rose spends a lot of time establishing Helen’s character, letting the audience get to know her and thereby empathizing with her when things go horribly wrong. Virginia Madsen is well cast as the smart, strong-willed Helen. She conveys a vulnerability that makes her a sympathetic character and this helps us identify with her. For the film to work, we must be emotionally invested in what happens to her and empathize with her plight. It’s a strong, layered performance that requires her to show a wide range of emotions: the confident grad student to the fearful murder suspect who questions her own sanity. Helen is no damsel in distress but rather a thoughtful, inquisitive person who may be losing touch with reality. Madsen plays a very atypical horror film protagonist and the actress conveys an intelligence and confidence that is refreshing.
The Candyman legend itself is an intriguing one and we are soon as fascinated by it as much as Helen. Its backstory is steeped in cruelty and prejudice, making Candyman a tragic figure and somewhat sympathetic in his own right. He is more than just an anonymous scary monster that must be destroyed. The casting of Tony Todd also helps transform Candyman into a fully realized character. He has the fearsome physical presence with his deep, booming voice and towering figure. Todd manages to convey the tragic nature of his character and this makes Candyman not a conventional monster that must be dispatched outright. He has a clear, understandable motive for why he’s doing what he does in the film.
Xander Berkeley plays another irredeemable jerk. There are early warning signs that Trevor is no good. He flirts with a young female student in his class right in front of Helen and also messes up her research by teaching his urban legends class while she’s gathering data from his students for her thesis. I’m sorry but there is no way a guy like that would cheat on a woman as smart and beautiful as Virginia Madsen. Kasi Lemmons complements Madsen well. They both play smart characters and Bernadette provides a welcome injection of common sense to counterbalance Helen’s obsessive drive.
Rose took the project to Steve Golin, the head of Propaganda Films. Unaware that Rose had not written any screenplays, Golin hired him to write and direct Candyman. The filmmaker wrote the script and only then did Golin find out that he had never written one before. He was angry at Rose and was going to replace him as writer. However, Golin read Rose’s script, liked it and agreed to produce the film. Rose worked on the script for years with Barker supervising the various drafts. Rose actually wrote the part of Helen for his wife Alexandra Pigg to play and Virginia Madsen was going to play Bernadette. However, Pigg got pregnant and was unable to do the film and so Rose asked Madsen to play Helen instead. Casting Candyman was a challenge for the filmmaker who met with resistance from the studio when he wanted to Tony Todd to play the titular character. The actor recalled in an interview:
“I had to do what they call a ‘Personality Test,’ where I had to go to the studio at literally 8 in the morning, in front of a bunch of suits, and display whether I had a personality. So I did my best not to spill the coffee or insult them, and at the end of it, I heard they didn’t think I had a personality. They said, ‘Well, we don’t know if he has personality, but if you believe that he can do the film… Okay… Are you sure?’ He said, ‘Yeah. That’s the guy.’ And then the last hurdle was meeting Virginia Madsen, who’s from the Chicago area, and she just had it in her contract that she had to sign off on me. Then we met, went to lunch, and she said ‘Yes,’ and that was it.”While working on the script, Rose combined Barker’s short story with two urban legends – the Hook, about a serial killer who murdered people with a hook and Bloody Mary, whose name is to be said in the mirror. Rose decided to set Candyman in Chicago because he had been there once for a film festival and became fascinated with its architecture. Before filming started, he went to the city and did a significant amount of research, talking to people there and learning how they spoke. He felt that it was important not to write “generic-sounding dialogue.” Much of the film was shot in and around the notorious Cabrini-Green, a gang-infested housing project. Rose navigated the gang problem there by hiring many members to play themselves in the film. Madsen had grown up in Chicago but did not want to drive past Cabrini-Green because of its scary reputation. Once she began filming on location there, she found out that most of its inhabitants lived in good homes. However, the place was not without its dangerous moments. Tony Todd recalled, “I tried to come there with no expectations, but I still felt fear. Anybody who didn’t belong there was subject to danger.” At one point, the police told him to watch the rooftops for snipers! For Rose, it was important that they shot on location and included it in the film as an element of social criticism. He said, “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.”
Rose consciously wanted to slow the pace of the film down because the “slower and quieter the film became, the more intense it would become.” He also did not want music that would telegraph what would happen next but instead, “just strip the track down to very simple sounds.” He also wanted to “get away from the rape fantasies that one associates with slasher movies. Helen deals with her desires when she summons the Candyman. She’s like a priest who’s always asking for God. But what would happen if God appeared and said, ‘Here I am’? That might be what the priest wants, but it would also drive him mad.”
Candyman had its world premiere at the 1992 Toronto Film Festival, playing on its Midnight Madness line-up. The film went on to enjoy generally positive reviews from film critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Rose has been clever in his use of locations. Just as urban legends are based on the real fears of those who believe in them, so are certain urban locations able to embody fear. Empty apartments in the upper floors of public housing projects are, it is widely believed, occupied by gangs. We perceive a real threat to the women, at the same time they're searching for what they think is an imaginary one.” In his review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote, “Rose invests the film with plenty of frightful atmosphere (aided by a Philip Glass score), allowing Madsen to descend into madness at a pace that drags the viewer along, somewhat unwillingly … Madsen is a much better actress than is usually found in such a role.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “Ms. Madsen's performance is a lot more enterprising than what the material requires; the same can be said for Mr. Rose's direction.” Empire magazine gave the film its top rating and wrote, “Rose's movie is a triumph on many levels. Not only does it deliver a plethora of visually imaginative, shocking scenes … there's the score by American minimalist composer Philip Glass, which moves from a nursery rhyme tinkle to melancholic, melodic choral histrionics as the true grand guignol erupts.”
However, in his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum felt that the film, “starts out promisingly while the plot is mainly a matter of suggestion, but gradually turns gross and obvious as the meanings become literal and unambiguous.” In her review for USA Today, Susan Wloszczyna wrote, “Too bad the premise is spoiled by some racially condescending overtones – Madsen comes off as the tenement's great white hope. And once she is drawn into Candyman's world, the story loses some of its edge. But Rose wisely concentrates on scares, not sociology.”
Candyman is a horror film that plays it straight. It refuses to resort to irony and self-reflexivity which would dominate the rest of the 1990s with the rise in popularity of the Scream trilogy and its offspring, like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legends (1998), which knowingly wink at its audience and lets them in on the joke. Candyman is grounded in realism and this makes the more fantastical elements so unsettling. It is also a rare horror film that wrestles with weighty themes such as academic sexism, urban decay, racial tensions and even interracial romance.