"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, October 22, 2010


Based on Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden,” Candyman (1992) is one of the more well-known mainstream horror films to openly acknowledge and use urban legends as the basis for its story. When most people think of such things the first ones that come to mind are alligators in the sewer or razor blades hidden in Halloween candy. The one Candyman uses is much more sinister. A young couple are about to have sex. The girl looks into a mirror and says the word, “Candyman” five times. A tall man with a hook instead of his right hand appears and brutally murders her. Urban legends are, as one character puts it, “modern oral folklore. They are the unselfconscious reflection of the fears of urban society.”

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.

Candyman takes a mainstay of the horror genre — the haunted house — and effectively updates it for a contemporary audience. The Cabrini-Green projects are an imposing structure: an immense concrete monolith covered in graffiti, dirt and trash and crawling with dangerous gangs. This is not a place for a white, upper class academic type to be spending her time and yet Helen makes the perilous journey because she is obsessed by the Candyman legend.

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.

Bernard Rose got his start directing music videos for Propaganda Films and short films for the Playboy Channel. He shared an agent with author Clive Barker and through him Barker found out that Rose liked several of his short stories, in particular, “The Forbidden.” Barker saw Rose’s film, Paperhouse (1988), enjoyed it and felt that the director could translate his story into a film with “style and believability.” After making Chicago Joe and the Showgirl (1990), Rose met Barker in London, England to talk about adapting the story into a film. They agreed that it should be relocated from Liverpool to the United States because an American studio was planning to back it financially and it would make the film more commercially viable. According to Barker, Rose “took the thematic material in the story and expanded it and turned it into something that was very much his own.”

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.”

The filmmakers were faced with a dilemma when it came to shoot the scene where Helen is covered with bees. Madsen was extremely allergic to bee venom and the filmmakers had to lie to their insurance company by telling them that the bees being used were so young that they were incapable of stinging her. To avoid being stung, Tony Todd and Madsen were covered with queen bee pheromones so that the insects would be infatuated with them rather than angry. In addition, Rose cleared the set and spent ten minutes putting the actress in a trance! She did the sequence without incident.

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.


Pearlman, Cindy. “Going Behind the Screams with the Candyman Clan.” Chicago Sun-Times. October 20, 1992.

Ryan, James. “Virginia Madsen Graduates from Sultry Vixen to Brainy Blonde.” BPI Entertainment News Wire. October 15, 1992.

Strickler, Jeff. “Candyman Star Found Movie’s Site Haunted by Real Terror of Gangs.” Star Tribune. October 18, 1992.

Wilner, Norman. “A Candy-Coated Urban Legend for the 1990s.” Toronto Star. October 16, 1992.


  1. Lucky enough to catch this when it hit the cinemas and subsequent DVD screenings have only added to its power. Candyman actually gets more and more relevant as time goes on, dipping into our most basic fears and referencing the terrifying urban decay that grows ever stronger.
    Excellent review.

  2. I have fond memories of checking this out in the theater. Back in the day, horror was hard to find on the big screen - much less good horror so Candyman was definitely something to celebrate. It's just a shame that after the also-excellent Paperhouse and this, that Bernard Rose kind of faded away. I'd much rather have someone like him active in the genre than, say, Rob Zombie.

  3. Sweets to the sweet. Candyman is a terrific film. And I would say the best horror film to come out of the 90s.

  4. Another great write-up of a horror classic. This one has power for all the factors ("academic sexism, urban decay, racial tensions and even interracial romance.") you related in the piece, J.D. It doesn't have a big cast, but all contribute well to the final result (especially Madsen and Todd). Great post for the season, my friend. Thanks for this.

  5. Glad they shot this on location in Cabrini Green. I have loads of family in Chicago and they refuse to go anywhere near there. . .

    My friend at work, Tony, got lost and ended up, unknown to him, in Cabrini Green. A police officer pulled him over and said, 'run those two stop signs, full speed, and get the f*(* out of here'.

    Obviously, places like Cabrini Green become more the stuff of legend then actual reality though, as Todd said, there were/are dangers. But watch a film like Hoop Dreams and you can see it's not legendarily dangerous.

    Thanks for the insight on Tony Todd. Great actor who obviously didn't get it easy on this one (can you imagine having to try to impress suits AND the lead actress at lunch. . .talk about pressure). Did they not watch him as Kurn in TNG? He was so fun and lively! No personality?

    Great review!

  6. I love how this film grows and reveals new things every time you watch it. I'm always suprised that whenever, come Oct. people start making lists of top horror movies this one is mostly forgotten because it is also genuinely scary. Bernard Roses's Paper House also deserves more credit than it is given.

  7. I've always thought Candyman was one of the best horror films of the 1990s. It scared the crap out of me when I first saw it as a kid. The central conceit has rarely, if ever, been bettered by any other horror film. It's such a great hook, and terrifically frightening.

  8. Such a great hook. . .pun intended Dan?

    Anyone see the sequels?

    Farewell to the Flesh (part 2) is a totally different animal, taking place in New Orleans. Still atmospheric though. Odd film for director Bill Condon who would direct drastically different films like Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, and Dreamgirls.

    Day of the Day (part 3) was not great but surprisingly okay. Tony Todd didn't like it.

  9. Steve Langton:

    Yeah, I got to see this in the theaters when it came out and was really impressed by it. Glass' soundtrack sounded awesome in that setting.

    You are right on the money about the increasing relevance of this film. It has aged very well and I love revisiting often. Thanks for stoppnig by.

    Jeff Allard:

    I've never seen PAPERHOUSE but now I am very curious to check it out. Rose has had an odd career to be sure but he definitely hit it out of the park with this film.

    Cinema Du Meep:

    I think I would agree with you about CANDYMAN's greatness during the '90s... I would rank it right up there with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and NEW NIGHTMARE.


    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. And the casting for this film was spot on with Todd and Madsen as the real stand-outs. I've always been a fan of Madsen and it was good to see her get such a substantial role.


    Thanks for that fascinating anecdotal bits about Cabrini Green. What a reptutation it had and I really like how Rose incorporated it into the film. It gave the film an additional layer of meaning that you don't see so much.

    I was shocked by that story Todd told as well and I'm glad that Madsen stepped up and OK'd his casting. The film is much richer with his presence. Thanks for these wonderful comments!

    Mike Lippert:

    "I love how this film grows and reveals new things every time you watch it."

    Agreed. This is one of the things that I love about the film, too. And I agree with you about its underrated status. Even the subsequent sequels do little to tarnish the rep. and power of the first film.


    It is a genuine scary film, esp. as it progresses and Helen's grip on reality become unraveled.
    October 23, 2010 1:28 PM


    yeah, I've seen the sequels. It's been awhile and I remember them being "okay" but I really need to check 'em out again. The Condon one is pretty good but I don't remember much about the third one.

  10. That image of Madsen walking through the mouth has stayed with me ever since I first saw the film. Being a Clive Barker nut this always had a high place in my heart.

    Great piece, J.D., as always. I have HABIT on its way to me based on your recommendation!

  11. Great review for Candyman, a movie I consider to be one of the best horror films from the 90's.

    I enjoyed the films dead serious tone, as you mentioned, this isnt a film thats trying to let us in on the joke. It plays it serious through and through, such a rare thing in todays tongue in cheek horror films.

    I also enjoyed the Candyman's backstory, makes you sympathize with the villain. You feel like he is doing what he has to do!

    Agree with you on the films daring themes, racial tension, interratial romance. Definetly not your typical hollywood themes. Leave it to Barker to write something that goes entirely against the grain.

    Awesome review man!

  12. Chris:

    Yes, I dig that image, too and it was one I really wanted to lead off this article. And I too am a big fan of Barker's stuff. I really love what Rose did with the story - he really made the successful transition from Liverpool (in the story) to Chicago.

    Ah, glad to see you going for HABIT. I am curious to know what you think.

    The Film Connoisseur:

    Thank you, my friend.

    I also like the serious tone of this film. And I like films that have a slow burn and this one takes it time getting to know the characters and setting things up for the big pay off later on.

    Agreed on Candyman's backstory - it fleshes him out so that he's so much more than just a simple monster.

    As always, thanks for stopping by.

  13. Candyman is actually one of my favorite horror film.

  14. Awesome. It also one of my faves. Always love watching it.