CANDYMAN - Let's Cheer for the Slasher
Candyman is a slasher film where it’s incredibly easy to cheer for the slasher.
Release Date: September 11th, 1992
Date of My First Viewing: October 11th, 2019
There’s a part in the early portion of Candyman, the 1992 slasher film from director Bernard Rose, where professor Trevor Lyle (Xander Berkeley) is giving a lecture about folklore. He goes onto to explain how modern oral folklore is based on the fears of urban society. The exploitation of this central idea forms the crux of Candyman. This is a film where the central character, one we’re supposed to be sympathetic to, exploits the trials and tribulations of those living in a decaying urban setting. It just so happens that the consequences of her actions come in the form of a supernatural slasher with a hook for a hand, a hell of a reason to be angry, and a really sympathetic backstory.
For those who haven’t seen Candyman, the film revolves around the character of Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a graduate student and the wife of the previously mentioned Trevor. She’s researching urban legends and comes across the story of the Candyman (Tony Todd), a lynching victim that had his hand replaced with a hook before being killed by bee stings and being burned on a pyre. It is said Candyman can be summoned by looking in a mirror and saying his name 5 times. Helen’s research eventually leads to the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago where a murder attributed to Candyman took place.
Helen also says his name 5 times in a mirror, and, well, you can guess where things go from there. Candyman is summoned, and it’s all downhill for Helen from there. He seeks revenge and retribution against Helen for her actions, and this has dire consequences for many characters.
Prior to this viewing, the extent of my knowledge regarding Candyman as a film was simply the legend about saying his name 5 times in front of a mirror. It was something kids told each other around Halloween to get a scare or reaction. There was also the South Park episode that replaced The Notorious B.I.G. with Candyman, and I did get a kick out of that. Anyways, I bring up all of this to say I had no idea about the racial and societal commentary present in the movie.
Let me get my big problem with this film off my chest. If Helen isn’t the embodiment of white privilege, I don’t know what is. I know I’m not the only one to analyze the film this way, but here you have a character that hears about the murders in Cabrini-Green, all that could be tied back to Candyman, and her lone intention is to publish a paper about the urban legend.
Helen doesn’t seek justice for the victims or relief for those currently living in the Cabrini-Green. She just wants the advancement within her comfy world of academia. Cabrini-Green isn’t a place where people live and die in horrible conditions. It’s just a means to an end for Helen.
She enters the area as an urban voyeur with little regard for the lives she’s impacting. She completely disregards any potential for danger as if she’s shielded by her mission. The residents repeatedly tell her and imply that she doesn’t belong there, yet she willfully ignores them.
Helen’s actions get worse when she thinks flashing a card from the university carries any real weight with the residents of the project as if they should bow down to the educated woman from a higher class. Danger does eventually come to her, and that’s before the actual Candyman has his say about things.
I’m not sure if we’re supposed to feel bad for Helen when things really go to hell for her, but I know I didn’t. It was hard for me to find sympathy for the character when everything that took place was a direct result of her actions and reckless disregard for the consequences. I don’t want to act like I’m all into victim blaming, but, well, I don’t see Helen as a victim in this movie. The characters of Bernie (Kasi Lemmons), Anne-Marie (Vanessa A. Williams) and her baby, and the other residents of Cabrini-Green are the victims.
Now that I got that out of the way, let me comment on what I did enjoy about Candyman. That would be one Tony Todd, and his magnificent turn as the title character. He takes the character, who should be seen as the antagonist and villain since he is the true slasher and gives him a dignified turn. With his creepy voice and regal attire, Tony Todd makes the character stand out instead of being just a generic slasher.
The character of The Candyman has a backstory that should generate sympathy for the audience and plays heavily on the racial and social themes that are ever-present in the film. Fans of slasher films also shouldn’t be surprised that the slasher is a million times more interesting than the main protagonist. I’m not justifying what he ultimately does, but he isn’t a Freddy Krueger type of character. He wasn’t a bad person that was killed and is now looking for blood. He was an innocent that killed by bad people and is now looking for revenge. Big difference.
While there is a foreboding sense of tension during the beginning of the film that fades away as it focuses on Helen’s plight, Tony Todd’s portrayal of Candyman saves the back half of the movie. It’s one of those situations where you want to scream, “THIS MOVIE IS CALLED CANDYMAN!”.
There are lots of things I liked in Candyman, including the creepy use of bees, which I’m deathly afraid of in real life. I’ll always cringe in a good way when I see them on the screen, and this movie had quite a few cringe-worthy moments. Those moments along with Tony Todd’s performance just slightly overcome the utter disdain I had for the main character, and the film’s attempts to generate sympathy for her, right down to the ending.
Even in a film with a great African-American slasher character, the boring white lead is given the focus. I wanted to love Candyman, but I just ended up liking parts of it.