Candyman (1992)

The Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster's myth.

VHS release pictured: 1992, Columbia Tristar.

Starring: Virginia Madsen, Xander Berkeley, Tony Todd | Director: Bernard Rose

VHS of the Month Review

by Sam Rakestraw

I was salivating at the movie this month when I first got the calendar. Not only is it one of my brother’s favorite movies, but I also get to talk about the haunted scene in Chicago. In fact, I live a couple of blocks away from the Congress Plaza Hotel in the Loop. That old place has been around since the 1893 World’s Fair and has seen its fair share of deaths and disappearances over the years. H.H. Holmes was said to have even stayed there on a couple of occasions. To this day, it’s regarded as one of the most haunted stops in the city. Room 441 is said to be the epicenter of all the paranormality. I won’t condone spending a night in that specific room, but they do run a classy establishment. The same, however, couldn’t be said for Cabrini-Green up until the ‘90s. This is where our 1992 supernatural horror classic Candyman takes place.

There are two horror writers who have long been making bank off their movie adaptions from major studios -Stephen King, naturally, and Clive Barker. Many know the English author Barker as the writer of “The Hellbound Heart” which would be adapted into the horror franchise we know today as Hellraiser. Many filmmakers and television show producers found his short story series, “Books of Blood” to be a gold mine for source material. Barker’s stories have been adapted from the time of the video store with Rawhead Rex to the time of Fearnet OnDemand with Midnight Meat Train. Candyman takes its story and characters from another “Books of Blood” story “The Forbidden.” A grad student from Liverpool named Helen does her thesis on graffiti in the run-down neighborhoods of the city, which leads her to discover the urban legend of the Candyman. Barker’s works always featured evil unleashed and the hook-wielding Candyman is no exception. We all know the rule, the vengeful spirit will appear if you say his name five times in the mirror. What can only follow will be gore and mutilation.

But that’s not entirely the story we, the American audience, may be most familiar with. The Helen we know is from Illinois and attends the University of Chicago, and is played by Virginia Madsen. Candyman has pretty much become synonymous with Chicago thanks to writer and director Bernard Rose. The idea was to showcase the class and often a racial struggle of living in the then public housing development of Cabrini-Green as a theme. Liverpool in the United Kingdom faced similar issues that were the focal point of the original short story. Helen’s graduate studies once again set her on the mystery of Candyman, joined by her friend, Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons). However, as the two investigate the blood-spattered and haunted grounds of Cabrini-Green and meet single mother Anne-Marie (Vanessa Estelle Williams) and her infant son Anthony, Helen discovers that the legend is very real, and Candyman (Tony Todd) is intently interested in her since he heard her say his name five times.

The movie is best broken into two acts, and Candyman doesn’t appear until the second one. The first is Helen and Bernadette hearing all the stories and venturing into Cabrini-Green where we meet our supporting cast of the residents like Anne-Marie and little Jake (DeJuan Guy) who live in the streets. It unfolds like the beginning of the Blair Witch Project, really. A couple of young students interviewing people and listening to chilling tales before setting off into the forbidden territory. Maybe that’s how Barker came up with the short story’s name. It all ends when Helen is mugged by a local gang and everyone assumes the murders were on them. Then, the real Candyman appears to her in that parking garage, and we watch as Helen’s life as we knew it goes to Hell. Anthony goes missing, Bernadette is killed, her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) never truly supported her, and the Candyman keeps appearing with his hook hand and body full of bees. This is the horror show known as act two.

Let’s talk about our monster, Candyman, because for the audience at the time he really left an impression and new audiences are immediately entranced with him. Professor Phillip Purcell (Michael Culkin) gave the bone-chilling but hauntingly allegorical origin story. Once a former slave’s son back in the 1800s, the man before Candyman was an artist who had a knack for painting the upper class who had once profited off his people. When he fell for the daughter of one such family and had his own with her, her father sealed his fate with a lynch mob, a saw, and lots and lots of bees. A vengeful spirit conjured up by one of America’s prominent inner demons makes for a pretty tragic villain. Sometime years later, someone said his name five times in a mirror in Cabrini-Green and there he has resided. Tony Todd is, and always has been, the perfect casting choice for the character. Can you believe they were thinking about having Eddie Murphy? Todd and Madsen were two of the first actors on the casting call when Rose submitted the screenplay to Columbia Tristar. We know Todd makes bank off his bee stings. But did you know that the movie beekeeper was Norman Gary who worked on such movies as 1966’s The Deadly Bees? At least to Todd, they weren’t. Phillip Glass also continues to earn royalties on the film’s main track today.

Rose had also personally scouted Cabrini-Green as a location beforehand because how can anyone say no to Chicago architecture. Refitting Barker’s original story into one of the most notorious housing projects in contemporary America is what gives Candyman a unique cinematic identity and accurately translates the original themes of the short story. Living in a slum or shantytown is a universal concept wherever there is wealth and prejudice -pretty much all over the world. Often these types of stories remain relevant for years to come. After all, the new one by Jordan Peele has just come out. I think it always does good for America to come back to the story of Candyman because it’s so much more than just your spooky slasher flick. I’m sure the crew behind the new movie knew that.

Cabrini-Green today is nothing that it used to be. The poorly constructed living units, the crime, and the poverty were so bad that the name alone became a colloquialism for any dangerous neighborhood. New Year’s Eve was celebrated with gunfire, kids couldn’t walk to school without the risk of getting shot, and the murder was indiscriminate with anyone of any age being found dead. In fact, in the same year that Candyman was released a seven-year-old, Dantrell Davis was killed by a stray bullet on his way to school due to gang activity. Apparently, the gangs involved would have a truce that would last three years. Three years were all it took for the city to close out the project and begin demolishing. From 1995 to 2011, the old residential buildings of Cabrini-Green were razed. The area has since been heavily gentrified with very little remanent of what it used to be. It has never been haunted in reality, but if there are ghosts there, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Candyman was the perfect October movie in 1992 and grossed a little over $25 million on a $6 million budget. It was distributed by Columbia TriStar and filmed by British film studios, one of which was PolyGram films. You‘ve definitely seen a PolyGram movie and may not be aware of it. They’ve produced The Big Lebowski, An American Werewolf in London, Fargo, and even co-produced Batman and Batman Returns. Another big motion picture release this month as opposed to a low-budget indie film. Naturally, Columbia TriStar was in charge of the VHS release the following February 1993. I love it when tapes have some trailers on them and this is one of them. There’s nothing like going back in time with the theatrical and home releases coming soon in the past from TriStar. We got Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger, Woody Allen’s Husband and Wives, and Past Midnight with Rutger Hauer and Natasha Richardson.

Tony Todd has already reprised the role of Candyman for two sequels in 1995 and 1999. Both of these didn’t receive the best reviews, perhaps because the spirit was unfaithful from the original and it was just a way to produce slasher films as the genre was winding down. Now, Todd, Madsen, and Williams all reprise their roles for a trip back to Cabrini-Green in this year’s Candyman. That’s right! It’s not a reboot, but a sequel with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as a grown-up Anthony trying to find out what happened that night when he was a baby. This time Universal and MGM are taking the reins, but the spirit of the original and something a little more contemporary is all there. I’m glad I was able to celebrate the original before I go across the street to the AMC to catch a showing.