Helen Lyle is a student who decides to write a thesis about local legends and myths. She visits a part of the town, where she learns about the legend of the Candyman, a one-armed man who appears when you say his name five times, in front of a mirror. She ignores all warnings and begins her investigation and a series of horrible murders begins. Could the legend be true?
Alright, quieten down at the back, get out your exercise books and pens and concentrate. We're going to do a little film theory. It won't take long — but there may be a test. Candyman is an almost perfect example of what film boffins call a "recursive" horror movie. Recursive horror is horror about horror. Think Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994), where "real" Freddy is conjured up by bad movie sequels, or Fright Night (1985) where cheesy horror movie presenter Roddy McDowell is confronted with "real" vampires.
They're movies that talk about themselves; movies that vanish up their own arses — in a good way. They also have the power to be uniquely scary. Because they admit that some horror is in our imaginations, they imply that some isn't. They're about what's real and what's not; about what's part of the story and what's waiting at home in the shadows. So telling yourself "It's only a movie" won't save you from them. And it definitely won't save you from Candyman.
Candyman was born in the imagination of Clive Barker, arguably Britain's most successful modern horror writer, in a short story entitled The Forbidden, first published in his seminal collection The Books Of Blood (1984-1985). Originally set on a deprived Liverpool housing estate, it was about local residents attempting to investigate the legend of a local serial killer. Bernard Rose, British director of the underestimated, visually startling Paperhouse (1988), transferred the action to Chicago, not only making the story more Yank-friendly, but actually improving it (the squalor of the housing projects outstrips anything even Toxteth has to offer), as well as bolstering the movie with a fascinating social and racial subtext.
Helen Lyle (Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Lemmons) are precocious university researchers investigating local urban legends. When they hear about Candyman, the son of a slave viciously murdered for having it off with a white woman (in a fantastic monologue delivered by Rose himself we find out that a mob hacked his hand off, before smearing honey all over him and throwing him naked into an apiary, so they must have been serious) they investigate, tremulously heading off to the hooked one's stomping ground, the crime-infested, and almost entirely black, housing projects of Cabrini Green. There they find a community terrified by the spectre of Candyman, and who find a focus for their fears of violence, sudden death and grinding poverty in the mythical figure.
But, in attempting to prove the non-existence of Candyman, Helen conjures up the real deal (in the shape of Todd, who delivers a terrifying, almost entirely vocal performance). "You were not content with the stories," he intones, "so I was obliged to come." He needs a new victim to revive the myth and, appropriately enough, has decided that it will be the academic who tried to puncture it. "Our names will be written on a thousand walls. Our crimes told and retold by our faithful believers," he announces. Not quite the quiet life of academe she had been planning on but hey, these things happen.
Rose's movie is a triumph on many levels. Not only does it deliver a plethora of visually imaginative, shocking scenes — Candyman floating horizontally above Helen bound in a straitjacket, a psychologist being "split from his crotch to his gullet", not to mention an end sequence which required both actors to be covered with swarms of live bees — 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. There's Jane Ann Stewart's fantastic production design, which brilliantly juxtaposes the middle class pastel-drenched academic's apartment with the graffiti splashed, crack-pipe riddled wasteland of Cabrini.
Many horror films have subtexts. Frankenstein is about man's irresponsible dabbling with nature, Dracula about men's unease with female sensuality, while some have even found cheapo slashers like Friday The 13th and The Burning to have hidden texture in their pro-authority leanings (disobey your parents and you won't get grounded, you'll get dismembered).
The nightmare surroundings of Cabrini Green that Helen enters are very real (and, in a nice touch, are the inverse of her own — her swank apartment block is a tarted up housing project) and it is, Rose seems to be proposing, people like her who are responsible for the existence of Candyman. Not just by reviving him in the supernatural passages of the story, but out of the need for a myth like him in the first place. Whether you happen to agree with his views on race issues or not, it's a powerful and intelligent idea in a genre not popularly known for them. We get, he intimates, the nightmares we deserve. Sometimes, it appears, we even invent them for ourselves.
But at its heart, Candyman terrifies because of its ideas. It sinks its horrific foundations very much in the real world of poverty and racial alienation.