The Sweet Taste of Fear
As I've noted before here (and on the sister site, Castlevania: The Inverted Dungeon), I have a deep love of Blaxploitation films (funny considering I'm white as a, well, white person). Blaxploitastion horror, especially, is something I very much enjoy as I find the mixing of Black film-making and classic horror tropes to be a very strange, and fun, combination. That's probably part of the reason I've always been drawn to the Candyman films, although this first film in the series really isn't "Blaxploitation".
The film, as much as it features a Black community dealing with a Black monster (and for all his tragic back-story, the Candyman is a solid movie monster -- the best monsters have a story that humanizes them), this is a tale about a white woman. She goes into the ghetto, summons an evil spirit, and then deals with the consequences of her actions for the back half of the film. Whatever else happens in the community isn't as important as the white lady and her terror from the Candyman. The more recent film looks like it's going to be a much more proper Blaxploitation film, but this first film slums it about as much as the white lady at the center of the film.
The movie is focused on Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a graduate study co-writing her thesis with her best friend Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) as they study the topic of Urban Legends. One tale they learn about is that of the Candyman, a "Bloody Mary"-style who would appear behind you if you said his name five times into a mirror. Although they initially think this tale is absolute hokum, Helen begins to dig up evidence that the tales has some historic basis right in their home city of Chicago. A man, using a hook much like the figure of the Candyman, stalked and killed a woman in her apartment in the Cabrini-Green projects, and the figure of the Candyman gained some notoriety at that point, becoming a local legend of the projects.
Thinking this is a great angle for their thesis, a topic never covered before, Helen and Bernadette decide to head to the projects and find evidence of the Candyman legend there, to see if maybe this Candyman gave credence to the myth all the kids says has been spreading around. But, before they go, Helen decides to say Candyman's name five times into a mirror... and then she slowly descends into madness as the Candyman comes for her over the course of the next few days. The myth is real and Helen just summoned him back into reality.
The strength of this film is in its sense of ambiance and style. While I love this movie I will admit it's not the scariest thing to come from a story based on a Clive Barker story (this tale having been based on "The Forbidden"). Hell, there are barely any kills in the film, and most of the gore (which there is a fair bit) comes after Helen wakes up after Candyman has done some nasty things in her name (and maybe using her body). And yet, the movie has style, an impeding sense of dread that layers over every scene after Helen says Candyman's name, and the dread keeps the film moving forward as Helen steadily goes insane.
Insanity is a theme of Barker's, with many of his stories (and the films adapting them) focusing on a characters decent into some kind of horror or madness (or both). It's no wonder that the whole of the Hellraiser films are about mutilated monsters from Hell coming to steal people away when they accidentally summon them (with a puzzle box). Candyman, with his mutilated arm and swarm of bees infesting his body, is this film's replacement for Pinhead, but he's summoned in much the same way (with a phrase instead of a puzzle box) all so he, too, can steal someone away to a horrid, and everlasting, afterlife. This is Barker's bread and butter through and through.
And, in a way, this film also features the same kind of protagonist as the Hellraiser films: a rich, white person that really should have known better. As in those film's, Helen's fate is over her own making. She tempts fate by saying Candyman's name five times, and then she's horrified when he actually becomes real and begins to stalk her, just like he has all his other victims that were stupid enough to say his name. You feel bad for Helen because she is a richly crafted character portrayed quite well by Madsen, but there is also a part of you thinking, "girl, you did this to yourself.
The other issue I have with this film is that for a movie centered on a Black community the film doesn't really care about the Black community. Cabrini-Green is depicted as a cartoonish cesspool with gang members hanging out everywhere, spray paint on every available surface, and multiple apartments that are in absolute ruins. The projects on The Wire, as bad as they were, look positively palatial by comparison to the way Cabrini-Green is depicted. All, presumably, to act as a contrast to how nice the rich white lady (and perpetual student) lives. She slums it for a couple of days in the ghetto and then pays for her hubris.
Thing is, there's a perfectly good Black character in the film that we could have used instead: Bernadette. She's the other thesis student and the film could have easily used her in place of Helen for just about everything. Bernadette. could have been the star, with her friend Helen being the sidekick that she drags along to the ghetto. Then the story would have had a different feel to it, less "slumming it" then maybe someone realizing how lucky they were to break the cycle of systemic racism, at least in their own life. And then, at the end of the film when our heroine confronts, and defeats, the Candyman, it wouldn't feel like a "white savior" story because it would have at the Black lady in the lead role.
These are, of course, critiques that I'm leveling against the film almost 30 years after it was made but it does show how the film has aged in just that span of time. I do still think it's an effective horror film, one that, even now, makes me say, "hell no I'm not saying some dude's name into a mirror." It's a stylish as hell film that launches a fantastic movie villain as well as giving Tony Todd a role he could play for years as the Candyman (Tony Todd is a great actor and I wish he had more awesome lead roles).
But still, there are flaws that i see now that keep it from being quite as effective as it once was. That is part of why I'm looking forward to the new movie coming out later this year. That one features an all-Black cast (or nearly so) thus making the story land harder for the community it's actually focused on. That's going to have the right political bite layered on top of its horror and thrills. That's the best part of Blaxploitation, a horror that makes you think in the process, and that's what this film could have been with the right tweaks.
So yeah, maybe this film isn't as good as I remember, but it's still pretty decent. If it doesn't hold up quite as well now that's just because we've all matured a bit and expect more out of our movies. That's not a bad thing.