Be My Victim | Clive Barker’s Candyman at 25

The 1987 film Hellraiser made the writer and artist Clive Barker a household name, though he’d been working in film for fourteen years on and off. The tale of a deadly puzzle box and demons who feed on pain was an instant classic and revitalised the horror industry. Barker would never quite manage to bottle that lightning again. The closest he came was with Candyman in 1992, based on a short story he had written a few years earlier. For this film he replaced pain with fear, while the director Bernard Rose made the decision to move the setting of the story across the Atlantic from Liverpool to Chicago. It was an inspired decision.

They will say that I have shed innocent blood. What’s blood for if not for shedding?

What the move to Chicago did was to change the original story’s classist unertones into much more explicit racial ones. This did lead to the film being dogged by controversy on its initial release in 1992. Carl Franklin (who would go on to write and direct the classic nineties neo-noir Devil In A Blue Dress) described the movie as being based on “white middle-class fears of black people”, and he’s not wrong. At least in part. [1] The nuance to this, though, is that the film is fully conscious of this fear, and of the racist underpinnings. This is where the Chicago setting, and that city’s own troubled history, comed into play. The lead character Helen (Virginia Madsen) even comments unthinkingly at one point on the racism baked into the city’s public works programmes. Her apartment block was originaly built as a “housing project”, but when the highway was placed to cut off the black neighbourhoods from the city’s amenities the block wound up on the “white people” side of the line. Instant gentrification, and a major rise in property value.

Virginia Madsen and Kasi Lemmons in Candyman - headstuff.org
Helen (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons). Source.

Helen herself is portrayed as being more classist rather than overtly racist. Her best friend and colleague Bernadette (played by Kasi Lemmons, who would go on to become an award winning director) is black, and later in the film it’s the black detective who was nice to her before that she hopes can solve her problems. Her classism, though, is on full display in the early parts of the plot. On finding out from a cleaning lady at the university that a particular black neighbourhood is full of legends of “the Candyman”, and claims that he recently murdered a lady there, Helen is quick to drag Bernadette there on a fact-finding tour that rapidly descends into poverty tourism.



Racism plays a major part in the legend of the Candyman himself. He was a free black man in nineteenth century America who had the temerity to not only be both rich and successful but to fall in love with a white woman to boot. For these infringements of the social order he was first mutilated by a lynch mob (having his hand cut off) before being smeared in honey and stung to death by bees. Helen’s investigation finally results in her being attacked by a local gang leader who has been using the Candyman legend as a way to terrorize the neighbourhood. After he is arrested, Helen assures a local child who had been helping her that the Candyman isn’t actually real.

I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing. So now, I must shed innocent blood. Come with me.

It’s at this point that the film takes a sudden turn into serious Clive Barker territory. The Candyman appears and confronts Helen in a parking garage, telling her that he needs people to fear him but that she has attacked that fear. In revenge he turns her world into a literal nightmare, leaving her accused of multiple murders and generally assumed to have gone insane. It’s his plan to make her his great victim, as he is an urban legend made flesh, so he needs the fear and the story to be told to maintain his immortality. In essence, Candyman is more a god of fear than the ghost of a slain man, and he even refers to the people who retell his story as his “congregation”. This concept is brought to its logical conclusion by the end of the film, and it’s that ending which has given Candyman its reputation.

The soundtrack by Philip Glass is also a key contributor to the film’s atmosphere, with his minimalist approach helping to heighten the tension and the the dreamlike feeling of the film’s second half. He returned for the sequel, as did Irish actor Michael Culkin. Culkin plays a pivotal role as the smug professor who patronises Helen with the legend of Candyman and provides a large part of her impetus to keep digging into it.

Tony Todd - headstuff.org
Tony Todd as the Candyman. Source.

The film made a star of the man who played Candyman, Tony Todd. Despite his minimal presence in the film Todd’s chilling voiceovers and the contrast between his imposing presence and his elegant voice combine to make an unforgettable impression. Todd had previously been best known for starring in the troubled 1990 remake of Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, and for a recurring role in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Worf’s younger brother. [2] In addition to returning as the Candyman for two disappointing sequels, Todd would go on to star in dozens of movies and TV shows over the last twenty five years.

Candyman probably represents the apex of Clive Barker’s film career. Three years later he would write and direct the underrated Lord of Illusions, but following that he would channel most of his creative energies into writing and art. This has led to some great books and paintings, but it’s also led to the absence of one of the more unique voices in film-making that emerged during the early nineties. This is a shame, but it doesn’t diminish the worlds he created and the horrors that inhabited them. Just as he would have wanted, the legend of the Candyman endures.


 

[1] On the other hand, the NAACP had no problem with the film after reading the script and commented that preventing a black man from playing a Freddie Kreuger style role on the basis of his race would itself be serious discrimination.

[2] He reprised this role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and also played the adult version of Benjamin Sisko’s son Jake in a time-travel episode.


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