Literature on Film | Candyman Turned A Great Clive Barker Story Into A Perfect Film

‘The Forbidden’ reads like a captivating, thrilling dream. Always on the edge of souring into a nightmare, it’s too late before the reader realises they’ve been in one since the start. Originally found in volume five of Clive Barker’s definitive Books of Blood, ‘The Forbidden’ would rise to greater fame in 1992 when writer and director Bernard Rose adapted it into Candyman. Recontextualising the events of ‘The Forbidden’ so that not only were they about class but race in urban America as well was a stroke of genius that still echoes into the present day nearly 30 years later.

Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a graduate student in Chicago preparing a thesis on urban legends. Coddled and mocked by her husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley), Helen and her friend Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) set out to Cabrini Green, a high-rise housing project supposedly stalked by a hook handed killer known as the Candyman. It’s not long before Helen’s investigation forces her towards a reckoning with the Candyman himself (Tony Todd).

Barker originally wrote ‘The Forbidden’ as an examination of the class divide in his native Liverpool. Helen and her tenured husband are well off and better educated. Though Trevor, in both short story and film, comes across as a womanising gasbag, Helen is as intelligent as she appears and twice as empathetic as any of the other academics she associates with.

In ‘The Forbidden’ she is researching graffiti for her thesis on how it represents the lower classes lashing out at the systems that failed and abandoned them. It’s not long before Helen’s empathy becomes an obsessive need to prove her condescending colleagues wrong at the expense of the people she was so briefly sensitive towards.

The same can be said of Rose’s film. Although Helen sets out innocently enough to research the phantom that stalks Cabrini Green the need to prove that Candyman is a real threat to the marginalised, impoverished community overtakes her desire to help that same community. It’s important to note that Bernie, Helen’s friend, is black. Caught up in Helen’s discovery that will help them write their theses, both also hope that their work will draw attention to the squalor and soaring crime rates in this small, forgotten corner of Chicago. It doesn’t take long for Helen to forget about helping anyone but herself and soon enough Bernie is putting distance between her and Helen as her friend is further seduced by the growling whisper only she can hear.

Candyman is unlike almost any other American horror movie made in the 1990s. It’s smart without ever being snarky or ironic. It often feels like highbrow horror without ever losing touch with the genre roots that make it so interesting. Its villain is instantly iconic without ever feeling like he’s been dumbed down to fit into a horror mould. So much of Candyman’s success rests on the shoulders of Candyman himself. Much of his dialogue is plucked straight from the source and although originally white in Barker’s story the casting of Tony Todd as Candyman adds hundreds of years of ugly history to an already complex film.

The description “honeyed words” doesn’t get thrown around very often but every line delivery from Todd feels like it was dipped in the painfully sweet syrup. Even a sentence as disturbing as “They will say that I have shed innocent blood. What is blood for if not for shedding?” sounds deceptively alluring, like a rose hiding its sharpest thorns.

But it’s more than just Todd’s low timbre that makes Candyman so terrifying a presence. At 6’5” Todd is an imposing figure but add to that the enormous overcoat, a steel hook emerging from a bloody stump like a broken, sharpened bone and the rotting ribcage filled with bees and you have a horror villain for the ages. All of that is without going into his tragic backstory which asserts that racism can make monsters out of even the purest souls.

But a movie monster is nothing without his final girl. Madsen’s Helen, like Todd’s Candyman, is a complicated character. Her initial exploitation of the Cabrini Green residents is what ultimately leads to her downfall and eventual martyrdom but it also separates her from the long line of simple, pure-of-heart horror heroines. She’s not like Halloween’s Laurie Strode or Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street. Although still a student Helen is closer to 30 than 18. She’s also married albeit unhappily and, in a turn that truly separates the woman from the girls, she rarely ever screams.

For the first half of the film Helen is firmly under Candyman’s spell. Though her fear in the face of this tall, brooding ghost is palpable, she almost never screams or cries out in his presence. It’s almost like she’s in a trance and that’s because Virginia Madsen was in a trance. Rose had Madsen hypnotised prior to filming some of her scenes with Todd in order to add some creepy credence to Candyman’s eerily seductive power. It works far better than shrieking at every twitching shadow.

A lot more is said with a single tear and a face frozen blank by terror than a dozen screams can manage. Although Helen finds her voice as the film dovetails into madness and murder the image of a stock-still, weeping woman facing down an incomprehensible evil born from centuries worth of hate and rage is hard to shake.

Both ‘The Forbidden’ and Candyman share the same story although Candyman ultimately questions Helen’s sanity for much of the movie. It’s easy to see it as her punishment both in story terms for doubting Candyman’s existence and in a moral sense for daring to step outside of her ivory tower community into the literal slums. Her association with Anne-Marie (Vanessa Estelle Williams) leads to the kidnapping of Anne-Marie’s son Anthony by Candyman.

If Helen will not give herself to Candyman as tribute for the wrong of disbelieving him and his congregation, then the innocent blood of a child will make a fine replacement. All it takes for Helen to change her mind and rescue Anthony in ‘The Forbidden’ is a night of drinking, whereas the film has her accused of murder and committed to an asylum before her final showdown with Candyman.

It’s the story and the film’s themes coming full circle. Helen’s self-sacrifice will restore order to Cabrini Green but it is the cruel order of a death cult dedicated to a legacy as defined by burning hate as it is lost love. What’s more Candyman is not finished with Anthony yet…

Anthony will return in this year’s Candyman – written by Jordan Peele and directed by Nia DaCosta – as an artist played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen (Aquaman, Watchmen). 28 years after the violent events of the first film Anthony is an artist looking for inspiration in the remnants of Cabrini Green and the murders that rocked them. A fate similar to Helen’s appears to await him but there’s only so much we can glean from the trailer and it will be hard work, bonafides or no, to one-up the original.

Candyman is, compared to most other 90s horror movies, a perfect movie. Phillip Glass’ haunting score compounds an already suspense filled atmosphere. The performances are always grounded in real human emotion like greed, anger or empathy and they power a story that is more relevant than ever. ‘The Forbidden’ if read today will certainly remind people, through setting alone, of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Candyman does more, though. Candyman bottles hundreds of years’ worth of rage and pain and distils it into both an iconic character and the community that has come to fear and respect him.

Barker certainly laid the foundations but Rose built a towering monument to Candyman. He was no longer the writing on the wall. No longer the whisper in the classroom. Instead, just like he always wanted, his legacy is writ large on a thousand walls.

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