Virginia Madsen in 1992's "Candyman."

Candyman October 20, 2016    

In 1992’s Candyman we are repeatedly reminded that local legends and mythologies are merely products of the “fears of urban society” — they’re able to frighten only if one allows them to. So when our heroine, intrepid grad student Helen (Virginia Madsen), inadvertently lets that allowing take over her life, unsurprising is that simplistic fear isn’t the thing that overcomes her. Obsessive terrorization, in fact, is the name of the game.


She’s treading in dangerous waters when we first meet her, anyway.  She, along with another University of Illinois student (Kasi Lemmons), is undergoing a research project involving urban legends.  More interesting to the women is the psychological components of the campfire ready stories — what drives people to tell them, and how do they reflect our culture?


At first the project is compelling (if safe), investigation journalism lite.  But as probing continues does Helen find herself fascinated by the mythos revolving around Candyman (Tony Todd), the son of a slave who was lynched due to his falling in love with a white woman.  For centuries has he allegedly menaced the Cabrini-Green housing project, preying mostly on children through baited offerings of candy or through sticking razors in the packaging to cut them up.  Easily recognizable through his right hand’s being replaced by a bloody hook and his always being surrounded by bees (he was stung to death, after all), locals fear him tremendously.  And after digging too deep, so does Helen, whose life slowly but surely becomes horrifically impacted as a result of her strengthening her thesis.


The potential of being a tired slasher flick or a Phantasm-imitator seems very possible in the early moments of Candyman, so refreshing is the way writer/director Bernard Rose is much more interested in psychological torment than physical torment.  Adapted from Clive Barker’s The Forbidden, the film is an atmospheric study of agony with riveting questions at its front and convincingly ghoulish style at its back.  It’s more cerebral than your basic gore loving horror movie, and, despite its running too long for a film of so many provocations, scares stem more frequently from its ideas than from its violent outcomes.


Because there comes a point in which we’re forced to grapple with what Candyman really is: is he a hyped-up serial killer using a clever guise, the infamous legend he’s been made out to be, or a figment of the imagination? After Helen subverts Hitchcock’s favorite trope and becomes the Wrong Woman, accused of being responsible for the crimes we witness Candyman commit for ourselves, we must decide whether what Helen’s experiencing is real in a fantastical sort of way or if Helen herself has always been poised to reach a psychiatric breaking point.


Reaching an undoubtable conclusion is an impossibility, considering the film’s affection for ambiguity, but the lingering torment of Candyman is what makes it such an absorbing thriller.  It tells a smartly gripping story with bloody twists waiting at every corner, and there’s nothing I like more than a horror movie that wants to scare me but isn’t so obvious in its intentions.  Machinations are more enthralling than the splattering of blood, so I’m glad that that said splattering is sparingly used in order to induce an emotional reaction rather than gratuitously be spilled to tickle our stomachs.  B+