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Review: Candyman (1992)

Candyman (1992)

Directed by: Bernard Rose

Premise: An adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden.” An academic (Virginia Madsen) investigates the urban legend of The Candyman and discovers that he may be real.

What Works: Candyman is a terrific piece of horror filmmaking. This is fundamentally a slasher film but it is smart and well-made and stylistically owes as much to Alfred Hitchcock as it does to Wes Craven. Candyman is self-aware, although not deliberately self-conscious like later films such as Scream. Instead, Candyman acknowledges the urban legend roots of the slasher subgenre and incorporates several legends into its story, including the “Bloody Mary” myth and the “Hook Man” story. This makes it a piece of meta-fiction but Candyman does not fall into the narcissistic or distracting traps that other meta-films tend to fall into. By incorporating elements from familiar stories, the Candyman legend gains credibility and a sense of familiarity that is characteristic of urban legends. The film is also able to take those familiar stories and present them in a new way. The filmmakers show an understanding for what urban legends and folk tales do—in that they physicalize and dramatize popular fears and become a way of mythologizing the past—and applies this to issues of race and class. Among other things, Candyman is unique in that it is an urban horror film. The picture identifies the dilapidated inner city project, cast in the film as Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing development, as the new haunted mansion and the film exposes how cultural Otherness is devised on race and class distinctions. This is captured most explicitly in Candyman’s title character, which is a terrific creation and played wonderfully by Tony Todd.  Todd brings a romantic sense of tragedy to the character that makes him simultaneously frightening and alluring. His actual screen time is quite short but his presence permeates the film and Todd’s Candyman is as memorable a villain as Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs or Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. But Candyman is also a distinct character because of his backstory. Urban legends are allegories for other tensions and Candyman is a specter of the racial sins of America’s past. The film plays out the guilt and tension derived from that history through the story of this killer ghost that haunts the modern world.

What Doesn’t: Candyman is slickly produced and cast with respectable actors, giving the impression that the film will retain a certain distance from the gore. The film does not do that. Candyman is extraordinarily grotesque in parts. It is not a flaw of the film but the gore may alienate viewers who expect the film to restrain itself to the more polite “thriller” category of filmmaking.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, trailers, and storyboards.

Bottom Line: Candyman is one of the most effective slasher films ever made. It is a sophisticated take on urban legends and it has a compelling title character who now ranks among the great figures in the pantheon of horror villains.

Episode: #358 (October 9, 2011)