It is interesting to note that the titular character of Bernard Rose’s 1992 film Candyman was a painter, an artist determined to leave behind a legacy; never to be forgotten: “I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing…” The myth – dating back to 1890 – surmises that Daniel Robitaille (although we wouldn’t learn his name until the first sequel) was educated and enslaved, on account of his father’s invention which assisted in the mass production of shoes after the Civil War.
Robitaille was commissioned to paint the portrait of a wealthy landowner’s daughter. The two fell in love and when a child was conceived, fear of miscegenation led to a mob chasing the artist from town to the outskirts where his hand was sawn off, and his body smothered in honeycomb for bees to devour. 100 plus years later and, according to folklore, his soul and bloody hooked stump continues to haunt Cabrini Green, now home of the projects.
At least that’s what the legend suggests as it is told and retold, embellished by the storyteller, and those who believe in the Candyman (Tony Todd). For Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), the myth becomes a major part of her research. She and colleague Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are students at the University of Illinois researching urban legends as part of their thesis, within an academic department where being smug, white and male is a given. None more so than Helen’s own husband Trevor (an immensely slippery Xander Berkeley).
Helen discovers that there is a connection between her building and the apartments at Cabrini Green, after looking into the unexplained death of Ruthie Jean – a woman of colour who was mutilated in her bathtub by a killer who allegedly burst through her wall brandishing a hook. Helen interrogates the myth, and through her investigation we see just how limited her perspective is (in both literal and cultural terms), she is oblivious to anything outside of her area of interest until the myth has been appropriated. Only then does she (figuratively) wake up.
Rose – not unfamiliar with literary adaptations – has given audiences variations on numerous works of literature including his Tolstoy quintet of Anna Karenina (1997), Ivans XTC (2000), The Kreutzer Sonata (2008), Boxing Day (2012), Two Jacks (2012), and more recently his take on Frankenstein (2015). Candyman was his first authored screenplay, based on Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden (which can be found within volume five of his seminal anthology Books of Blood). The Faustian-inspired story transposed Liverpool to Chicago, Helen’s surname became Lyle (from Buchanan), her thesis – which once centred around graffiti – now concentrated on urban legends, and class and race became intertwined in Rose’s vision. He kept the thematic material of the story but made it very much his own.
While the film is grounded in horror, part ghost story, part unconventional slasher by way of arthouse cinema. It plays with the tonal and generic shifts between the story and its retelling, building ambiguity before Candyman’s first full reveal to Helen (it’s well worth the wait), and their relationship as the film progresses.
Some have commented upon the fact that the film’s “villain” is a man of colour. True, however, he is not a typical “monster” (just like Helen is not a victim, despite his imploring her to be). Candyman is a tragic and romantic anti-hero, an eloquent and beautiful phantom who is seeking retribution from those who have wronged him. It’s an elegant performance by Todd who elicits as much empathy as scares, it’s hard to imagine anybody else embodying the handsome hook-man (although, what if the next is a white iteration or Yahya Abdul Mateen II*). He is led by an equally wonderful Virginia Madsen.
Her Helen is intelligent, determined and flawed, perhaps even unhinged. The line between the real world and the nightmare is completely blurred by the film’s midpoint. Is she responsible for the kidnapping of Anne-Marie McCoy’s (Vanessa Williams) baby boy? Is Candyman a figment of her imagination or is he the man who assaulted her? Has Helen lost her mind? There’s an old Hollywood glamour to Madsen/Helen, and yet she’s completely ordinary and easy to identify with. The choice of lighting her across the eyes is genius on the part of DoP Anthony B. Richmond (Don’t Look Now). It enhances those huge green windows especially when she appears in a trance, passively hypnotised by Todd’s velvet voice (in actuality, it was her director who was doing the mesmerising).
Richmond’s cinematography and Jane Ann Stewart’s production design have aged well. The graffiti and murals adorning the walls of Cabrini Green are still as effective – made all the more so by the careful 2K restoration from a new 4K scan of the original negative (supervised and approved by Rose and Richmond). Grain is kept to a minimum and the picture is perfect. Reds and petrol blues particularly bright and eye-catching along with that all important artwork on the walls leading to Candyman’s lair.
Bob Keen’s make-up FX is just as accomplished in a film that really was multi-layered and ahead of its time, (and still as timely today) even the bees are analogue with Todd pheromoned-up, standing in for the Queen. Apiculture has been practiced for a millennia, and given that bees are the creatives of the nature world, it’s a perfect extension of the art present. Philip Glass’ haunting, melancholic and melodic score brings the religious themes to the fore and is the aural icing on the cake.
By placing the film within a racial context, it polarises the worlds as they are depicted; white, middle-class academia and the poverty of the inner city African-American experience. Helen even spells it out: “A black woman is murdered and the police do nothing, a white woman gets attacked and they’re all over it.” However, as the film progresses it is evident that Helen and Daniel are linked rather than opposed. The racial and social commentary, however dated, opens up dialogue, not only holding up a mirror to an America of the past but what the future holds for people still living as a consequence of segregated housing. It will be fascinating to see how Nia DaCosta approaches the material in her version of the film.
Candyman continues to be an ambivalent and ambiguous arthouse horror film which depicts oppression and transgression, and manages to sustain the scares, even after 26 years. Bernard Rose and Tony Todd have created a legacy which will continue long after they depart.
Disc 1: US R-Rated Version
Audio Commentary with Bernard Rose and Tony Todd – The disc boasts not one but two audio commentaries. The first is provided by writer-director Rose and star Todd (his introduction is a particularly nice touch). The pair are obviously close, having reunited for Frankenstein, and cover a whole host of topics. Todd reviews Infinity War, A Quiet Place, and Halloween. We hear Rose’s opinion on sequels, the new Halloween and his favourite horror films (he has excellent taste). The two men tend not to pay much attention to what’s onscreen, choosing instead to talk about the cinematic essence of the horror genre, offer occasional anecdotes re: filming, what constitutes as “American”, politics and social media, and the notion of fear. This is highly entertaining and well worth listening to.
Audio Commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman – The second places the film within critical context by writers/critics Jones and Newman. They discuss their friendship with Clive Barker and his stories which have been made into memorable films. They analyse the cast and their respective performances. Theirs is actual commentary accompanying the film as it unfolds and they offer several readings of the film and briefly consider the logic of nightmares (which allows for plot holes).
Be My Victim: Interview with Tony Todd ©2018 (9:38) – Todd discusses how he got the role, the romantic gothic horror elements of the film, and his approach to the role which included ballroom dancing. He likens Candyman to the Phantom of the Opera and speaks positively, not only, of the experience but of Rose who he describes as a “highly intelligent” filmmaker. He touches upon his costume, location shooting including the active gang members who agreed to be on film, and facing his fear of bees. It is evident that he has a great deal of affection for both Rose and the character. The racial aspects of the film are still open for discussion and Todd welcomes the conversation.
It Was Always You, Helen: Interview with Virginia Madsen ©2018 (13:00) – Madsen talks about her first action(s) following getting the role; going for tests as she was allergic to bee stings and eating a lot of pizza as Bernard wanted her a little rounder as Helen. It’s a lively and informal discussion, much like Todd, Madsen is clearly comfortable talking about the film, the experience and having a close working relationship with he cast/crew. She’s incredibly proud of the film, it remains one of the best experiences she has ever had, particularly enjoying waltzing with the “beautiful and gentle” Todd.
The Writing on the Wall: Interview with Jane Ann Stewart ©2018 (6:10) – Stewart worked as Production Designer on the film, and here discusses scouting for locations, basing her designs on truth and just how much fun she had working on Candyman, especially as a student of Art History.
Forbidden Flesh: The Make-up FX of Candyman ©2018 (7:49) – This featurette interviews (albeit separately) Bob Keen, Gary J. Tunnicliffe and Mark Coulier the three British make-up artists who were responsible for the FX of Candyman. This is interesting especially as they describe “making” excrement for the walls of the public bathroom from a selection of biscuits, and the forging of the hook. “Proud” is definitely the verb of choice from everyone interviewed about this film.
A Story to Tell: Clive Barker’s The Forbidden ©2018 (18:28) – Critic/writer Douglas E. Winter critiques Barker’s seminal Books of Blood and original source story The Forbidden. Winter is an adorer of Barker whom he describes as the “finest horror writer of the [80s]”. He also discusses Rose as author and artist and briefly touches on the feminist aspects of the Candyman sequels: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Day of the Dead (1999).
Urban Legend: Unwrapping Candyman ©2018 (20:21) – This critical analysis of the film by UCLA Lecturer/writer Tananarive Due and author/screenwriter Steven Barnes is the highlight on the disc. They consider the film from a Black historical context and gaze. Their analysis is invaluable, intelligent and allows for the viewer to reconsider a film text they think they know. Subjectivity is a fascinating tool and representation matters, as well as diversity behind the camera. This is essential viewing, not least because, Madsen aside, Due is the only woman involved in this boxset as a whole.
Bernard Rose’s Short Films – Three films – newly restored in HD – which cement Rose’s filmmaking prowess. Fans will see techniques, themes, and motifs which continued through his entire oeuvre to date.
- A Bomb With No Name On It  (3:34) – Terrorism is approached with horror elements and a classical score (he had to start somewhere). The action takes place in a busy London restaurant with the bomb maker, a white middle-class male. Perhaps an allusion to the IRA bombings of the seventies.
- The Wreckers  (5:54) – A film depicting ‘youth’ and more specifically a teenage boy and the party he throws when parents his head out for a dinner party amongst their peers. The generational divide is seen through the juxtaposing of the two soirées. Sparkling water is the adult’s drug of choice as the teens spark up their joints. It’s brilliantly created, mixing contemporary music with classical before the evening descends into coloured-filtered horrific chaos.
- Looking At Alice  (27:24) – This is Rose’s black and white avant garde film (every director has one). He plays with voyeurism as his protagonist watches and stalks the object of his affection through her love and conquests. Rose, once again, utilises classical music, jump cuts and repetitive dialogue. All three films are a welcome extra on the the film that many consider Rose’s masterpiece.
Theatrical Trailer (1:59)
Image Gallery – A slideshow continuing 40 images including film posters from across the world, VHS covers, film stills, publicity stills and lobby cards. It’s interesting to note the different studios that have historically owned the rights to Candyman.
Disc 1: Original UK Theatrical Version
The Cinema of Clive Barker: The Divine Explicit ©2018 (28:00) – This in depth interview with author/director/visual artist Barker, who discusses his literary work and the subsequent film adaptations, including Rawhead Rex, Hellraiser (with his old school chum Doug Bradley), the connoted homosexuality of Nightbreed and, of course, Candyman. He talks about horror and what it does to us as a film audience, finding beauty in the darkest of things, celebrating difference, and his childhood. It’s a fascinating interview. Barker looks gaunt, ageing following operations to remove polyps from his throat. As Americanised as his accent is now, the Liverpudlian is still evident to the trained ear. On a personal note, it’s heartwarming to see and hear someone with a huge talent be a success in a field you love who also happened to go to your old school and sound a bit like you.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also:
- Exclusive packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin (although, it appears that his hook in is the wrong hand).
- 6 lobby card reproductions
- Reversible fold-out poster featuring two artworks
- Fully illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by festival programmer Michael Blyth (unavailable for review).
- Limited Edition bound booklet reproducing the original hand-painted storyboards by Bernard Rose
Yes, it’s a little odd that Philip Glass isn’t featured amongst the extras at all, a copy of the score would have rounded off the boxset nicely. The severe lack of women is also disappointing, specifically in a critical capacity or interviews with the other women in the cast.
That said, Arrow Films courtesy of their Video label have immortalised Candyman and his mythology in a stunning limited edition box set, packed with extra features that will make any film lovers cling to their rapture. Buy it, if you dare, just avoid mirrors.