Horror fans who grew up in the '90s know that although Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees haunted the mainstream, the real terror came from saying “Candyman” five times in a bathroom mirror. Adapted from a short story by Clive Barker, Candyman is a gothic-style horror film that parses the nature of urban legends and their relationship to black culture while refusing to find easy answers in the urban sprawl of Chicago.
The success of the film led to two sequels, each one less successful than the last, not only monetarily but also in their ability to say something important and real in the same way as the initial film. Neither sequel drops the concept of Candyman appearing after saying his name into a mirror, although the explanation for this becomes progressively more difficult to understand.
Even though the final film of the series was rightfully sent straight to DVD, it’s worth watching for the same reasons someone would watch Freddy vs. Jason or any other so-bad-it's-good movie. With talk of a new Candyman on the horizon, it's time to break out the popcorn and rediscover where the character came from and how far he fell.
Based on Clive Barker’s short story, The Forbidden, Candyman is a uniquely American horror story that explores the intersection of race, folklore, and belief in a genuinely creepy movie. Candyman follows a young PhD student played by Virginia Madsen as she investigates a series of slayings attributed to the "Candyman," a specter with a hook for a hand who haunts the Cabrini-Green area of Chicago.
As she investigates the series of ruthless acts, she not only discovers that the legend is true, but also that it’s a story built on America’s deep history of racism. Augmenting the story is Anthony B. Richmond's stunning cinematography and a score by Philip Glass that eschews the screeching jump scare sounds of lesser films in favor of creating a haunting atmosphere.
Even with all of those factors, the film wouldn’t be as effective as it is without Tony Todd's leading menace. An imposing figure, he doesn’t chase or chop in the way that Jason or Michael does, and he doesn’t quip like Freddy. Instead, he implores Madsen’s character to be his victim, to become one with his story. In less than 20 minutes of screen time, Todd creates a horror movie monster who’s more terrifying than any of the slashers he shared the video store with.
In the initial Candyman, the character’s origins are necessarily oblique. He’s believed to be the angry rejuvenation of a black painter from the late 19th or early 20th century whose father was a slave. After impregnating a white woman with whom he was in love, he was hung and his painting hand was removed. As people began to believe the Candyman legend, he returned with a hook in place of a paint brush.
This is all audiences know about the Candyman in the first film, aside from the fact that if someone says his name five times in a mirror, it's curtains. Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, the sequel to Candyman, attempts to add to the villain’s backstory with far too many specifics.
The story is moved from Chicago to New Orleans, where Candyman is reintroduced as Daniel Robitaille, a slave from way back. Aside from being hung for impregnating a white woman, he’s shown his bee-stung face in a hand mirror. While he fades, his soul transfers into the mirror and the mob chants “Candyman” over and over again.
Urban legends and folklore don’t generally need to follow a linear narrative. Their lack of specificity is what makes them unsettling, and it’s one of the things that helps calcify the esoteric nature of the original film.
Before the Candyman was turned into another slasher lining the aisles of video stores, he was positioned as the first gothic horror character for the black community. At a retrospective of the initial film, Virginia Madsen explained the idea behind the story, and how she backed out when the sequel began to change the narrative:
Bernie [Rose] wanted to make him like an African American Dracula, which I think it was so appealing to the African American community because they had finally their own Dracula. Candyman was a poet and smart, wasn’t really a monster, sort of that classical figure.
Separately, Rose explained, "The idea always was that he was kind of a romantic figure. And again, romantic in sort of the Edgar Allen Poe sense."
Much of the tension of the initial Candyman is based on Madsen’s character going to the projects and questioning her own motivations as a white woman. Does she want to help, or is she just using other's suffering as a way to get her PhD? That all goes out the window in Farewell to the Flesh.
While the two films are visually similar in their plot - a blonde white woman helps the inner-city population investigate a series of slayings - the sequel doesn't quite capitalize on the horrifying nature of the first film. Instead of employing the restraint of the initial movie, it pours on the jump scares. If someone can jump out of an alley say, “I didn’t mean to scare you,” they will.
The false scares in Farewell to the Flesh underplay the moments when the actual Candyman shows up, although his appearances are also played for quick scares rather than the more atmospheric moments in the original movie.