“I am rumour. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.” — Candyman
Released just as the horror slasher sub-genre was ebbing away from popularity, and entering into a new stage of revision, Bernard Rose’s Candyman was a film that very much took its slasher identity seriously. The titular slasher villain may have been donned in an iconic fur jacket, though aside from this he was no insane convict, eccentric maniac or murderous fool, but, in fact, a victim of his own society’s oppression.
Adapted from the novel The Forbidden by Clive Barker, Rose’s film changes the original Liverpool setting to Chicago, following the story of a graduate student completing a thesis on urban legends and folklore. This leads her to the legend of the Candyman, the alleged ghost of an artist murdered for his relationship with the daughter of a wealthy white woman. He is a folklore figure, summoned by mischievous friends and lovers by uttering his name five times in a mirror before he murders the speaker using a hook attached to his arm.
For a fairly stereotypical horror tale, the narrative that Candyman explores throughout its runtime speaks of a more pertinent truth that exceeds its apparent slasher simplicity. Racism has long been a plague that has riddled the very roots of American identity, with the myth of the ‘dangerous black man’ being one that has permeated western culture for decades. In Bernard Rose’s film, this fear materialises into the embodiment of such a bogeyman, Candyman, a lost, tormented soul living in the underworld of reality, ready to seek revenge for the racism that put him there.
Investigating the urban legend, the college student Helen Lyle, played by Virginia Madsen soon discovers that the urban legend is indeed real, stalking her to the very edge of insanity. As the two individuals are drawn ever closer, Candyman’s identity is slowly revealed, detailing a brutal demise as the son of a slave whose hands are cut off by the father of his white lover, disgusted at his relationship with his daughter.
Following the removal of his hands, his body was smeared with honey and he was stung to death by bees before his body was burnt.
It’s a brutal backstory that doesn’t quite elicit the same fear of Mike Myers inherent insanity or Leatherface’s carnal madness, after all the origins of Candyman were born from the very real disease of racism. Though, by never revealing his real name, nor seeking harmony for his bloodshed, the audience is not asked to sympathise with Candyman.
The truth of such a film is hidden below its slasher exterior, with Helen Lyle representing the ‘white woman in peril’, demonising the black man for decades, including Candyman. No one helped the titular character when he was being chased by the racist violent mob, so decades later he is seeking revenge for his murder by punishing the white middle class, namely the lead character who is shaped in the villain’s image and wrongfully demonised.
It’s a powerful, terrifying moral tale that speaks to the injustice of racism as well as the stereotypes of such a community that only work to perpetuate further myth and prejudice. When such fear, lies and stereotypes are constantly presented by the modern media, such social in-fighting will never cease, the myth will live on like a perpetual disease.
If this all sounds rather pertinent, it’s because the subtext of Candyman has been relevant for centuries, making the film’s modern remake, directed by Nia DaCosta and written by Jordan Peele, perhaps one of the most important horror films of contemporary cinema.