Adapted from a short story by horror maestro Clive Barker and directed by Bernard Rose, Candyman opened in theaters in 1992. It shocked and scared audiences, including this viewer, who had never seen a horror film quite like it before. Rose expertly builds tension throughout the film, until the horror of it all finally grabs you by the throat and drags you straight down into hell. Candyman is also a penetrating look at urban legends, big city blight, casual and overt racism, gender politics in academia, and of course the absolute horror of being swarmed by bees.
The film shifts Barker's story from England to Chicago, where we meet our protagonist Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen in all of her 1990s glory), a young, white Chicago grad student researching urban legends. This leads her to the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, where the Candyman legend has been recounted in hushed tones by generations of residents. As the story goes, if you chant his name five times in a mirror, the hook-handed Candyman will appear. You might ask, why would anyone attempt this? For kicks and giggles and because it's just folklore, after all. Or is it? Helen quickly learns that folklore can be as real as a heart attack, as she descends further into the hellish nightmare world of Candyman. A professor tells her the story behind the man who would become Candyman (chillingly played by Tony Todd, in a role he'll always be synonymous with)—a Civil War era son of a slave who rose to prominence as an artist and inventor. He fathered a child with a white women and was then lynched by a white mob. They dismembered his painting hand, replacing it with a hook, before covering him in honey and letting bees sting him to death. His ashes were scattered across what would become Cabrini-Green. Residents tell Helen how they believe that Candyman has killed twenty-six people in the projects over the years. After she herself survives an assault from one of the Green's drug dealers while conducting research, Helen is then confronted by the man, the myth, the legend himself: Candyman. Because she's been telling people he's just a myth, he's decided to prove to her that he indeed exists.
After blacking out and waking up at the scene of a murder, Helen is arrested for the crime. This is only Candyman's first salvo in his deadly campaign to prove his point to Helen. More horror ensues, and each step of the way Helen falls deeper into the mouth of madness. We learn that Helen is quite possibly the reincarnation of Candyman's lover ("It was always you, Helen"), adding another layer of psychological horror to the proceedings. Candyman is an extremely effective horror film that also mixes in nuanced commentary on various societal issues. Helen's struggles as a young woman in a male-dominated academic world are explored. Psychological terror and physical violence are both utilized effectively in the film, while the racial injustices in America's past and present inform the film's content and message. It's gorgeously shot by Rose and cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond, and eerily scored by the legendary Philip Glass. Dread hangs like a black cloud over the film at all times, in scenes in dimly lit apartments or campus lecture halls, or when Helen enters a world she can't possibly understand in the Cabrini-Green projects, or when she finally descends into an abyss of chaos and horror. The film's ominous tone never lets you relax, even for a moment.
I won't reveal any more plot points because I don't want to ruin the deliciously malevolent twists and turns in the latter part of the film; you really should seek this one out for yourself. Candyman was a sleeper hit in theaters and still regularly pops up on best-of horror movie lists. Since its release, it's lived on as a cult classic in horror movie fan circles. It's also a fairly unique film in the annals of horror - it's hard to think of any others that take these particular elements -- racism, classism, sexism, urban mythology, and of course horror -- and assemble them together as well as Candyman does.