“Candyman” is a classic horror movie about racism, abandonment, and Chicago.
I grew up in a really religious household, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I went to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, I went to Catholic school from second grade (CCD classes prior to that) through High School. The way I was raised just felt normal. Most of my friends were Catholic, or came from conservative families, or both. My parents were a little stricter in some ways than my friends’ parents, and I felt very little desire to rebel against them (out of very real fear of rejection/abandonment. Ironically, I got thrown out of the house for doing laundry at the wrong time and not for any petty teenage rebellion or high spirits. In retrospect, I could have lived it up a lot more and gotten the same result.). So when my parents banned almost every movie in existence, I didn’t really question it or try to sneak around to watch them. The upshot is that there are a ton of classic movies I have never seen. “Candyman” is one of them.
“Candyman” is a movie set in Chicago. Like the best urban fantasy and horror the city is a vital, integral part of the story. It’s almost a character in its own right. The movie opens tracking vehicles along the knotted tangle of expressways, moving from the South Side Northwards. Views of the luxurious high rise condos of the Gold Coast through protagonist Helen Lyle’s window; the cop car tooling down Lower Wacker Drive; Cabrini-Green, the setting of much of the horror; the University of Illinois at Chicago, pre-extensive external renovations; the bridges spanning the cold murky depths of the Chicago River; Stroger Hospital. Part of the character of Chicago is racism and segregation, and the movie digs much more deeply into issues like systemic racism and sexism than I was expecting.
Grad Students Helen Lyle and Bernadette Walsh are working on a thesis about Urban Legends, back when your average college student didn’t know what Urban Legends were. Helen’s husband, Trevor, is a professor at UIC. Despite her protests, he touches on Urban Legends in a lecture, cuing in potential interviewees/story tellers about what Urban Legends are and how they spread. He’s also very flirty with a female student, something he seems to have a history with. While transcribing tape recordings about a Bloody Mary-esque character named “Candyman” in her office, a cleaning lady mentions she’s heard about him. Intrigued and hungry for more data, Helen asks her and then another cleaning lady (who lives in Cabrini-Green) questions. They tell her a story about a woman who was killed by Candyman when he came in through her bathroom mirror… waiting in an adjoining apartment, removed the mirrored medicine cabinet, kicked her mirrored medicine cabinet out, and came through the hole. Helen does a bit of research and discovers that this is an actual thing that actually happened, and that the Housing Projects were so poorly made that the medicine cabinets were just set into holes in the cinderblock walls. There was nothing, no barrier, between the medicine cabinets. The victim called the police twice about the intruder, called 911 to report a break in, and was ignored.
I want to point out two things here:
1) Bernadette and the cleaning women are all Black, and the film passes the Bechdel test with wildly flying colors. Helen listens attentively to the cleaning women and treats them as experts in their knowledge, learns from them… but she’ll also be profiting from their story in a way they can’t, as she has access to academia and publishing and they don’t.
2) The bit about the congruent space between bathrooms? True. People WERE murdered by intruders punching through the bathroom cabinets. “Candyman” is based on a Clive Barker short story, a story written by an Englishman and set in England. Bernard Rose, another Englishman, wrote the script and directed the movie and did a fantastic job localizing the story. At the same time, he’s a white man who is literally profiting off the pain of Black people, sensationalizing actual horrific things that actually happened to actual people and making money off them in ways the people who experienced these things don’t have means of doing. Themes of abandonment thread their way through the film: people call 911 and are dismissed; Helen calls her husband for help and he’s off fucking a student; Helen and other people scream for help and are ignored; Trevor abandons Helen for his sexy perky-nippled student; multiple housing projects holding thousands of people are left to rot and decay, those within written off as unsalvageable human trash.
After a smug, condescending lecture from another man doing Urban Legend work, Helen decides that she and Bernadette are going to gather some first hand data and visit the Cabrini-Green projects, interview some residents, take some photos. This is a shockingly bad idea and Bernadette, who has actual brains in her head, does everything she can to convince Helen not to go. The two women wind up going together. A resident points out that every time white people come by bad things follow them, and this is very true as Helen’s actions rile up Candyman and cause problems for everyone, including herself.
The “real” history of Candyman, which omits his name and date of birth or death, is an absolutely unrealistic bit of unlikely circumstance and convoluted torture and murder, yet is told as unassailable fact by a man who studies Urban Legends and their hallmarks. The Urban Legend of a man breaking through a medicine cabinet is revealed to be true. UIC, a campus rich with Urban Legends of its own (both legends common to any campus with heavy use of Brutalist Architecture as well as more specific ones relating to the Behavior Science Building and Art and Architecture Building), is a wonderful choice as Helen and Bernadette’s college. Helen is attacked, but is not sexually assaulted or raped; she undresses on camera and it’s not titillating or voyeuristic. Her friendship with Bernadette is deep and loving. Helen repeatedly crawls through small openings, emerging from screaming mouths, born again from concrete birth canals. Helen fights to retain control of herself, of her mind, of her actions.
“Candyman” also explicitly questions the function of Urban Legends. Why are they so wide spread? Why are they so important? What do they mean, what do they offer? What if they are religion, a sacrament, something sacred and divine? What if we create god? What if our desires and fears manifest themselves as power and flesh, and become hungry? What if Urban Legends grant a special form of immortality?
It’s a fantastic movie.
It’s also not without its flaws.
One of the themes of the movie is that Candyman, a large Black man who is literally not human, preys upon and controls a white woman. He ruins her character, destroys her mind, posesses her, touches her body, kisses her. This is a pretty common, and pretty racist, fear about scary Black men despoiling white women. This could have been avoided by casting Helen Lyle as pretty much any ethnicity other than white, even made less obvious by darkening her hair. Urban Legends and stereotypes about sexually insatiable white-virgin-deflowering Black men abound. Does the movie knowingly play with this trope, or simply lazily fall prey to it?
Ultimately, I was pretty blown away by this movie and wish I’d watched it earlier. I was aware of its status as “cult classic,” and all too often that means “kind of shitty and very dated” (and so much about this movie IS dated, like UIC’s East Side architecture which as drastically been changed, or the fact that most of the housing projects have since been torn down and the ones close enough to the Gold Coast developed as luxury condos… which were supposed to be mixed-use with a certain percentage going to CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) tenants. That has overwhelmingly failed to happen, and a whole lot of people have been left homeless.). But there’s a lot about this movie to enjoy, to think about, and to unpack.
In my personal rating system for 31 days of horror, 5 stars means “buy this movie, it has good re-watch potential”; 4 stars means “rent this movie, watch it”; 3 stars means “find this movie for free, eh”; 2 stars means “skip it”; and 1 star means “ugh.” I’ve run across one movie that I thought deserved negative stars. “Candyman” is the first movie I felt deserved 5 stars. There’s a lot going on.
5 out of 5 stars for “Candyman.”
I’m really glad. I was getting super burned out by shitty, hateful, shallow gore horror and flapping tits.
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