Candyman has a reputation among its fans as the last truly scary horror movie made. After viewing it for the first time since it was in the theaters, I may have to concur with this sentiment. I am also happy to note that it holds up well since its original release 12 years ago.
Virginia Madsen plays Helen, a graduate student at some unnamed Chicago University doing research into urban legends. She learns of the legend of Candyman, an evil spirit with a hook for a right hand, who will manifest himself if you speak his name five times in a mirror. He will then cleave you in two with his hook, steal your kidneys, leave a needle in your sofa, and make the water in your toilet flush counter-clockwise.
She discovers while researching that the residents of a slum neighborhood are attributing a series of gruesome murders to said evil spirit. She decides to follow this story out by going to a severely run-down and gang-infested building in the slum to talk to the people who live there and know of the murders. She also manages to summon Candyman, thereby setting up what should be a standard slasher movie plot, but takes some interesting turns off that well-beaten path.
Candyman she learns, is the vengeful spirit of a man who lived at the end of the 19th Century and made the mistake of being black and falling in love with the daughter of a rich, white man. He was tortured and murdered for his audacity. When Helen summons him, instead of gutting her as usual, he begins to seduce her in his own unique monstrous style. He literally puts her in his thrall; she blanks out, wakes up in a pool of blood not her own, and ends up having a whole lot of 'splainin to do to the police.
As anyone who has slogged through countless mediocre to downright bad horror movies knows, feelings of dread and terror can be difficult to successfully conjure on screen. Add to that the element of sex and things can turn silly fast. Just watch Bram Stoker's Dracula. One of the main reasons this movie works for me is it manages to find the right balance of monstrous and the sensual, something that I have found in Clive Barker's books but sadly lacking in most of the movies based on his works. A good deal of this balance was achieved by the casting of Virginia Madsen as Helen, an actress who to me holds a classical sort of elegance and beauty; and Tony Todd as the Candyman, an actor who possesses a deep voice, strong presence, and a face that is both strikingly tragic and handsome. I find it a pity that neither of them had managed to leverage a better career out of the success of this movie.
Some people might find Candyman too slow; I like the slow pacing as writer/director Bernard Rose lets the story take its time to unfold, saving the violence and gore for key moments to make scares more effective. There wasn't as much gore as I remembered; but I like being manipulated into thinking I saw more than I did. I was also impressed with Rose’s cinematography. The movie manages to take decaying and stark views of a cold Chicago and make it seem more gothic than your basic haunted castle. The Phillip Glass piano/organ/voice score helps give it that gothic feel as well.
I don't have any real complaints about this movie; it does go for some cheap scares like dogs or husbands (no cats in cupboards, surprisingly) leaping at a character from off-screen but it wouldn't be a modern horror movie without a little of that. It just missed for me being a complete classic because some of the voiceovers by the Candyman got to be a little too cheesy and over the top. Overall this movie worked for me; it gave me a fine, delightful sense of dread and didn't force the obvious subtext of racism, manifested especially in the white society fears of a black man/white woman romance. The fact that they made the black man a terrifying (but not entirely unsympathetic) evil monster I thought was a bold move. He was a victim of racism but his victims were the poor blacks who lived in this slum. Lesser filmmakers would have cheesed out and had his victims be unlikable white bigoted rednecks, or some other similar cop-out.
Candyman’s supporting actors do a good but thankless job (I found myself not really caring about anyone but Helen and Candyman). That including Kasi Lemmons who plays Helen’s best friend and research partner and veteran character actor Xander Berkely playing Helen's husband (late of “24”). He has made a career out of playing schmucks and doesn't disappoint here. Ted Raimi also shows up in a small part, surprisingly not playing a nerdy geek.
This DVD sports a few goodies for the special edition: a requisite commentary and 3 featurettes; one on the movie itself, another on the storyboards, and another on Clive Barker's career. There's nothing that special about the special edition except that all the principals: writer/director Bernard Rose, producer Alan Poul, Clive Barker (whose short story this movie is based on), and actors Todd, Madsen, and Lemmons made themselves available on both the commentary and the featurettes. Sometimes Special Edition extras sound obligatory and forced but the people who made this movie obviously considered it a labor of love and that makes the extras for this movie worth perusing.
In one of the featurettes Barker mentions that the MPAA kept wanting to slap an NC-17 on Candyman because of gory sequences. It's sort of a shame that a "director's edition" or at least deleted scenes weren't added here to show what they had to cut, but on the other hand, the finished film definitely doesn't suffer for lack of blood.
If you like a good gothic horror movie, I recommend this one, particularly if you have missed it. Those of us who like the genre but are mighty tired of angsty, fey undead with pointy teeth will find Candyman scary, erotic, and sad. Just be careful not to say his name in the mirror five times or he might show up to roast your poodle in the microwave.