Even after you watch the titular boogeyman of director Bernard Rose’s 1992 Candyman tear into victims with his gruesome hook hand, it’s inexplicably tempting to find the nearest mirror and speak his name five times just to see what will happen. Everything about Candyman explains why you shouldn’t do this. And yet there’s something about the urban legend at the centre of the tale that makes you understand, at least partially, how and why people end up uttering the Candyman’s (Tony Todd) name, and what makes him such an unforgettable character in a genre full of murderous ghouls from beyond the grave.
Before Candyman properly begins digging into the meat of its supernatural story, it introduces you to a vision of Chicago’s Cabrini–Green public housing project that the camera’s eye very deliberately frames as the dangerous, frightening space that graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) inserts herself into. Though Helen, an upper-middle-class white woman, would normally have little reason to wander into Cabrini-Green, a predominantly working-class and Black neighbourhood, her research into urban legends leads to her learning of the Candyman, a ghoul said to haunt the area. Much as the legends of the Candyman frighten Cabrini-Green’s residents — who all know the stories of him murdering those foolish enough to invite him into their homes — the lore almost calls to Helen, who the movie often depicts as being uncharacteristically brave for a person of her social background.
It’s very easy to see Helen as Candyman’s heroine as she becomes increasingly convinced that a string of recent murders in Cabrini-Green might be the actual Candyman’s handiwork and not just the result of gang violence plaguing the neighbourhood. But to fully appreciate Candyman as a horror masterpiece and a very nuanced piece of social commentary, it’s important to understand how Helen herself brings an early element of darkness to the story that’s best understood from the perspectives of Black characters like Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa E.Williams, who will also appear in Nia DaCosta’s update). The moment that Helen steps foot in Cabrini-Green, her whiteness — her otherness — within the space is one of the ways the film establishes an unsettling atmosphere that quickly becomes otherworldly. Candyman shows you repeatedly how Helen puts faith in her academic studies and perspectives in order to see “through” the stories she hears about the Candyman in order to suss out the more realistic “truth” that must be the explanation behind the murders and the legends’ prevalence.
None of these things prove to be enough to protect Helen from the actual Candyman, however, and he begins haunting her along with those living in Cabrini-Green. As the film unfolds, you can begin to see how, in a way, Helen is somewhat responsible for bringing in a new level of terror to the neighbourhood. Throughout the film, Anne-Marie and other residents repeatedly warn Helen that the legend isn’t something to be trifled with. In moments where Helen is told more or less to get out, Candyman is both speaking to the instincts that audiences would understandably have in response to seeing exactly what the Candyman does to people. But the movie’s also very knowingly giving voice to the reality that Cabrini-Green’s residents do understand what they’re dealing with in ways that Helen simply doesn’t.
When Candyman first released back in 1992, Hollywood was not yet rushing to pump out horror stories that turned the brutal realities of American racist history into cinematic nightmares the way it is today. But the movie’s explanation (which we won’t spoil) of the Candyman’s origins incorporates elements of the monstrous, anti-Black bigotry that was present at the country’s founding and shaped the way race and class function in our society.
Helen’s naivete about the Candyman’s origins, her connection to him, and how people unlike herself have been navigating the world differently ultimately become the most fascinating parts of Candyman’s plot, which turns into more of a psychological thriller in the final act. Watching Candyman now, you can see why Universal’s keen to revisit this world with DaCosta’s upcoming sequel. In a post-Get Out world, the next film’s themes are likely to hit harder and have a more chilling effect for audiences, and the same is true of the original, which is more than worth a rewatch.