SALEM HORROR FEST: Candyman (1992)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This movie was watched as part of Salem Horror Fest. You can still get a weekend pass for weekend two. Single tickets are also available. Here’s the program of what’s playing.

I was just discussing slasher movies and their lack of blackness with one of my friends last week and we struggled to come up with many movies where there was a black killer. Sure, there’s Snoop Dogg’s turn in Bones, which is pretty much a remix of J.D.’s Revenge. Then we remembered — Candyman.

Bernard Rose has directed some really interesting films, like 1988’s dark fantasy of growing up Paperhouse. He was also behind the videos for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” and “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” before he met with Clive Barker, expressing interest in adapting the story “The Forbidden.”

While the original story is more of an examination of the British class system, Rose moved his story to the inner city of Chicago, where he could better focus on the racial, social and cultural divides of America. Some of its story was inspired by journalist Steve Bogira’s articles about the murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy in Chicago’s Abbot Homes housing project. In particular, the detail that she was murdered by someone who entered her apartment through the opening behind her medicine cabinet becomes an integral part of this story.

Amazingly, Eddie Murphy was the original choice for the titular role, but he was too expensive for the production. Enter Tony Todd. He told IGN that despite fears of being typecast, “I’ve always wanted to find my own personal Phantom of the Opera.” As he was concerned about the threat of being stung by the numerous bees he would contend with, he negotiated a bonus of $1,000 for every sting he suffered during filming. He’s a smart man — he ended up earning an extra $23,000.

Not to name drop, but I had the honor of working with Todd when he came to Pittsburgh to inaugurate the Pittsburgh Public Theater with a performance of August Wilson’s King Hedley II. I’d written a radio commercial promoting it and instead of struggling with a casting agency to discover the right voice, I inquired if Todd would be willing to do the recording session. He was happy to promote the play, as he’d acted in the same play on Broadway. However, the PPT had one condition.

I was told, “No matter what, please do not mention that horror movie he was in.”

I replied, “Do you mean The Crow or the remake of Night of the Living Dead?” Nobody got the joke.

So cut to me standing on the sidewalk of Liberty Avenue, waiting outside Todd’s hotel. Talk about nerve-wracking. Suddenly, he was ten feet away from me, his six foot five-inch frame even more imposing in person.

“Do we have time for a salad? I’m dying for a salad.”

Not the first thing you’d expect to come out of Candyman’s mouth.

Literally we were ten feet down the street, on the way to a restaurant when someone jumped in his way and started yelling “Candyman! Candyman! Candyman!” He laughed a jovial chuckle, signed a quick autograph and I said, “They told me you hated that movie and I shouldn’t mention it.”

He smiled and said, “Look, the first one is great. The second one isn’t bad. The third one? You gotta put your kids’ in college. I’m always happy to talk about a movie that let me live the life I live today.”

Of all the moments in my professional career, there is truly nothing quite like closing your eyes and hearing Tony Todd’s deep voice intone your words.

Thanks for indulging me. Back to Candyman.

Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a Chicago graduate student researching urban legends. She learns of the Candyman, a demon that appears whenever you say his name five times into a mirror, at which point he’ll stab you with the hook where his right hand once was. This tale is remarkably similar to the story of Mary Black from my rural hometown of Ellwood City, PA.

She begins to investigate the murder of Ruthie Jean, a resident of the Cabrini-Green housing project who two cleaning ladies believe was killed by the Candyman. She’s not alone — 25 other people have been killed in similar fashion.

That night, Helen and her friend Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons, who was in Silence of the Lambs and would go on to direct The Caveman’s Valentine) do the ritual, saying Candyman’s name into a mirror. Nothing happens.

As Helen begins her thesis: Candyman is a way to cope with the despair that Chicago’s  African-Americans feel as they struggle to survive in the projects. A professor shares the story of Candyman’s origins, which begin with him as the son of a slave who would soon become free and known for mass-producing shoes. He grew up free and became an artist of some fame before marrying a white woman in 1890; however, her racist father hired a lynch mob that cut off his artistic hand, replaced it with a hook and smeared him with honey. The stings of bees nearly killed him before he was burned alive and his ashes scattered across he fields where the Cabrini-Green now exists.

As part of her study of the legend, Helen meets Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa A. Williams, Melrose Place) and a young boy named Jake, who tells her the story of a young boy who was castrated by the Candyman. Helen is attacked by someone when she visits the scene of the crime but her attacker is human. He’s arrested based on her testimony and the world thinks Candyman is gone.

That night, as Helen is getting into her car, the real Candyman appears. She’s made people think his legend isn’t true and now innocent blood must be spilled so that he may survive. Helen wakes up in Anne-Marie’s apartment, covered in blood. The dog has been beheaded and her son is missing, so she attacks Helen, who is arrested by the police.

At each turn, Candyman comes closer and closer to ending Helen’s life as he snuffs out the existence of everyone around her. After she’s committed for a month, a psychologist interviews her to see if she’s fit for trial as she’s suspected in the death of her best friend Bernadette. She offers to summon Candyman to the unbelieving doctor who is soon dead at the hands of the so-called urban legend. I love this scene, as the formerly disbelieving protagonist of this tale has willingly given in to the unreality that her world has become. As for her husband Trevor, he doesn’t care at all — he’s taken up with one of his students in her absence.

Helen runs to Cabrini-Green where she discovers murals depicting the lynching of the human being who would become the Candyman. He appears and tells her to surrender to save the life of the child, offering her immortality as he opens his jacket, revealing an open ribcage filled with bees. He believes that Helen is truly his lover Caroline Sullivan, reincarnated and ready to become immortal at his side.

Candyman promises to release the child if Helen helps him incite more fear, but he decides that instead, he will set the entire project on fire. She saves Anthony by shoving the monster into the flames of a bonfire before it takes her life too. The residents of the apartment building all attend her funeral, throwing numerous flowers and finally Candyman’s hook into her grave.

At the end, Trevor must face both grief and guilt in the mirror, where he says her name five times. As he turns, his wife has appeared, along with Candyman’s hook. As we return to the projects, the graffiti of Candyman has been replaced by a woman with her hair on fire. Helen has now become part of the immortal world of folklore.

The music for this film comes from minimalist composer Philip Glass, who was upset that the film came off as a low budget slasher. However, he told Variety in 2014, “It has become a classic, so I still make money from that score, get checks every year.”

Madsen is really amazing in this film and used hypnosis and a trigger word to make her even more frightened for her scenes with Todd. However, this process was too much for her so she didn’t use it for the entire movie. The two actors also took ballroom dancing classes together to create an element of romance between their characters.

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