During the 21st century boom of horror remakes with any sort of vaguely iconic bogeyman at their centre, be it Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s something of a surprise that the 1992 film Candyman never got the same treatment. One can just imagine a Platinum Dunes take with a Marcus Nispel or a Jonathan Liebesman at the helm, with a series regular from One Tree Hill replacing Virginia Madsen as the haunted heroine and Michael Kenneth Williams in the Tony Todd role. (Actually, I’d probably be down for seeing the latter.)
As someone who grew up in the 1990s, the eponymous killer of Bernard Rose’s film was actually one of the first movie monsters I had any awareness of beyond the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster that have obviously bled far more into pop culture. I didn’t see Candyman until my twenties, but I have a clear memory of being told about the Candyman by a child neighbour in the late 90s, and of the required citation of his name five times in front of a mirror that provokes his summoning.
I don’t know if this child neighbour, who was even younger than I was at the time, had actually seen the film, or either of its two sequels: Bill Condon’s fantastically titled Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and the straight-to-video Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999). At the time of writing, I can’t say I’ve been well acquainted with either of them myself, bar encountering their covers in the local video store of my youth and desperately trying to make a Twitter meme out of inappropriately adding “Farewell to the Flesh” to various film sequels: An American Tail: Farewell to the Flesh, Ace Ventura: Farewell to the Flesh, Weekend at Bernie’s II: Farewell to the Flesh, etc.
In a way, though, my initial experience with Candyman as a concept is perfectly befitting of the content of the film itself (again, only speaking for the first one here). Based on a short story by Clive Barker, Rose’s film is specifically concerned with urban legends, be they ones proven but a convenient cover for brutal crimes, or very much real and very much about to get you for trying to disprove their existence. As an adult viewer with a wider range of experiences and reference points than my pubescent self (this is what I tell myself anyway), what engages me most about Candyman now is the themes on the fringes of the urban legend focus.
From an auteurist standpoint alone, there’s interest in connecting it to other entries in Bernard Rose’s filmography. With his earlier 1989 effort Paperhouse and a 2015 take on Frankenstein that’s set in contemporary Los Angeles, the invasion of the supernatural upon urban living is clearly a big thing for the director when he’s not in biopic mode (Immortal Beloved, Mr. Nice) or off making one of his smaller projects with regular star Danny Huston (Ivansxtc).
Of more prominent interest, though, is the dizzying atmosphere Rose creates, one that has a lingering power that helps to overlook some issues with the story’s internal logic. There’s baroque imagery juxtaposed with cold structures that wouldn’t seem out of place in an early Cronenberg horror and traits of romanticism/classical melodrama peppered alongside subtle and not so subtle political undercurrents. Considering the late 1992 release date, with urban racial tensions at the front of American national consciousness once more thanks to the L.A. riots and the Rodney King beating, it’s not much of a surprise in hindsight that the film was a sleeper hit. In the current political climate, and indeed the current film industry climate, a psychologically energising genre film like this, that is so loaded with discussion of racial injustice and gender roles, stands out even more.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.