Candyman and Gothic Seduction in Modern Horror

From Bram Stoker to Clive Barker lets look into the thematic elements of Gothic seduction in the contemporary slasher flick - Candyman.

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Everyone knows that you shouldn’t say his name five times into the mirror unless you want to be on the wrong side of his hook-hand.

When we think of gothic horror, images of vampires in Victorian clothes embracing their victim in the dark kiss instantly emerge. Even taking the vampire out of the beautiful past still gives us the idea of the suave and sophisticated killer that can entice their prey into their fold. From the 1931 original Universal classic with the enthralling and demure Bela Lugosi to Gary Oldman’s many faces of the vampire (from aging and frail to young and seductive) in Coppola’s rich interpretation from 1992, Dracula has had a corner on the market of attraction.

Of course there literally tons of other vampires in films like The Lost Boys, Interview with the Vampire, Near Dark, The Hunger, From Dusk Till Dawn, and hundreds more, but vampires aren’t the only creature of the night out there. Enter Clive Barker.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I felt the urge to look back at the 1992 modern classic Candyman, a film without vampires, but through score and aesthetics felt gothic in nature to me. And with the buzz surrounding the upcoming Candyman sequel/remake/reboot/reimagining (co-penned and co-produced by Jordan Peele), this is a great time to revisit the franchise and absorb its ominous and alluring nature. So let’s take a look at the many incarnations of the Candyman, but beware – some spoilers below.

British author Clive Barker, who is known for blending the horrific and the erotic interchangeably in his unique literary work, is the source of the world of the Candyman. Note how the Hellbound Heart novella and Hellraiser films cross the line of pain and pleasure to entice the next owner of the puzzle box (aka the lament configuration) so that the cenobites can then punish them for their curiosity. From the immortal beings of Galilee to the epic quest for Quiddity in The Great and Secret Show and the hedonistic search for fame and pleasure of Coldheart Canyon, Barker has never shied away from the dark side of sexuality and life’s perversions. 

The Forbidden by Clive Barker, Photo Courtesy of Horror Bound
The Forbidden by Clive Barker, Photo Courtesy of Horror Bound

In his short tale “The Forbidden”, Barker takes on a different form of power known as thrall. Originally published in 1986 in volume five of the Books of Blood (released in America as In The Flesh), the Candyman is seductive and enthralling, even if he doesn’t show up till the very end of the story. His name and reputation build as you read the story of Helen, a graduate student collecting data on her thesis about graffiti in the inner city of Liverpool, England.

We spend much of our time with Helen as she tries to bridge the gap between the two classes – the poverty-stricken residents of low-income housing developments and the ivory tower of the bourgeoisie academics. She becomes less and less charmed by her companions that ignore the horrors going on in the city.

They cast a blind eye to the violence and crime that everyday people are forced to contend with to survive and nervously laugh off her stories of murder in the projects. One of the most obnoxious, Purcell, explains to Helen that she has been duped to believe in nothing more than an urban myth. Back on Spector Street, the residents live in fear that the Candyman will get them. Helen finds evidence of his existence in the graffiti she is documenting for her research.

“Sweets for the Sweet” is a repeated phrase that she encounters. She hears horror stories of murder by a man with a hook for a hand that mutilates his victims. As Helen continues to dig deeper to find answers, she eventually attracts the attention of the man himself.

In that first meeting, he quickly disorients and mesmerizes her. He instantly has her in his power as she is aware of a buzzing sound around him. She tries to fight him off, only to find herself drawn to his words and distracted by his presence. “I came for you”, he tells Helen. She knows she is in danger and must flee, but still can’t find the energy to leave.

He asks her to join him, to “Be my victim”, so that she too can become the thing of rumors and legends, but Helen can only whisper in response that she doesn’t want to die. He agrees to let her live but to at least leave him with a kiss. As he pulls her in, using his hook behind her neck, that is when she sees the bees in his rotting chest cavity. This is seduction and Helen is powerless to his thrall. 

This is the Candyman of Barker’s story. A boogeyman of sorts who is an urban legend that thrives off of his reputation and is glimpsed at in the graffiti of the slums of England. He remains uncaught because the poor hush up his actions and hide it from the authority figures outside. Helen has asked too many questions and has cut through the class lines to put the people she spoke to in danger. People get hurt because this upper-class University graduate student comes to a place that she does not belong. Her desire to better understand the art and words scrawled on the walls opens doors to a world not meant for her eyes.

Barker clearly shows the distinction between Helen’s world of University dinner parties and the housing complex of London’s ghetto. Helen tells her intellectual peers about the stories of murder and hooks that she has heard on Spector Street and they attribute it to lies and urban legends. They chalk it up to the poverty and violence in the city, but these things are out of their domain and therefore someone else’s problem. While race is not a part of the discussion, this original telling of the story is clearly about class differences in British society of the 1980s. 

 “Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman … Candyman”

You say it while looking in the bathroom mirror, an intimate place for an intimate act. The urban myth surrounds the intrigue of a mysterious figure that has a hook for a hand and bees in his chest cavity under the heavy coat of an aristocrat of a bygone era. A legacy based on a young man descendant of slaves that was a skillful artist who fell in love with a woman that was forbidden to him. His punishment was a despicable act by an angry mob. A curse would bring him back to prey on the living.

This spin on Barker’s simple tale for the 1992 film Candyman, written and directed by Bernard Rose, does something very rare in the world of a film adaptation, it expands upon and enriches the original source material. Coupled with beautiful cinematography and a haunting score of organs and operatic voices by the legendary Philip Glass, the film escalates itself to an artistic level that not many genre films of the 1990s even attempted (the aforementioned Bram Stoker’s Dracula is another that succeeds).

Candyman (1992)
Candyman (1992)

In this version of the story, we are still following graduate student Helen in her research. What is different now is that she is part of a two-woman team, with Bernadette, who is collecting an oral history of local urban myths. Among the collecting of stories, they discover the myth of the Candyman.

This leads the two women to visit Chicago’s housing project, Cabrini Green, where graffiti splashed walls tell of the Candyman and promise “sweets for the sweet”. We see many of the elements and scenes of Barker’s story brought to life within the film, from the pompous academic dinner parties with Purcell and Helen’s cheating husband to the young single mother that loses her baby and the bonfire in the middle of the night.

Here Helen and the Candyman’s relationship is more entwined though as he starts to implement her in his crimes. She is found at the scene several times and cannot account for how she got there or why she is covered in blood. This lands her in an institution but doesn’t end her relationship with the Candyman and his vicious hook. In the end, like in the short story, the Candyman gets his wish and Helen becomes a myth in her own right. And the film does a beautiful job of visualizing this new incarnation of Helen as a new horror to behold.

In adapting the story and moving it out of England and into America, Bernard Rose manages the daunting task of infusing American society of the early 90s into the existing story. These projects, unlike Spector Street in Liverpool, are divided not only by class but also by race. Cabrini Green is a black housing community. This had to be acknowledged in the film. One of the reasons Helen is not supposed to be here is because she is a white woman, and then her class sets her aside as well in that she comes from the University, a place of privilege.

Even her research partner, Bernadette, who is black, recognizes that they are crossing an invisible boundary and people do not want them there. The guys hanging out in the stairwells that see the women approach and judging by their car, their clothes and Helen’s skin peg them as cops and warn everyone that the police are coming. Of course, another aspect of American culture became part of the origin story of the Candyman himself. For him to be the son of a slave who falls in love with a white woman in the late 1800s and is then punished by an angry mob is uniquely American in nature.

This historical reference of time and place sets this telling of the story apart from the short story of its origin. Apparently actor Tony Todd had a large part in developing this backstory and explains his very close connection to the character over the years. Personally I wonder if the fact that the director of the film was a British man helped to enhance his ability to tell such an Americanized version of the story because of his outsider-looking-in perspective, giving him an objective ability to critique and comment that perhaps an American white male director would not have had – or would have felt able to approach.

Candyman (1992)
Candyman (1992)

Virginia Madsen’s portrayal of Helen is both powerful and believable. In a decade that would produce so many genre films about teenagers (such as I Know What You Did Last Summer), Candyman – much like Silence of the Lambs, features strong, independent adult women at their core. Helen is confident and motivated to prove herself in the male-dominated academic world. She will do whatever it takes to learn more than those that came before her.

She will not be daunted by these invisible barriers of race and class. In some ways, she comes across as naive to the world outside of her safe and controlled bubble, but she will push to understand and help to tell people’s stories that are not being heard (and that is what historians are meant to do). Madsen expresses all of this, while at the same time showing Helen’s humanity and her femininity. Her desire to have a happy marriage is evident, even as she tries to play off her husband’s obvious affairs with his students. Helen is doing all that she can do, in order to hold her life together, regardless of its flaws. And her strength and intelligence are both challenged in her encounters with the Candyman.

The Oxford Dictionary describes thrall as “the state of being in someone’s power or having great power over someone”. This vampire-like trait explains the command Candyman has over the female victims he desires. Much like Dracula’s pining for Mina who seems to be his long lost love reincarnated; the Candyman is drawn to Helen who holds an uncanny resemblance to his forbidden lover from the past. His ability to speak directly to her mind (much like a vampire) and ask her over and over to “Be my victim” shows that killing is not all that this monster has in mind. Sharing an eternal life together in blood…and bees…is an offer for Helen alone.

Tony Todd has become synonymous with the character of Candyman. From the first moment, you see him in the distance waiting for Helen in the parking lot, the audience to his drawn to his presence. From his height to his deep baritone voice, Todd is both imposing and alluring. It is hard to picture how anyone else could have filled those shoes. It is fascinating to learn how involved Todd was in creating his character’s backstory considering how it has become so much more central to the character with each film (as Todd was the only consistent member of cast and crew into the sequels). And anyone who has met Tony Todd at a convention can attest to his pride and love for the character and franchise he became the face of.

Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995)
Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995)

I would like to briefly take a look at the two existing sequels to the Candyman film. First is the 1995 film Farewell to the Flesh written by Rand Ravich and Mark Kruger. It was directed by Bill Condon, who would go on to make the wonderful film Gods and Monsters in 1998 that tells the story of an aging James Whale (the director of Universal classics including Frankenstein) and a handyman that he hires. It is a beautiful film that I highly recommend. I can also say that I do recommend Farewell to the Flesh to fans of the original film.

While it oddly relocates the entire story of the origin of the Candyman to New Orleans, the film keeps up the haunting score and lush cinematography. It is the story of an art therapy teacher whose brother is imprisoned for crimes the media attribute to the Candyman. At the same time, her students start to fear the myth of the man with the hook who comes to find you if you say his name five times into a mirror. Annie slowly discovers that her family has some very close ties to the Candyman legend and must survive as he tries to bring her to his side.

All of this happens during Mardi Gras and is narrated by a local radio DJ who throws in the necessary creole phrases and counts us down to Fat Tuesday. All in all, a solid sequel and film that stands up to a repeat viewing a decade later. If anything, I was disappointed to realize that much of the social commentary of the original short story and film has been dropped in favor of a simplified focus on themes of reincarnated love and the haunting request to “Be my victim”.

And now an even briefer review of the third installment to the Candyman saga, Day of the Dead from 1999. For years I had shied away from this film because of its awful reviews. I braved the waters of streaming video to complete my research for this article. I have suffered, along with my loving husband, so that you should not have to, dear reader. This film lives up to its horrendous reputation. A cardboard cutout of the previous films, this is just a run of the mill slasher. It is evident that all the class and charm of the first two films are gone from the opening credits. A hook slashes through the screen as a lackluster score plods us through. The film itself is shallow and features tired stereotyped characters.

The LA cops that harass local Hispanic community members are disgusting. The female characters are just large breasts and empty heads. The Candyman himself is more Freddy Kruger-like in this story (nothing against the Nightmare franchise, I am a big fan, but these villains were vastly different in past incarnations). Actually, the only high point for me was the casting of Jsu Garcia who played Rod in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. The story is something about the Candyman trying to get his great, great-granddaughter to, “Be his victim”. I am not even sure why he would want that, considering the past films were focused on women that he wanted to seduce. The moral of the story is to steer clear, faithful reader.

One bad apple does not ruin the bunch here though. The Candyman has done something that few movie series can boast and that is to become a part of pop culture. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t say his name five times into the mirror unless you want to be on the wrong side of his hook-hand. The original film easily stands the test of time and has joined the canon of modern classic alongside such other icons as Scream and Silence of the Lambs that exemplify the gems of the 1990s.

At the same time, the character himself has become on par with the boogeymen of a generation up there with Freddy, Jason and Michael. As I gladly still display my McFarlane figure of the Candyman (and save a space for Funko to make a damn Pop! already), I look forward to seeing what comes of the new incarnation of Candyman that will come to theaters later this year.

In one last note, I highly recommend two videos to everyone that is interested in diving more into the racial and social messages expressed in Candyman, both intentionally and subconsciously, and how today’s audiences can best unpack them in a modern world. The first is the highly acclaimed documentary Horror Noire on Shudder.

This is an amazing documentary that all horror fans need to watch. I also highly suggest picking up the Scream Factory special edition BluRay of Candyman for the extra titled “Urban Legend: Unwrapping Candyman” that features authors and professors Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. Both pieces do an excellent job of helping us understand how the film fits into history and still works today.

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