Horror Movies for Feminists: Candyman (1992)

Synopsis: A pair of grad students, Helen and Bernadette, are writing a paper on urban legends. Thanks to a tip, they explore the famed Cabrini-Green public housing development in Chicago on a hunt to find out more about “Candyman”, the ghost of an artist and son of a slave who was murdered on that land in the late 19th century. The pair call his name in a mirror according to legend, and he appears to Helen wanting more.

Why feminists will watch:

“Candyman” is a big one in the modern horror canon. It’s based on a story by modern horror master Clive Barker, adapted and directed by romantic British filmmaker Bernard Rose, and stars young Virginia Madsen. But perhaps more important to casting, it stars Tony Todd, a wonderful Black American character and voice actor who stands 6’5″ and absolutely looms over Madsen’s character while he compels her to (spoiler alert) join him in the glory of death. Todd plays the titular Candyman straight – he’s a gentleman and an artist, a dark, ghostly, romantic figure in the vein of Dracula who takes pleasure in seducing his favorite victim.

The race politics in this movie are extremely problematic, but nevertheless it’s likely modern viewers will enjoy seeing this version before Jordan Peele takes a swing at remaking the source material. One wise review (that I read and cannot find again) suggested that what makes the 1992 version of the movie “scary” is racism – that if you don’t find housing projects and graffiti scary, that if “Africanized bees” and hints of gang culture don’t give you the willies, this movie will not frighten you. A lot has changed since 1992: we are an increasingly urban, multicultural society and the othering of urban life doesn’t have the storytelling impact it used to. So modern viewers need to understand not only that Cabrini-Green was a racist symbol of and shorthand for “black pathology,” a place so infamous and vilified that it was built up in the popular imagination as a place of real life horrors, and that in “Candyman,” the projects take the place of the dark, old haunted house on the suburban hill, and this change in venue informs every piece of this movie. As the viewer learns more about the residents of Cabrini-Green and the challenges they face (though a better director would have shown more humanity in the residents), the movie reveals how Candyman died: he was the subject of a horrific lynching after being accused of sleeping with a white woman.

A wise friend of mine once pointed out in conversation the scholarship that suggests that for black and brown people, what counts as “horror” is already very much present and with us, that we are, in many ways, actually living in the post-apocalypse. “Candyman” toys with this idea, and it’s the stuff of contemporary horror films like “Get Out” and “Us” today.

Also:

  • The 90’s fashion in this movie is excellent. From the interior design, to the great cold weather knitwear, the hair, the shoulders, the romantic 90’s goth touches, fashion nerds will have a lot to gaze upon while watching this movie.
  • Another notable flair: the soundtrack was written by none other than Philip Glass, and while he wasn’t thrilled that his music was put to a slasher film for teenagers, it is genuinely good and adds another level of tension to this stylish ghost story.

Is it gory? Yes. It’s both scary and gory, and I didn’t even mention the bees. There are bees.

Is it problematic? Yes, see above. But if you’re a Peele fan, it will be fun and worthwhile to spend some time with this version before enjoying the next one.

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