Short of Rawhead Rex, which I love but author Clive Barker apparently hated, Candyman for me is the ultimate movie based on his work. In 1992 it was surrounded mostly by desperate attempts to keep 80s franchises alive as well as a new breed of “slashers” that weren’t going for scares, but instead looking to create charismatic, humorous, celebrity killers that could be milked into long-running franchises. Blech.
The original Candyman explores everything from slavery and systematic oppression in the modern day to the chronic case of white privilege that permeates the existence of everyone in society to this day. And it taps into the power of urban legends six years before Urban Legend.
Seriously, it pretty much begins with a scene in an urban legend class (the teacher here uses alligators in the sewers as an example). That might explain why Natalie and Brenda have a “mirror moment” in Urban Legend—a sort of nod to this film having touched upon the subject first.
What’s interesting is that while the urban killer victimizing people in the projects in this fictional tale was actually a victim of the white man—we learn Candyman existed just post-slavery and was lynched by a white mob—there was a real-life “Candy Man” killer who doesn’t get the attention of Dahmer or Gacy, but whose crimes were just as heinous. Yes indeed, he was the monster walking among us, but no one knew because he was a well-respected, mild-mannered white man.
Back in fictional Candyman land, Virginia Madsen is doing a thesis on urban legends and narrows it down to the legend of Candyman, who terrorizes people of color in the projects. You have to wonder why a black man killed by white men would target his own people, but it sure does make for a chilling journey to the side of town no white people ever want to go.
Honestly, the look at the experience of living in the cold, stark Chicago projects—which barely scratches the surface—sets an absolutely chilling tone for this film. I love that our first introduction to the city comes from a perspective above it and looking down on it—just as at the beginning of West Side Story, another film about culture, race, and socioeconomic clashes.
It’s the complexities of how “the bad side of town” infiltrates and destroys the charmed life of an educated white girl that make this a much deeper film if you care to look beyond the terrifying presence of Tony Todd as Candyman. The moment he first appears to Madsen in a parking garage is a scene that has stuck with me ever since the first time I saw the film back in the day, and the scene still holds up big time.
While much of Candyman’s pursuit of Madsen is reminiscent of the dream state in which Freddy Krueger torments his main girls, Candyman doesn’t want to kill her, he wants to tear her world apart. There’s also an Elm Street 2 “kill for me” concept, however this isn’t a body count movie.
Candyman kills some black people along the way, but ultimately his vengeful goal is to get at the heart of what makes the white man tick—the beautiful, blue-eyed blonde woman he not only covets but who also gives him life to begin with. There’s a whole lot to unpack there in terms of racial history. Of course the sequels feel the need to spell it out…
CANDYMAN: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH (1995)
Directed by Bill Condon, whose next film would be Gods and Monsters, this one definitely suffers from some sequelitis and isn’t nearly as effective as the first film because it starts to deconstruct the creepy mystique of the antagonist. Even so, it does stay true to the themes of the original.
The obligatory “catch up” comes from an author at an event discussing the legend of Candyman and how people all over the country have been killing in his name. For continuity, he references Virginia Madsen’s character as a prime example. Then, to entertain his audience, he uses the conveniently reflective jacket of his book to say Candyman 5 times (which really feels like excessive repetition considering Bloody Mary only needs to hear her name three times to be summoned).
A brief appearance by an author as the reason Candyman is unleashed upon the blonde white main girl is definitely one of the absurd sequelitis moments.
Conveniently, the main girl has a direct connection to the story of what was done to Candyman. The plot has moved from Chicago to New Orleans to delve into Candyman’s past as the son of a slave. Our main girl, an art teacher whose mother is played by Veronica Cartwright, learns her family’s old plantation is directly linked to Candyman’s horrible murder, which makes her of great interest to him now.
Art depicting Candyman plays a part in all three films, each blonde lead has a black girlfriend, a young child of color comes into play in all three films, swarms of bees are a staple of the series, and Candyman has the same plan for each girl—kill those she loves and destroy her.
The mesmerizing and haunting score from the first film is reused here, but that doesn’t help this one any, because it simply isn’t frightening like the first movie. The main girl runs all over town trying to learn the truth while being stalked by the killer. You know things are getting a little off track when the final act includes the main girl going into underground caverns on a hunt for a hand mirror. Ugh.
That ridiculous new aspect of Candyman’s story aside, Farewell to the Flesh does a really good job of presenting to us the horrible things Candyman endured at the hands of white people. We also find out interracial relations played a part in the animosity toward him. Scandalous.
CANDYMAN: DAY OF THE DEAD (1999)
Normally I would bash this type of sequel, especially considering it comes in the wake of the great slasher resurgence kicked off in 1996 by Scream.
Hell, this film begins with Donna D’Errico of Baywatch running around in a tight T-shirt and panties in a dream sequence, followed by a sort of trip hop theme over the opening credits. Candyman definitely has changed, which could be explained by the fact that this one comes to us from the writer/director of 1995 popcorn flick Sleepstalker.
Day of the Dead feels more like a hokey horror film from the early 90s than the late 90s, relegating Candyman to a mere slasher killer, but damn does it do it in a fun, brutally gory way. It most definitely delivers in the kill zone in a way the first two films didn’t, and even throws in the obligatory T&A.
Donna plays a distant relative of Candyman, and I would have guessed that she’s supposed to be the daughter of the main girl from the previous film, but I’m not quite sure if that’s the case.
Either way, Donna is an artist who wants to expose the truth about Candyman the man, not Candyman the monster, through the use of her art.
Unfortunately, the guy who owns the art gallery wants to exploit the killer’s dark side. So they compromise…and she ends up doing the old mirror trick during her art show to prove she doesn’t believe he was evil. Sigh.
Interestingly, this final sequel takes the focus off black identity and shifts minorities to focus on the Latin community. Donna befriends the incredibly handsome Rod from A Nightmare on Elm Street, who tries to help her when Candyman starts coming for her by introducing her to his spiritual healer grandmother.
The plot basically plays out like a rehash of the first film with a fun slasher edge to it. The kills rock, there are some good jump scares, and Candyman’s first appearance to Donna in a rundown subway station is nearly as effective as the parking garage scene in the first film.
Not surprisingly, like most cheesy slashers of the 90s, the ending goes a little overboard, even throwing in unnecessary, obnoxious characters just to raise the body count.
Day of the Dead seems to at last get to the root of why art plays a part in all three films, but on the other hand, I was disappointed when it presents flashbacks to what originally happened to Candyman…because there’s no continuity with how it went down in the first two films! In those he was tied down in a field during the day and left to die. In this film he’s strung up crucifixion style at night! Come on! Details matter to franchise lovers, so there was no need to offer this brief, totally inaccurate flashback in the film that killed the franchise.