This is not the first time I have written about Bernard Rose’s Candyman. It was the subject of the final exam in my English Lit degree film studies unit at University. Unfortunately, unlike my essay on The Birds (read it here), my insights have been lost to time but it was a film I heavily analysed in preparation for the assessment and grew very close to. Sometimes studying a text can ruin your love of it, as with me and MacBeth at GCSE, but sometimes it truly makes you realise the brilliance of the work, like with me and Hamlet at A Level. The latter is definitely the case with Candyman. Of course a lot of this is down to the teacher and I have to credit Alan Fair as a great inspiration, not only for my views on film (which is not a professional pursuit) but for my approach to university teaching (which is).
I think it was Alan Fair who really taught me that there could be true artistry in mainstream movies (hence the choice of this film for our exam) as much as in art house cinema and this is definitely a key part of my outlook on films today, and something that certainly informs my blog.
Sadly I can’t really remember what insights into this movie he prompted in me but I’ve not watched it for a couple of decades and the imminent release of Nia DaCosta’s soft reboot of the franchise it started has led me to revisit it now.
I’m sure the focus of my analysis, sitting in that sports hall, scratching my ideas down on A4 lined paper, would have been around the idea of the demonisation of women. The then newly published The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis by Barbara Creed was a key text for the course (see again the aforementioned piece on The Birds). Virginia Madsen’s protagonist Helen is literally made into a killer in the film, the assumptions of those around her in various patriarchal institutions – academia, the police, psychologists – contributing to this just as much as the crimes that are pinned on her by the titular boogeyman.
Watching Candyman now though, my reading was more focused on its parallels with the concept I spoke of earlier, that of academic study either destroying or bringing a story to life. In the film Helen is writing a thesis on the urban legend of the Candyman, the ghost of a man whose father was a slave in the 1800s, was murdered in retaliation for his relationship with a wealthy white girl and who now returns to punish those who dare to repeatedly speak his name. Her position is that the people of the contemporary community in the Chicago projects unconsciously sustain this folklore to rationalise the high levels of violent crime in their area and to warn kids off transgressing. Just at the point at which her theory gains real credence, hence dispelling the myth and robbing the spectre of his power, Candyman decides to show how real he actually is and to use her to strongly reinstate his reputation. Alternatively he doesn’t and it is in fact her slashing up all these people, read it either way.
For those around her who are not similarly educated, her scholastic endeavours potentially undermine the strength of this cherished narrative but for those who are prone to their own intellectual engagement with the tales it becomes authentic in a way they’d never imagined. It is significant that it is the bookish people who are punished, possibly for their arrogance or their complacency, not those with more of an open mind. The scientific outlook comes at a cost but spiritualism protects those prepared to believe.
Candyman is conscious of its place in the genre too. The film starts with the horror/slasher trope of the randy babysitter being punished for her impropriety before belittling and discarding this in favour of larger targets. Of all the aspects this movie examines, it’s greatest is clearly that of race. This is something that the schlocky sequels lost sight of but Candyman deals heavily with race and class and pretty much literally skewers the white saviour. There are more qualified people to write about this than me but the most exciting thing about the new film, released late next month, is seeing what a black, and female, director and a black writer (Jordan Peele) will do with this story previously headed up by a white guy from London, adapting a book by a white guy from Liverpool. This is not to criticise film maker Bernard Rose or original author Clive Barker who both created something brilliant but it’s time to see a different point of view.
While a new version of Candyman might be a very welcome prospect for these reasons, the first film has kept its power and earned its legacy. I didn’t find it as scary as I did back in the day and by modern standards the horror is relatively tame (hold on for August 27th to see that overturned too) but it’s influenced can still be seen in current films. Others have compared it to Peele’s own Get Out for thematic reasons but it struck me how close this film is to Leigh Whannell and Elizabeth Moss’ The Invisible Man. There is much to admire in Candyman, from the restrained performances, the efficient script, the brilliant Philip Glass soundtrack and the neat semiotics. I’m glad I watch it again in preparation for the next instalment and I recommend you do too but in the end Candyman remains a text sweet for interpretation.