Candyman, the 1992 film adapted by Bernard Rose from Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden,” is perhaps one of the most underrated satirical horror films of the 1990s. Boasting crisp cinematography from Anthony B. Richmond, a haunting quasi-Koyaanisqatsi music score from Philip Glass (with Koyaanisqatsi-like aerial shots of Chicago housing projects reminding one of Pruitt-Igoe), and precise and intelligent direction from Rose, Candyman not only evolves Barker’s vicious take on white academic efforts to understand London slums, but dares to suggest that privileged efforts to understand life in the housing projects are indelibly linked to a more disturbing primordial journey that involves whether or not you’re willing to believe in an urban legend. Plunge into the unwashed lives if you dare. You will find yourself not only confronting the unexpected consequences of your empathy, but the hidden human costs of your interventions. I don’t think it’s an accident that Chicago is such an apposite location for Barker’s transplanted tale. Much as John Cusack and company effortlessly transplanted Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity to the Second City, Chicago, perhaps more than any other American city, evokes a misunderstood sector of society in a manner that is almost seamless.
And yet Candyman has escaped the kind of retrospective accolades one would assume that a complex film of its type would garner. It is not discussed with the same reverential susurrations that the knee-jerk film geek applies to Dario Argento, which is particularly surprising, given that this film is about as close to giallo as mainstream American film is likely to come. This was a film that Rose somehow managed to sneak through the studio system. The film’s racial subtext is unthinkable by today’s play-it-safe standards. Virginia Madsen’s academic colleague is African-American, but lighter-skinned than the residents in the housing project that Madsen’s character investigates. So is the kindly detective looking into the case, who turns hostile as events develop. It takes an assault on a white woman to get people investigating the grisly murders near the housing project. There are mirrors that likewise connote this double standard: a mirror is unsettled in Madsen’s apartment, but a gaping hole in a housing project’s bathroom permits Madsen to climb through a crevice into another graffiti-laden apartment. And it takes Madsen talking with African-American janitors to begin her investigations into the Candyman mystery. When Madsen is asked to remove her clothing by a by-the-book police officer, one is instantly reminded of Alex’s dressing down in A Clockwork Orange (a scene, incidentally, written by Kubrick that wasn’t in Anthony Burgess’s novel). And the film’s bitter finale is a wonderfully skeptical pisstake on how female martyrdom stacks up against upward mobility and class disparities. There is also something within Rose’s many false shock moments as Madsen probes further, as if to suggest that investigating beyond your class unfurls an entrenched fear.
It’s a shame that this highly revealing film has been forgotten, and it’s particularly egregious that there remains little room for a thinking horror film along these lines within today’s studio system.