Here’s where I admit something terrible: out of all the great horror films that have come out in the last several decades that have given birth to beloved genre icons, Candyman was the one I was the least familiar with. I think I had only ever watched it twice until the recently released Collector’s Edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory, and the first time, I was on a date, so admittedly, I probably didn’t spend a lot of time paying attention to what was happening on the screen (and the second time was about 15 years ago). But as I immersed myself in all things Candyman over the last week, it was akin to that thrill you feel when you discover a 20 dollar bill in an old coat pocket, where you experience the rush of unearthing a treasure that has been there all along, but you had never quite realized it until you’re in the moment.
Basically, I always knew that I liked Candyman, but the time I’ve spent with this new Blu release has, in my eyes, further solidified it as one of the greatest horror movies to have been released in the last 30 years. Haunting, provocative, and featuring the best horror score committed to celluloid since John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, Candyman is just incredible filmmaking all-around, and I am wholly smitten with what director Bernard Rose was able to achieve with his thoughtful and transgressive horror film that forever changed the landscape of genre cinema.
Chances are, if you’re reading this site, you pretty much know the hook to Candyman (pun intended). A graduate student named Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is researching urban legends for a major project when she stumbles across the story of the Candyman (Tony Todd), an evil entity bearing a hook for a hand that appears after you call his name five times into a mirror, with the intention of killing his summoner. Helen learns that a woman named Ruthie Jean was brutally murdered in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, with residents suspecting that the modern mythological figure is behind the woman’s shocking death, and Helen sets out to investigate the story of Candyman and the circumstances of Ruthie Jean’s grisly demise with the help of her friend and fellow grad student Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), after making the mistake of testing fate by trying to summon the titular character the night before.
As Helen begins to dig into the truth of Candyman’s existence, she succumbs to his overwhelming power, and as he commits horrific acts to those all around her, she’s blamed for the bloodshed, stripping away everything in Helen’s life that she holds dear. It becomes quite clear to her that in order to stop Candyman, Helen must make the ultimate sacrifice in order to keep humanity safe from his vengeful reign of terror.
Some of my very favorite stories are rooted in urban legends (thank you Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark for fostering that love at a very early age!), which is why I am so surprised that even though I enjoyed Candyman, it wasn’t a film I revisited often over the years. And I regret that, because at its core, it’s such an interesting project when you compare it to many of its contemporaries, and its impact on the genre as a whole still reverberates to this very day. It’s a film with a lot of layers to it, and its historical significance to how it helped shape the horror genre cannot be emphasized enough. It pushed the boundaries of genre storytelling and dared to give birth to a new icon in a time when studios had grown tired of many of the popular figures of modern horror, further cementing itself as one of the great horror films of its time.
At its core, for as visceral and downright nasty as Candyman gets at times, the film is ultimately a love story, with its villain (or hero, depending on how you view Todd’s character) pursuing our heroine Helen in hopes of having someone to share eternity with. A romantic horror icon for the ages, akin to classic characters like The Phantom of the Opera or Dracula, and even in some ways, Jerry Dandrige in Fright Night (the fact that both films utilize imagery of the past to connect its antagonists to their potential love interests made me giddy, especially when I got some Dandrige vibes from Helen seeing the portrait of Todd’s character’s past love). Todd brings an unparalleled gravitas and physicality to the character of Candyman that remains unmatched to this very day. In some ways, he was the “Freddy Krueger” for a new generation, and I think what makes his performance and Candyman so special was the fact that for the most part, it was Tony Todd being Tony Todd.
With other characters like Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, and even Chucky in some ways, those actors had the benefit of full makeup to help them make their villains fully blossom onscreen, but for Todd, we spend most of our time just looking at his visage. Sure, I know he has that badass chest of bees and that gnarly hook hand, but what makes Candyman truly stand out has little to do with the effects and everything to do with Todd’s onscreen presence. It’s remarkable.
On the other end of the spectrum is Madsen, whose performance as Helen is equally remarkable, and the perfect yin to Todd’s yang in Candyman. I know a lot has been made of the film’s eponymous villain/hero, but Madsen deserves just as much credit for her work in the movie (and the fact that she allowed Rose to hypnotize her several times during production never ceases to amaze me). It may not be something that many folks may realize, but as I spent many hours with the film over this last week, I came to realize that Candyman is also a truly unique celebration of women, particularly through the characters of Helen, Bernadette, and Anne-Marie (played by Vanessa A. Williams, who I enjoyed on Melrose Place). These are all strong, capable women in very different ways, and Rose really leans into that with his script.
And it’s most likely no coincidence that most of the men here are all condescending and dullards, making Candyman something of an unconventional celebration of women—or in this case in particular, the celebration of Helen Lyle (once I dug into one of the vintage behind-the-scenes featurettes, my suspicions on that were ultimately confirmed). The film starts off with Helen’s husband, Lyle (Xander Berkeley), a professor at U of I at Chicago, being so dismissive of her capabilities and the work that she was doing with her thesis that he decides to do his urban legends curriculum even though she asked him to hold off until she could finish her research. And even Candyman himself really is no match for Helen; he continues to strip her life away from her in an attempt to make her ripe for his picking, even telling her at one point, “All you have left is my desire for you.” And like a goddamn champion, Helen keeps on fighting Candyman and his all-consuming power over her, willing to literally go through fire in order to make things right. Her appearance in the final moments of Candyman is piercing and poignant, and I would have loved to see Helen become an iconic villain in the future. She deserved that.
Of course, Candyman is also a film about the horrors that the residents of Cabrini-Green face on a daily basis, and how they utilize the legend of the man with a hook for a hand to deal with the struggles of their everyday lives. What’s also interesting is that Candyman is one of the first instances I can think of where the idea of gentrification was addressed through the medium of film, and that makes it incredibly noteworthy. In my past life, I worked with several organizations on Chicago’s Near North and West Side that fought against the white-washing of their neighborhoods (I was an associate at a PR firm that dealt mainly with non-profits and community activism groups), and that’s how I learned through first-hand experience just how detrimental gentrification can be (it’s also something I’ve seen happen a lot here in the Los Angeles area, particularly in Echo Park and where I live now in the Valley, with houses that used to sell for $150,000 now costing upwards of $500,000). And kudos to Rose for not only tackling that subject (and many others) at a time when it wasn’t necessarily “in fashion” to do so, but he also smartly ran all the racial politics in the script past Kasi Lemmons first, which I think was another reason why this story feels like it's rooted in a tangible and very real sense of terror.
So now that I’ve prattled on long enough about Candyman the film, let’s dig into all the gory-ious goodies contained within Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition release. The picture quality is, as expected, gorgeous, but I will admit I’m not sure how it compares to other versions (clearly it’s miles beyond the DVD version I watched back in the early 2000s). I just know it looks great here, so there’s that. We also get the inclusion of the unrated cut of Candyman, which essentially just amps up some of the gore scenes a little bit, but that’s really about it. It’s still fun that it’s included here, though, even if both versions are pretty much tantamount to each other.
There are also a ton of commentaries in the Collector’s Edition that should keep longtime fans busy for hours and hours. The two that I went back and listened to included the vintage commentary featuring Rose, Clive Barker, and producer Alan Poul, as well as Todd, Madsen, and Lemmons. Truth be told, I was so caught up in their conversations throughout that track that I forgot to take notes like I usually do, but suffice to say, it’s well worth a listen. I also dug into the brand new commentary that features just Rose and Todd, which was recently recorded (they talk about seeing Avengers: Infinity War, so it definitely wasn’t that long ago). This track is a bit of an odd-duck commentary because there is some great discussion of the film, but the duo often end up chatting about some current events which ultimately dates the conversation (and part of it delves into the rise and fall of Kevin Spacey in a manner that I admittedly wasn’t a huge fan of). They do talk a bit about Jordan Peele and Get Out at one point, though, so I think that’s interesting that he was someone that came up in conversation before it was officially announced that he would be producing the recently announced new Candyman film. And there’s also some back and forth on how exactly Candyman would have sex to boot.
There are also a bunch of featurettes included on each disc of the Collector’s Edition of Candyman; on the theatrical cut disc, there’s a bunch of previously released material that I had fun poring through, and the unrated cut disc is home to all the new featurettes, which includes new interviews with Todd, Madsen, Lemmons, and DeJuan Guy (who plays Jake in the film) that I enjoyed immensely. I also thought the mini doc featuring author Douglas E. Winter discussing Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” (upon which Candyman is based) was pretty interesting stuff as well (he was close friends with Barker and that friendship helped inspire him to fight for same-sex marriage rights in Georgia years ago). The critical analysis of Candyman from writers Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due is also a really interesting deep dive into the impact and influence Rose’s film has had on cinema, and on the sociopolitical issues at the time of its release as well.
As a whole, this release of Candyman feels like the definitive celebration of a film that was truly ahead of its time and gave birth to one of the most important and brilliant heroic horror villains of all time, and Scream Factory should be lauded for their efforts to deliver everything a fan could possibly want out of this set. Sweets to the sweet, indeed.
Movie Score: 4.5/5, Disc Score: 5/5