Jennifer Upton made her debut in last year’s Halloween Horrors series with a look at Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath. We are thrilled to have her returning for a second year, this time presenting us with this year’s second trip into the world of Clive Barker.
Today’s post will be looking at 1992’s Candyman. Not even marginally coincidentally, that film saw its US release 27 years ago today, on Oct 16th 1992. While I can’t say that I was among those that saw the film on its opening night, I was there for a matinee on Oct 17th, 1992…. and have been a fan of the film and its vision of the character (I read the story first) ever since.
Born and raised in the US, but now living in the UK, Jennifer looks at the Candyman’s own relocation from the story’s Liverpool setting to the film’s backdrop of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green. For anyone unfamiliar with Clive Barker’s original short story, “The Forbidden”, let’s just say that the character underwent a few changes as well.
Candyman: Evolution Through Adaptation
As long as the horror film genre has existed, it has engaged in the adaptation of novels. Rarely does the film do justice to the original source material. Some not only bring the story to life, but expand the story in new and exciting ways. Based on a short story published in 1985 titled The Forbidden by British author Clive Barker, Candyman is such a film.
British screenwriter/director Bernard Rose not only faithfully adapts Barker’s original story, he uses it as a foundation on which to build a broader, more in-depth one which is in many respects scarier and more socially thoughtful than its prototype.
In both versions, the protagonist Helen is a married graduate student working on her dissertation on graffiti in run-down urban housing estates. Her Professor husband, Trevor, is cheating on her and she is at constant odds with the other academics in her department at the University. Determined to produce something new and different in her field and show them all up, she bristles at their condescension.
During her first visit to Spector Court, she discovers the repeated slogan “sweets to the sweet” and is mesmerised by the mural of an open-mouthed man with a doorway at its center. She gets to know several residents, including a single mother named Ann-Marie who tells Helen unconfirmed stories of the horrific murder of a mentally disabled boy in the playground’s men’s room the previous summer. At first, Helen believes there is a connection between the mural and the stories. When she returns to follow up, she receives the cold shoulder from Ann-Marie and the other estate inhabitants who were previously forthcoming. They won’t speak to her. Helen feels as though they’ve played her the fool. She returns home defeated, only to see a report on the news that someone has murdered Ann-Marie’s baby. She returns to the estate again. This time, she meets the Candyman himself who has no backstory other than to exist without existing.
The Candyman attempts to seduce Helen and expresses his appointment in her disbelief of him. He can only exist if his ‘congregation” of downtrodden residents perpetuate new and even more horrible tales of his deeds. In the conclusion, he kills Helen beneath the bonfire built by the residents for their annual Guy Fawkes celebration – a gruesome tradition in its own right where children burn the effigy on an anti-government conspirator who tri8/7ed to blow up Parliament in 1605. The existence of the bonfire makes less sense in the film adaptation’s new setting of Chicago, although the narrative doesn’t suffer for it. Barker’s idea of using an urban legend to represent an oppressed population’s anxiety transcends geographical boundaries.
In fact, the film eclipses the short story precisely because of the new setting. In moving the location from a run-down Liverpool housing estate to Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green, the racial make-up of the housing estate changes, creating new and deeper sub-textual meaning. Despite being British and white, Rose greets the broader implications of America’s history of slavery and the Jim Crow era head on, using wide overhead angles to visually represent the microcosm of the neighborhood within the context of the wider world. He also gives the Candyman a tragic backstory. In life, he was an artist raised in polite society. After falling in love with a white woman and fathering her child with her, her racist father cuts off Candyman’s hand and covers him with bees who sting him to death. He is not inherently evil, rather a victim of violent racist crimes committed against him.
As in the short story, Helen invokes him by her disbelief, but Rose cleverly adds the element of the “Bloody Mary” children’s game, where saying the name of a spirit into a mirror repeatedly will conjure it. He also adds a new layer of jeopardy for Helen, by having the police accuse her of several murders and the kidnapping of Ann-Marie’s baby. These added elements make for a much more tense affair for the audience, although the film version spares the baby in a less gruesome ending.
The best aspect of the literary version that the film captures perfectly is the tone. Clive Barker is a vivid, elegant writer. He crafts his sentences with the care normally reserved for Romantic-era poets like Byron or Keats rather than horror writers. Characteristics such as this are usually difficult to translate from page to screen. Philip Glass’s score sets this tone perfectly. Glass composed the main theme prior to the start of shooting unaware that he was working on a horror film. The crew listened to the main theme on set while filming. Without this score and its deceptively simple contrapuntal arrangements, Candyman would not succeed nearly as well as it does.
In terms of narrative, both versions tackle basic human fears: fear of a spouse’s infidelity, of losing a child, large dogs, career failure, outsiders, and especially the fear of being alone in a bad neighbourhood. The movie adds to the list the fear of losing one’s mind, being accused for things we didn’t do, the fear of undressing in front of a stranger in bright light, and especially the fear of outsiders. Rather than a racially motivated distrust, they green Helen in The Forbidden with a distrust common in countries with historically class-based societies. Despite being of the same race, the inhabitants of Spector Court perceive her as an upper-class educated outsider, and therefore do not trust her intentions. Conversely, she fears them to be violent, uneducated thugs. At one point she even breaks down crying in the middle of the barren estate, knowing full well that she doesn’t belong there.
Although not rooted in skin colour in the short story, Rose has stated in interviews that this type of fear is one of the “fundamental building blocks of racism” and it therefore makes a seamless transition into the film’s new setting. Candyman in now a literal manifestation of the historical trauma of an entire race of Americans. A tragic hero looking for the love denied to him all those years ago. Helen is a reincarnation of his lover and he fulfills Helen’s need for the devotion that Trevor cannot give her.
In both versions – as in real life – urban legends are stories that help populations deal with their historical traumas and fears through oral tradition. The ghosts in these stories haunt us. If we cease to pass on these stories, the ghosts lose their power and die. Hence, Candyman’s declaration to Helen that he must “shed innocent blood” to stay alive in the hearts of his “congregation”.
In the story, Helen dies with no fanfare, her screams drowned out by the roar of the flames, the residents unaware of her presence. The last thing she sees between the burning timbers is Trevor asking the residents if they’ve seen her. In the film, Helen saves the baby and becomes the new legend/hero of the residents of Cabrini-Green. They pay homage to her by dropping a hook onto her casket at her funeral. She later returns to seek revenge on Trevor- now shacked up with a new grad student and played with the usual slimy zeal of actor Xander Berkeley. A much better ending given all Helen’s suffering.
The original film was released in October of 1992, mere months after the Rodney King trial verdict riots in Los Angeles. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It spawned two sequels that were nowhere near as interesting or well-received, the latter going straight to home-video release.
In 1995, the city of Chicago demolished Cabrini-Green. Very few of the residents were re-housed in the newly gentrified area despite promises to contrary. 2020 will see the release of a Candyman “spiritual sequel” cum reboot written and produced by director Jordan Peele. If anyone can update the Candyman mythos within an updated social context, it’s Peele. His films Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) were scary, entertaining, and thoughtful representations of the African American experience in modern American society. It will be interesting to see how the story evolves further from its origins and how much Peele will draw from The Forbidden versus the original film.
For modern audiences, films are the medium through which horrifying myths and urban legends survive. Through adaptations, remakes, and re-boots their crimes are told and retold by their faithful believers. We – the audience are the new congregation. Will we still believe in 2020? Time will tell.