MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Horror/Stars: Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Vanessa Estelle Williams, Kasi Lemmons, DeJuan Guy, Gilbert Lewis, Carolyn Lowery, Stanley DeSantis, Ted Raimi, Michael Culkin, Bernard Rose, Eric Edwards, Rusty Schwimmer/Runtime: 99 minutes
I think it’s safe to start this review off by asking you a series of questions movie goers: what if an urban legend managed to become part of the “real world” provided of course a fair amount of people provided the legend with belief? Speaking of that belief what if the sheer amount of belief was enough to make something we think is not real become real and in the process really do quite the number on the proverbial barrier between what is real and what is imagined? Above all though: How exactly would an urban legend react to countless people consistently trying to disprove it’s very existence if it had the opportunity to do so in a way that was in equal measure downright horrific and bloody? Suffice it to say that in the long gone year of 1992 these were questions that a British film helmer by the name of Bernard Rose who had shown a distinct stab at the horror genre of movie magic with a trippy yet unnerving film from 1988 known as Paperhouse and a talented cast and crew set out to answer in the form of a slice of cinematic pie known as Candyman. The result was no more and no less than a wonderfully chilling yet also fairly intelligent effort. Indeed there are moments where the gore does come before anything else, but by and large this slice of cinematic pie is a riveting mystery rooted in a wonderfully ominous vibe of dread and suspense and supported by terrific work at the helm and by the cast with particular regard to the work done by stars Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd respectively.
The plot is as follows: An adaptation of horror legend Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” the story of Candyman begins by introducing us to a young woman by the name of Helen Lyle. Miss Lyle we are quickly able to learn is a driven and determined grad student at the University of Chicago who, along with her best friend Bernadette, is doing research for their thesis which revolves around the subject of urban legends. Unfortunately we see that they’re running into a little bit of a snag. Namely that all they keep hearing during the course of their research all sounds like material they’ve literally heard a million times before. Or at least that is until they stumble upon the story of Candyman. A being who you could pretty much describe as the male equivalent of Bloody Mary albeit with a hook rather than….whatever it is that Bloody Mary uses to terrorize people with. Yet as intrigued as they are by these stories, it isn’t until they hear that this mythical figure is also being blamed for a series of deaths in a housing project in Chicago known as Cabrini Green that Helen sees the opportunity to make this paper into something truly special. However, we soon see that the more Helen digs into this mythical figure, his origins, and his ties to the neighborhood, the more the lines start to blur between what is real and what is myth. A blurring that soon becomes infinitely more nightmarish and horrifying when she terrifyingly discovers firsthand that, despite her skepticism, there might just be a Candyman after all and even worse he might just not be the happiest guy in the world knowing that someone is out there trying to destroy people’s faith in him…..
Now right off the bat I feel praise must be given to film helmer Bernard Rose, who also appears in the movie in a minor role, is not at all afraid of making the audience sitting around and waiting uncomfortably and anxiously for something to happen with perhaps the key example of this being that it isn’t until over halfway through that we finally get Candyman in all his hook-handed glory. Also a degree bit unconventional for a slice of cinematic pie in the horror genre is not only just how many jump-worthy moments occur in the light of day like when Helen first crosses paths with Candyman in a university parking garage or in how some of the kills in this movie are done off-screen, but still prove to be quite visceral due not only to icky yet effective sound effects work as well as showcasing their gruesome aftermaths which is quite distinct for a movie in this vein. It’s also worth pointing out that the visual design work on this slice of cinematic pie is riveting in the most ghoulish and disturbing manners possible from sets that are equal parts ominous and decrepit, unnervingly genuine makeup work, and the repeated utilization of mirror shots in order to start seriously fraying on the nerves of you, the movie goer so that when things finally do happen you are scared out of your seat and then some. Now although the titular antagonist might be a little bit too familiar for some to the character of Pinhead in regards to their shared poetic philosophies on how glorious death is and how wonderfully appealing pain can be, this is not that surprising since Clive Barker came up with both characters. Yet even with that in play there is still quite a bit of respectable suspense conjured up from those individuals who are meant to showcase seemingly realistic terror with long silent stretches, a few pop-up scares, dream moments, slo-mo, strobe lights like something you would see at a rave, and a climax that is just plain chilling all adding to the overall emotional quality of this film immensely. With all of that said though, perhaps the most potent from an emotional perspective addition to this film is the soundtrack made up of equal parts ominous organ, operatic choir, and creepily tranquil piano from Philip Glass that does a wonderful job at not only setting the tone right from the get-go, but also really helps to distinguish this horror slice of cinematic pie from quite a few others like it.
Now the cast in this all do a wonderful job at not only bringing their respective parts to life, but also at making the world of the film seem real and genuine even in the face of some seriously nightmarishly surreal moments sprinkled throughout. This starts with Virginia Madsen who is dynamic to watch in the main role of Helen Lyle. Indeed Madsen does terrific at bringing both a driven determination as well as a humanity and even a vulnerability to a woman who is desperately trying to succeed in the world of academia, but who quickly and terrifyingly discovers her pursuits might have just walked her headfirst into a world that then proceeds to turn her life into no less than an outright nightmare. Suffice it to say Madsen does a terrific job at making this character feel like an actual person rather than an archetype and in the process gives us one of 90s horror cinema’s better heroines though I would say her last scene in this is chilling in the best way possible. I also really liked the work done in this by Xander Berkeley as Helen’s doltish and slightly slimy professor hubbie Trevor. Yes this is a role that honestly could be played by a lot of actors out there, but I have always enjoyed Berkeley whenever he pops up in anything and I thought he did a good job in this plus his last scene in this is very satisfying for reasons I shan’t spoil here. Now I did appreciate what Kasi Lemmons brought to the table as Bernadette, but at the same time this is a fairly one-note character and I felt that Lemmons played the best friend role a lot better in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs. Again not a bad effort, but one that better writing could have helped out immensely. Yet the best character in a good horror film is always the villain and this one has one of the finest of the past 3-4 decades in Tony Todd as the titular entity. Yes he might only be in the movie for about 40-45 minutes and he might not appear fully until about over halfway through, but I guarantee you Todd makes the most of every single minute he is given. Indeed not only is he physically imposing, but that deep and resonating voice of his is just so darn spine chilling in the best way possible. I mean every single time he says anything you would not be surprised if you discovered every single hair on the back of your neck is going up. Yet perhaps the most astonishing thing about this character is that on some level the movie actually makes him sympathetic. Not in the gutting people with a hook thing, but in the fact that when his backstory is revealed and you discover certain things about this entity you actually do feel bad for him and you kind of understand his motivations a bit more. Suffice it to say that Todd manages to take what could have easily been a one-note and very campy villain and transforms him instead into easily one of the more noble yet terrifying horror villains of the past 30-40 years hands down.
All in all the 1992 slice of cinematic pie that is Candyman really truly is something special when it comes to the world of horror cinema. That’s because here is a slice of cinematic pie that yes things do get awfully bloody at points throughout, though to be fair the main character DOES have a hook to gut people with and it would be a shame if he didn’t use it at least once, but at the same time is by and large more of an intelligent, mysterious, ominous, refreshingly novel, and terrifyingly surreal nightmare that, thanks to wonderful work both behind and in front of the camera, is one that is offers both the casual movie goer and avid horror film lover a bloody good time to be had time and time again. On a scale of 1-5 I give Candyman “92” a solid 4 out of 5.