Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, there wasn’t a bogeyman, but a bogeyplace: Cabrini Green.
A public-housing project on the city’s near north side, Cabrini Green was a fixture on local television news, where it was portrayed as a blighted cesspool rife with drugs, gangs, shootings, and rape.
When Candyman—a powder keg of a horror movie largely set in Cabrini Green—came out in 1992, it both exploited and interrogated this hysterical narrative. Written and directed by a White male from the United Kingdom, Bernard Rose (who was adapting a book by another English White male, Clive Barker), Candyman certainly tells its story through a White lens. Yet the movie is well aware of media fearmongering, discriminatory policies like redlining, and the social privilege of Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), the urban legend researcher at its center. If Candyman ultimately works, it’s not because the movie depicts life in the projects as akin to horror, but because it shows how such a narrative demonizes the people who live there, dismissing their homes and their very lives as a spooky forest the rest of us should avoid and ignore.
Helen, whose own high-rise condo building was designed for public housing before officials decided it was too close to an upscale neighborhood, first visits Cabrini Green to test a thesis: that the urban legend of Candyman—a murderer with a hook for a hand who will appear if you say his name in the mirror five times—is merely a projection of the real-world fears that Cabrini residents face each day. Accompanied by her colleague Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, who would go on to direct Eve’s Bayou and Harriet, among other titles), Helen boldly marches past the gang members outside one of the buildings to investigate a unit where a Candyman murder supposedly took place. Bernadette, a Black woman, carries mace and a taser—at once a way for the film to heighten the sense of danger but also distance itself from White fear.
If the movie has a White lens, it at least makes room for a Black side-eye. Early on, Helen interviews two Black women on the cleaning staff at her university (Barbara Alston and Sarina Grant) about what they’ve heard about Candyman; before answering, they exchange a skeptical, distrustful look. Bernadette remains a figure of caution throughout the film—a reminder that Helen is working from hard-wired, racial assumptions. And, most importantly, we meet Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams), a working single mother who lives in a cheery apartment hidden behind one of Cabrini’s graffiti-scarred doors. Anne-Marie, who stands in direct contrast to the media-fed stereotypes of those who live in the complex, tragically becomes an unintended victim of Helen’s insistent intrusions. These are all welcome nods to the more culturally nuanced movie Candyman could have been.
What Rose, as director, may lack in cultural acuity, he almost makes up for as an imagist. On an abandoned upper floor of one of the apartment buildings, Helen finds a shrine of sorts to Candyman, where his massive face is painted against the wall, a gaping hole in the concrete serving as his mouth (we first see it as Helen comes crawling out of the yawning orifice). This tableau seemingly casts a spell on her—and indeed reappears in sudden, flash edits as the movie goes on. In addition, recurring helicopter shots tracing the expressways that run through the city heighten the paranoia; suburbanites may like to think they’re safe from Cabrini Green, but these direct lines show how closely neighborhoods are connected.
What of Candyman himself, played by Tony Todd? The performance is mesmerizing: towering, regal, as if he’s stepped out of a classic Universal horror movie, but with such calm assurance that it’s the modern surroundings—rather than his theatrical presence—that feel anachronistic. Unfortunately the script does Todd no favors in envisioning the character. Complicated, conflicting details arise about Candyman’s origin, while his motivations involving Helen—repeatedly spoken aloud by Todd in a husky growl—are never entirely clear. As for Madsen, she’s committed—delivering some classic horror theatrics herself in the climax—but the more the movie becomes about Helen’s personal journey, the less compelling (and, frankly, coherent) it is.
“Candyman isn’t real,” Helen tells Jake (DeJuan Guy), a boy who lives in Cabrini Green early on. We soon learn she’s wrong. I suppose that revelation affirms racialized sensationalism about the horrors of the projects, but there’s a more charitable reading, too. Candyman may be “real,” but the movie also shows us that Jake, Anne-Marie, and others who live in Cabrini Green are real as well—not bogeymen, but human beings.