Clive Barker is one of the foremost masters of horror fiction. Barker is an expert horror writer, and in the world of written horror fiction, it’s impossible to have jump scares. Barker understands how to use atmosphere and centers his stories around strongly developed characters. In film it is easier to scare the audience through imagery, but in writing it takes a strong building of tension and character development. When that is translated to the screen, it makes for some very unique horror films. Hellraiser, for example, is a Barker cult favorite that’s subject matter sounds like it should involve a lot of silly fun, but it doesn’t. It is taken seriously and genuinely scares the audience, but it takes the proper slow build up to do so.
Candyman is similar in this sense. It has a slow build, and there aren’t many scares for the first half of the 93 minute film. It opens with a jump scare scene, and this scene serves to make the audience think they are about to watch a generic slasher film. But really this is serving a much different purpose. The film is all about the blurring between urban legends and real life, and the opening scene having a different tone than the rest of the film displays the contrast between what is real and what isn’t. Most of the film the audience is unsure what is real and what isn’t real, and even after the film ends we still aren’t quite sure how much of it was “real”.
The premise involves a graduate student, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), doing research on urban legends. She decides to focus her thesis on a particularly popular Urban Legend known as “The Candyman” (Todd), a killer with a hook for a hand who will kill you if you stand in front of the mirror and say “Candyman” five times. This is a play on the “Bloody Mary” game that is still scaring young children today. For much of the first half of the film, Helen meets a variety of people who further explain the Candyman legend. Helen decides to say his name five times in front of the mirror, and surely enough she finds herself the target of the supernatural killer.
Helen begins experiencing a variety of urban legends seemingly coming to life. As murders take place, Helen discovers a gang leader with a hook for a hand who dresses like the Candyman. It is assumed he is the real killer and the Candyman is a myth. Even when this gang leader is stopped, a woman Helen has been in contact with seemingly gets murdered by the Candyman, she is accused of the crime. The Candyman continues to torment Helen, and Helen finds herself in a battle for survival against a man who is supposed to be dead.
Candyman is fantastic at keeping the audience guessing. Is the gang leader really The Candyman? Is it all in Helen’s head and she is imagining things…is she really the killer? Just when the audience thinks all of the questions have been clearly answered, the film’s ending makes everything a little less cut and dry. From a writing and storytelling perspective, this film does a lot of things expertly. Helen is a character the audience can identify with, she seems like a real person you cans sympathize with and not just a generic character. Virginia Madsen gives a great, intelligent performance that is far removed from a “scream queen” type of portrayal and much more realistic. It works well in this dark film. What most people remember is Tony Todd, who has an incredible screen presence. He truly looks intimidating and delivers his lines coldly and chillingly, but with a sense of incredible intelligence as well.
I appreciate the slow build of the film which makes the events of the second half more impactful. There is some gore but it’s used selectively and serves a purpose. Every scene serves to move the plot along and there is very little wasted screen time. The whole premise of urban legends, tall tales and superstitions and the blurring between reality and fantasy is quite thought-provoking.
It is hard to not like most of what we see on the screen. It is what isn’t in the film that proves to me the major flaw. This is an idea that has no limits, there are so many places the film good have gone. Yes, there’s a lot of places it could have gone that would have hurt the film, but there’s also a lot more that could have been explored and made this movie so much more. The film is barely over 90 minutes, and while a slow buildup is necessary to give greater impact to later events, it takes up so much of the movie that the second half feels a bit rushed. Things happen very quickly and the pacing becomes a lot less effective. This film should have been a bit longer, perhaps even a half hour or so longer, in order to include the important build up but also to explore the endless possibilities of the film’s premise a bit more.
Candyman is indeed a scary film, but the implications of it are scarier than what we actually see on screen. The film itself might not be tremendously scary, but the issues the film brings up are truly terrifying. It is a film that will make you think about it for a good while after watching it, and that is where it’s “scares” come from. While the film is very effective and I would recommend it, it just doesn’t have as much impact as it could. It is an intelligent film and a very well-made one, but also one that doesn’t reach its full potential.