The first urban legend that I remember truly falling for as an adult was the one about how gang members, as part of an initiation ceremony, would drive around with their headlights off and when you flashed your lights at them to remind them to turn them on, they would follow you and kill you. It kind of scared me, even though its affect on me, considering I didn’t have a car at that point, was absolutely zero. Ever since that time, I’ve been kind of fascinated with urban legends. I lapped up Jan Harold Brunvand’s books on urban legends and really got a deep appreciation for how these stories – modern-day folklore, if you will – speak to both modern-day and ancient fears. Awareness of urban legends is even more important in this day and age – now that people blindly hit the “share” button on Facebook, believing every picture with text on it without even bothering to investigate.
Urban legends are at the heart of Bernard Rose’s 1992 film Candyman, one of my favorite horror films and also one that I think is painfully underrated. The movie is based on the Clive Barker short story “The Forbidden” and moves the action from a deteriorating estate in England to the infamous Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago. Helen Lyle is a graduate student who is writing a thesis on urban legends and during the course of interviewing people, encounters the legend of Candyman. Based heavily on the Bloody Mary legend, if you look in a mirror and say “Candyman” five times, the Candyman himself will appear behind you and eviscerate you with a hook where his hand used to be. So when Helen gets wind that a murder in Cabrini Green is being attributed to Candyman by the residents of the project, she can’t resist investigating. What follows blurs the line between reality and fantasy as Helen comes face-to-face with the real Candyman.
There are so many reasons this movie works – the first being its source material. Clive Barker is no slouch. I’ve read his Books of Blood (or rather, a handful of volumes) and while he doesn’t always hit the mark, he does so more often than not. His stories read like a cross between Stephen King and Richard Matheson, and why more of them haven’t been tapped for films I’ll never know. The screenplay is well adapted and the setting change to urban Chicago is flawless. I think that’s one of the things I love most about it – Chicago is a city I know pretty well, mostly because of its proximity and because it’s the large city I’ve visited most frequently. There are some gorgeous overhead shots of the city as well as panoramic views of the skyline. Even the shots of Cabrini Green are beautiful in an odd way. Lending authenticity to the movie is the fact that many scenes were actually shot in the Cabrini Green neighborhood, which surprised me because the crime and gang-related activity in the neighborhood at that time is well documented. As it turns out, the production paid local gang leaders and allowed them bit parts in the movie in exchange for safety while filming in the neighborhood. It also gives a little glimpse into Chicago’s recent past as the Cabrini Green project has been completely demolished, along with most, if not all, of Chicago’s failed high-rise housing projects.
The movie also strikes just the right balance between scary and gory. I’m fond of saying that gory does not equal scary – one need look no further than the recent Evil Dead remake for ample evidence of that, where the gore was mostly just gross and not really all that scary. Is there blood and guts in Candyman? Oh yes, but mostly, this movie sets out to scare you the old fashioned way – with ideas and situations and the specter of what may or may not be an urban legend proven true. Is Helen losing it or is the Candyman really present in Cabrini Green? The death scenes are pretty standard fare, showing a fair amount of blood and gore but never going over the top. And can we just say that Tony Todd is the perfect Candyman? No one could have played this role better than he did, but I’m of the opinion that if you want to up the bad-assness of any horror movie, all you have to do is cast Tony Todd in it.
Candyman spawned two sequels, neither of which I’ve seen, but I wouldn’t mind checking them out sometime. Todd reprised his role as Candyman in both movies, but it seems that the series went downhill pretty quickly after that. Still, the original is one of the most effective horror films I’ve ever seen and one that maintains its quality on subsequent watches, which is not something you can say about too many movies in general, let alone horror films. It’s more than worth your time and comes highly recommended. The photo below via Horror Movie Confessions sums up my feelings quite well.