A Horror Film with Political Commentary on Race: Candyman (1992)
By Jaxon Maxwell
The horror genre is often seen as less meaningful than many other film genres, yet they can tackle issues of difference, power, and discrimination in a very unique and oftentimes metaphorical way. Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) is a great example of how a horror movie can integrate real-life issues into what might sound like a very traditional horror premise. It has all the makings of slasher movies from the past, while also having impactful racial commentary laced throughout the film. With this film, they created something that is not only a great horror movie but also a great political commentary on racial history and modern dynamics.
Although Candyman is almost 30 years old, all the social commentary still rings true in modern times. In 2021 a reboot was made that covered a lot of similar ideas which really shows how much the original themes still resonate with many people to this day. Racial injustice towards the black community is just as prevalent in today’s society as it was in the 90s. Just 6 months before the release of this film the Los Angeles riots were in full force, meanwhile just a year before Candyman (2021) we had various protests and riots due to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Knowing how little has changed makes a lot of moments in the film just as meaningful now as they were 30 years ago when the film was first released.
The basic premise of Candyman is that there is some sort of mysterious figure with a hook for a hand that supposedly comes out when you say his name five times in the mirror. This leads a nearby grad student named Helen to investigate the rumors. Helen then begins relentlessly searching for answers in the nearby housing project of Cabrini-Green.
While it may sound like a basic horror premise, the film heads in many unexpected directions throughout. For example, the titular Candyman is actually a much more interesting and even charismatic antagonist than many others also seen in the genre. Played by Tony Todd, Candyman has an aura of importance and every word he speaks commands the attention of the audience as well as the other characters within the movie. What may seem like a traditional antagonist is revealed to be much more tragic and maybe even somewhat justified in his actions. Eventually, we learn that Candyman is actually the reincarnation of a man named Daniel Robitaille, and as Kyle Etzel, a film journalist, explains “Born the son of a former slave, Candyman was raised with the education and respect of his white peers. But they turn on him when he falls in love with a prominent white woman and conceives a baby with her. The mob sawed off Candyman’s hand and dumped a swarm of bees on him, which stung him to death”(Etzel). Knowing so many African Americans in the United States faced similarly brutal murders throughout the history of the country, it gives his backstory an almost depressing amount of realism.
The realism continues with the setting of the film, which has just as much character as the candyman himself. All of the locations seen in the movie feel very real, but the scenes taking place in the Cabrini-Green project are even more so. Part of what makes these scenes so impactful and real, is that they were almost completely filmed in the real life Cabrini-Green project, and the extras in these scenes were actual residents at the time. Cabrini-Green was the most crime-ridden neighborhood in Chicago before it was partially demolished in 1995, just three years after the release of Candyman. The effect of filming on location in these moments cannot be understated as it gives the film a sense of grittiness that would likely not be there if it was filmed on a set. This permeates through all the locations in the movie and Fred Bolting, a writer specializing in analyzing horror films, has this to say about the setting: “There is no ‘terrible place’ in the film, no single locus of haunting containing anxiety: urban estates, apartment buildings (their bathrooms especially), derelict spaces, multi-story car parks, hospitals, all become sites of fear and insecurity”(Bolting). The decision to base a large portion of the film at Cabrini-Green was a very intentional decision by the filmmakers, as it was a majority African American neighborhood, even though it started with a mostly Italian American population. It was a largely ignored neighborhood by most Chicago residents until it was finally destroyed and replaced with newer middle-class housing. Meanwhile, most previous Cabrini-Green residents were displaced and forced to move to other poor neighborhoods, while only getting meager reimbursement.
While the setting of Cabrini-Green supports the theme of the quiet suffering of African Americans, the protagonist Helen serves as a statement on the white American’s complicity and indifference to that suffering. We see that she lives in a nice apartment complex and lives a very privileged life, and yet she feels it necessary to visit Cabrini-Green firsthand despite the urging of her friend and boyfriend not to do so. She goes there not with the intention of helping the residents at all, but only to exploit a myth of the area for her own gain. All of the horrors of the movie are almost completely caused by Helen and her search for answers about the Candyman, answers that she only searches for because she is doing a project on the myth of the Candyman. Her saying Candyman five times in the mirror is what allows him to come out and terrorize her, and leads to the death of four people throughout the film. Not only that but he kidnaps the baby of the only woman that helped Helen and answered her questions about Candyman. By the end, Helen sacrifices herself to rescue the baby from Candyman which somewhat redeems herself, but she still inflicted large amounts of trauma on the residents due to her own ignorance.
Based on the characters of Candyman and Helen we can see that the film has a large amount of racial commentary, yet most of it is very indirect. Someone just trying to watch it as a traditional horror movie could do just that and pick up very little political commentary. Not that it is especially subtle, just that it is more often within the visual design, cinematography, and editing, and less so in the actual dialogue between characters. In that way, it is up to the viewer to interpret the film and its themes for themselves.
Different interpretations is exactly why the movie got pretty mixed reviews upon its release. While these days it is often considered a cult classic horror movie, it is still a movie that often divides its viewers. For example, Christopher L. Robinson had this to say in a recent retrospective review: “The ambiguity of the film’s representations remains problematic given the unabashed racist discourse that has dominated much of the recent political rhetoric in the United States, prompting many viewers to go back to and reconsider Rose’s film, whether in a positive or negative light” (Robinson). Some people also have a problem because it is a movie inherently about African American issues, but it stars a white woman as the protagonist. Although I disagree as I think Helen is a great character for showing white privilege and ignorance, it is definitely a valid criticism for a lot of viewers. I believe that for most people looking back thirty years later it can hit even harder, especially knowing the ultimate real-life fate of the Cabrini-Green Projects.
Whether you like the movie or not, it definitely has enough subject matter to write an essay on, which I saw firsthand when looking for sources. I found at least four or five academic essays written on it within the past few years. It also speaks to how well the movie has aged to be generating discussion this long after the initial release. I only watched it for the first time in October of this year and was amazed at how much it stuck with me, and how much I thought about it months after watching it. That made it an easy choice for me when picking a movie for this essay as it was still fresh in my mind.
The original Candyman is a timeless Horror classic with political commentary that is still very much relevant to this day. Knowing what became of Cabrini-Green in real life makes the movie’s themes resonate even more as it proves almost every assertion in the movie to be completely correct. Horror as a genre is usually seen as just jumpscares and monsters, but this movie, among others, really shows how impactful the genre can be when choosing to tackle more serious subject matter.
Robinson, Christopher L. “Bernard Rose’s Candyman and the Rhetoric of Racial Fear in the Reagan and Bush Years.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 32, no. 3, fall 2021, pp. 404+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A703478538/AONE?u=lbcc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=8ac942b0. Accessed 12 Nov. 2022.
Etzel, Kyle. “‘Candyman’ puts scary spin on urban legend.” UWIRE Text, 20 Oct. 2022, p. 1. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A723473745/AONE?u=lbcc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=b02f432b. Accessed 12 Nov. 2022.
Botting, Fred. “Candygothic.” Essays and Studies, annual 2001, pp. 133+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A90534159/AONE?u=lbcc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=6ee95423. Accessed 12 Nov. 2022.