Bernard Rose’s Candyman seems, at first glance, an odd choice of film for a “folk horror” review. There’s nothing expressly pagan, nor even neopagan, about the film, and divorcing the film version from the housing estate setting of Clive Barker’s original short story removes even the thin veneer of Britishness that many films of the type exhibit. But to be brutally honest, there’s nothing really “pagan” about most proper folk horror, either. The paganism that exists in those films and stories is a modern interpretation of a pagan past cobbled together from folk tales and legends. And what Candyman is, at its core, is a film about the power of folk tales and legends, as expressed by the modern, “rational” world version of the fairy tale, the urban legend. In that sense, Candyman, like the best works of the genre, is dancing on the same stage but to its own music.
Helen Lyle is a graduate student doing research on urban legends when her professor husband gives his students a lecture on the same subject, tarnishing her research pool. By a happy coincidence, she learns from a custodian at the college that “Candyman”, a hook-handed “Bloody Mary” figure who kills those who say his name five times in a mirror and frequent subject of the stories she has been collecting, killed a woman at the Cabrini Green housing projects. Helen and her research partner go to investigate, where Helen discovers a strange shrine to the Candyman in an abandoned apartment and they speak with the neighbor of the murdered woman. After an obnoxious colleague snidely mocks Helen because he had already written extensively on the Candyman myth, including uncovering its origin, years earlier, Helen returns to Cabrini Green to find a new angle on the story, stumbling into exposing the murderer, a drug dealer who had adopted the trappings of the Candyman in order to scare the Green residents into silence. Soon, though, a figure claiming to be the real Candyman begins stalking Helen, claiming that her actions have caused people to stop believing in him, and that he must kill in order to win back his believers. Helen finds herself framed for several murders and a kidnapping and is incarcerated in a mental hospital, before agreeing to become the Candyman’s victim in exchange for returning the kidnapped baby. In the end both Candyman and Helen are killed in a fire set by the residents of the Green, and the power of belief and myth turn Helen into a new murderous legend.
There’s a lot of the usual Clive Barker tics at work here, particularly faux-transgressive splatter-punk musings about pain and pleasure being linked and erotic fascination with bodily injury, but those are actually the least interesting aspects of the story. What I find most compelling is the material that is handled almost as an aside, despite forming the core of the story, which is how the film deals with the legacy of American racism. Candyman was created by an act of racist violence, and Helen’s world and the housing project are symbolically linked-both buildings are built from the same plan, but a freeway was constructed to keep the project separated from the respectable/white part of town, so Helen’s building was converted into condominiums-and it is only when a white woman is assaulted on the grounds that the police bother to arrest a man that they know is a murderer. But apart from these acknowledgements of racism, there’s also something fundamentally exploitative about what Helen is doing. She’s a white woman exploiting the stories and tragedies of the black community to get ahead in her field. And what eventually destroys Helen is that selfish desire to put herself ahead, to not be “content with stories” but to become part of one. Her tragic mistake is in thinking that she’s the hero, but her actual transformation is in going from victim to villain. She seeks to exploit the past, and only ends up furthering the legacy of destruction.