31 for 31
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31 for 31

“Be my victim…”

October 5th

Candyman (1992)

31 for 31 is a curated film program for the month of October. Conceived of as a compilation mixtape, the program explores the historical and cultural legacy of Horror cinema. Consider this my billet-doux to the genre.

Switch off the lights, look into a mirror, and say his name five times for the 5th track of the month, Candyman. Bernard Rose’s gothic tableau is a bold cinematic treat — pun definitely intended. Groundbreaking in its form and subject matter, the 1992 film represents an early and honest attempt to tackle the complicated subject of racism using Horror cinema as the interpretative lens.

Candyman follows graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) as she investigates contemporary Chicago’s more tantalizing urban legends. Her research leads her to the story of the “Candyman,” a vengeful spirit with a hook for a hand who haunts the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects in the city’s Near North Side. Dare stare in a mirror and speak his name five times, and Candyman will teach you the real meaning of playing hooky — at least, that’s how the legend goes. As a social scientist, Helen remains skeptical of the supernatural as she continues to investigate, even going so far as to repeat the mantra herself (big fucking mistake). It’s not long before Helen wishes she could have left this ghost story under wraps.

Based on a Clive Barker short story, Writer-Director Bernard Rose reinterpreted the film for an American audience. By trading Barker’s Liverpool for Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects — a byword for segregation of housing and opportunity on the basis of race — Rose transforms a parable of the British social class system into a dreadful glimpse into America’s deep-seated racial divide. It was Get Out before Get Out, and Jordan Peele has frequently cited its influence on his work: “If there was no Candyman, I don’t know that there would be a Get Out.” It paved the way, and the man leading that charge was Candyman himself, Tony Todd.

Representation is a necessity in all facets of the film universe. By the early 1990s, Horror was finally beginning to witness proper representation for Black actors. Up to that point, most of the roles reserved for Black performers in the Horror genre were either side characters or knife fodder — if the roles existed at all. The most recognizable Black Horror character was Blacula, an essential figure of ’70s blaxploitation films, but a far cry from the mainstream. Peak down the rogue’s gallery of slasher villains, and you’ll find an almost all-white hegemony. Jason: white guy. Freddy Krueger: burnt, but still just a white guy. I mean, please, Michael Myers is a white guy who wears another white dude’s face. Candyman was essentially Guess Who’s Coming to Kill You. In that, it occupies a subtle but important role in the history of breaking down the barriers that Black actors and performers were forced to overcome.

Tony Todd is the man, and he’s nothing short of exquisite in this role. Whether he’s coughing up bees, gutting someone, or just crooning in a dark corner, Todd’s aura hangs over the film like a hypnotic spell. His voice, like honey for the ears, is both seductive and menacing. Yea, Candyman fucks. But he’s also a uniquely tragic figure. He was not always “Candyman,” he was once Daniel Robitaille. His backstory, as designed by Tony Todd himself, establishes the character as a grim casualty of racism: America’s original sin. The tragic elements of his backstory cast Candyman as a sort of “Phantom of the Projects.” Both his existence and cruelty are rooted in the sins committed against him.

Candyman was a cult film upon its release, but it has received increased appreciation over the years to the point where it is now considered a classic. A Jordan Peele-produced sequel was scheduled for release this month, but COVID-19 has delayed a return to (the now gentrified) Cabrini-Green. If Peele’s involvement and the promotional materials serve as any indication, it will not be shying away from the themes that made the original so provocative.

Available on Google Play

Tomorrow’s Clue: Casket

Do you know what’s scarier than anything on this list? 4 more years of Donald Trump. Please remember to register to vote and consider donating to the campaign to elect Joe Biden.



31 for 31 is a curated film program for the month of October. Conceived of as a compilation mixtape, the program explores the historical and cultural legacy of Horror cinema. Consider this my billet-doux to the genre.

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