Problematic Films: In Defense Of CANDYMAN (1992)

As we near the release of Nia DaCosta's CANDYMAN, Sean dives into some of the trickier aspects of its predecessor with comic creator William O. Tyler.

By Sean Abley · @GayoftheDead · August 25, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT
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Tony Todd in CANDYMAN (1992).

Editor's Note: In Problematic Films, Sean and a guest interact with the more troubling elements of some older horror films that may not stand up to today's societal standards, but are still absolutely worth examining on a critical and occasionally emotional level. As he said in his I Spit On Your Grave conversation with BJ Colangelo, "sometimes what is first thought a flaw is actually a feature, or maybe the pros do outweigh the cons. And sometimes, we just love a film with a bad take because it speaks to us in a way others don’t." Sean understands that he may not have standing to defend these controversial films, so in this column, he's speaking with different critics, journalists and creators who do.

Read more from Sean here.

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In this installment, I discuss Candyman with William O. Tyler. With Nia Dicosta's film on the horizon, and the events of 2020, I felt the original film's approach to using race as a central theme deserved a nuanced examination today. If you haven't yet, you should also check out Richard Newby's thoughtful piece in Fangoria #12, which you can pick up here.

William O. Tyler is a Black queer writer and artist creating original comics including The Goth Queen Needs a Mate. In 2020 he co-edited, along with Justin Hall, the queer horror comic anthology Theater of Terror: Revenge of the Queers featuring Peaches Christ. He has served as a judge for the annual Prism Comics Awards as well as the prestigious Lambda Literary, and has spoken on panels across the country, including at Comic-Con International, about the representation of Black and queer characters and stories in media. One of his comics, Cinephilia, which explores the artform of film and its social impacts, has been turned into a weekly movie talk show by the same name from Perception Studio, which Tyler co-hosts live on Twitch. His work can be followed on social media @williamotyler, at williamotyler.com, and supported at patreon.com/williamotyler

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I wanted to just start with the first time you saw the movie, how did you see it? Was it in the theater? On video?

My first viewing of the movie was definitely on video, but I do not recall the exact moment. It came out in 1992, which would have made me an early teenager. And I was a kid who scared very easily. Like, I was not into horror as much then as I am now. But I did enjoy being creeped out by things, especially if it was like a group of us watching it. We used to have movie parties, and it was usually a horror movie. So I feel like it was probably at one of those parties maybe a year or two after [Candyman] came out.

And what were your first impressions back then?

I distinctly remember it becoming, like, a huge part of the Black community. Black people had never seen a horror movie quite like this, where we got to be the slasher. But in a way the character is so charming, as opposed to being this savage beast that Black people are always portrayed to be in movies. So it was an interesting thing where a lot of people were like, 'Yeah, it's Candyman! I love Candyman!' Even though he's the villain of the movie, he was still an icon for us in a positive way. It was just cool to see a character like that. And so it was, you know, our Black horror movie.

Also, in addition to him being such a great character, how many horror movies were we getting at the time that actually showed Black life, Black people in their setting? So it was one of those movies that was just like, 'Okay, yeah, this is really speaking to me on a number of levels.' A lot of things went over my head, which we'll get to in a moment, but at the time I was just like, 'Yes, give it to me. I love this.'

Yeah, I think that when we're young – I look at this as from a queer perspective, too. Like, if it's the only thing you're offered, you attach yourself to the positive part of it. There was a movie called Making Love that came out when I was a teenager (1982) and it's a pretty problematic movie. But it was the only time I saw gay men living their lives and having relationships. And I hold it as one of my favorites even today when I look at it and think, 'That's terrible.'

So yeah, that rings really true.

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Was there a point where you came to recognize the problematic aspects of the film, and what were they for you?

I had been away from Candyman for a while and I had started to become more, for lack of a better term, more woke in my viewing of things. We, as film people, we watch a lot of movies, and the more movies you watch, the more stories you're taking in, and the more stories you take in, a lot of stories just seem kind of similar. [And] you start to notice all the tropes and all the things that stories can fall into.

And I think going back to watch Candyman, having this movie be so large in my head, having not watched it in a long time, and it was like, 'You know, it takes a little bit for Candyman to even show up because we're so focused on this white woman for so long.' You start to notice who is actually the center of the story. There were two sequels after the first one, and for this to be a franchise so steeped in Black life and Black oppression, all three of the movies are centered around the experiences of white women and [their] relation with Candyman, whether it's being his lover or him being [their] ancestor.

And then on top of that, the way Candyman presents himself to Virginia Madsen's character is through all these nightmarish killings that are happening to other Black people. And that's kind of devastating to think that he would do a cat-and-mouse game with her at the expense of all these Black people.

I’d like to talk more about the white savior part of it. As we're doing this interview, it's 2021 and the country's gone through, I don't want to say upheaval because that makes it seem like something's changed. I don't think anything's changed, but I think that people are becoming more aware and one of the things they’re aware of is the centering of white stories in a Black narrative.

It is the central problem of the film, because everything revolves around her and her discovery and her wanting to help whatever situation she's in. And so it really lifts her up as the savior.

When I rewatched it and started to notice that that was the case, it really – it took me aback and I had to, you know, do that thing where we go, 'Whoa, it was a sign of the times…' and put it into the context of when it came out. Clive Barker's original story was not like this at all. [Barker's short story, "The Forbidden,” made no mention of Candyman’s race or background. –Ed.] So I appreciate the steps taken by [director] Bernard Rose and the rest of their crew, creating the story in this way. But at the same time, it's definitely a teachable moment where you're like, 'You can do even better than this.'

Also, I'm not a huge fan of remakes or reboots, but this is one of those where you have the chance to take a Black narrative and center the Black person into the narrative, and that's why I'm excited for this new Candyman movie, because that's exactly what's happening. I do think that having Black people behind the camera as well as in front of the camera is what pushes that kind of narrative forward. I don't expect white people or white creators or white directors to be able to handle all of that because it's not their story or their responsibility. I do think it is their responsibility to help uplift Black voices by hiring Black writers, or things along that line. But I can't say that I would have expected more out of this movie from the time that it was made, by the people who were making it. I think they did probably as best they could at the time, but I'm happy that we can move forward for something better.

I can’t wait for [Nia DaCosta's Candyman reboot], because Vanessa Williams is playing the same part as she did in the original [Cabrini-Green resident Anne-Marie McCoy].

I think it's an amazing idea to continue her story, because we're actually getting to one of the characters that I think in the original was really not done very well. I mean the character herself is a great character, but the things that she has to go through. There's some scenes featuring her that are just kind of gut-wrenching – a Black woman having to go through that at the hands of a Black killer when this white woman is still kind of saved off to the side. I love that they're taking that small moment in this original movie and expanding it, allowing that Black character to have a story and have agency and not be treated as just a prop for Virginia Madsen. That's what this new movie is expanding on. And I think it's amazing.

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Kasi Lemmons' character is a sidekick. She's just sort of there, her purpose in the movie is to be murdered. But the Vanessa Williams character, a bright spot of this movie is the fact that she is a doting mother who also – I don't know why this struck me – but the scenes in her apartment, you can tell that that character had made the best of that apartment…

Vanessa Williams’ character is very much a Black woman of that time and very much doing the best that she can with, you know, the given circumstances. It's just unfortunate that she then has to go through all of that with her child.

It’s just really landing for me right now that it's a Black specter killing Black people, but he was summoned by a white woman.

That's what I'm saying. It's so weird that Virginia Madsen is the center of the story. And yet all of the pain and hurt and oppression is still happening to Black people in this movie. I can't be too mad at Virginia Madsen, though, because she actually is great in the role.

Her performance really holds the whole thing together.

She is a part of what makes the movie captivating to watch. So there is that.

Do you think it was purposeful of the filmmakers that they were trying to – this is 1992 – make a commentary on the pain inflicted on the Black community by white people?

That's hard to say. I could argue either way. I could see that being an idea, but I can also see it being that they wanted to address class and show that difference.

What's really interesting is that the whole dynamic of the movie would have changed had Virginia Madsen’s character just been cast with a Black actress. Nothing about that character would change. There's no reason why that character needs to be white, except for the fact that the origin of Candyman is a part of a slave narrative. The fact that he fell in love with a white woman back in the day is the only reason why she's white now. And the story could still play out with a Black lead. It just would have a somewhat different dynamic.

That's another thing – white people are the people who attacked Candyman to begin with. And so you would think if he's going to seek revenge that he might want to seek out their descendants, who are, you know, probably just on the other side of the tracks of Cabrini-Green. It wouldn't be very hard for him to just walk over and take care of some of them instead. It's a strange setup for a story to begin with.

His motivations are a bit convoluted. He’s punishing her for discrediting him as a murderer, but not the white people who murdered him? It certainly doesn't withstand dramaturgical analysis. Why isn't he in the condos, pushing the mirror through between the two apartments and, you know, going from apartment to apartment and killing all the rich, white people? And he also wants her romantically? I mean, this film really positions white woman as the prize, right? Like even from the dead, this man is so obsessed with a white woman that he's willing to kill Black people to get to her.

The idea of Black men lusting after white women is another trope that comes up in film all the time that we can step away from. I mean, there's nothing wrong with interracial relationships, but the way that Black men are often presented as sort of hunting down white women, preying on white women, raping white women – this goes all the way back to literally Birth of a Nation. So it's another trope that is definitely a part of Candyman, unfortunately.

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There were two sequels, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999, pictured above). In any franchise, there are diminishing returns on these things…

I feel like the sequels actually expand on his origin story more, which is probably the only things that I like about the sequels because they add in that he was also an artist and that's why he fell in love with this woman. Because he was painting her. He was hired to paint her by her father. And then he fell in love with her. It goes into some details that I think are actually quite interesting, but it just plays up the white lust more and more than the original, which is something we don't need to delve into more.

I feel like if I had seen either the second or third movie before this one, I probably wouldn’t be as attached to it because they don't present Candyman as that charming, booming voice kind of a character. They present him more as a, you know – those movies just aren't as well-made. [Laughs.] I think that the gloss on [the original] Candyman helps to get you through all of those tropes.

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Sidebar: even though he's a killer, I mean, just between us girls, he's hot AF in this movie.

The first time that we actually see Candyman in the movie, when Virginia Madsen is in the parking lot, and she hears this… this booming voice calling to her. And the audio of Tony Todd's voice in this movie is simultaneously spine-tingling and giving you chills because it's creepy, but at the same time, it's like, 'Yes, please whisper into my ear, sir.' [Laughs.] And then when she turns around and finally sees him and he's in his fur coat, it's just like, he's fabulous.

I think another bonus of the film is that it elevated Tony Todd, actor. He’d worked a lot, he was in the Night of the Living Dead remake before this and a bunch of other film and TV, but I feel like this was his next big thing.

Tony Todd is amazing in this role. I mean everything down to his wardrobe. There's something about him wearing this coat that feels… it's not a luxurious coat, but there's something theatrical about it. And then at the same time he's wearing the black and white checkered pants that you see line cooks wear, and it kind of plays with this idea that he's someone from the street, but elevated. And I love that idea. I love someone who's like a working-class man, but elevated to this theatrical, supernatural being. This is one of my favorite characters in all of film and I can't get over it.

If we think about our franchise villains – Freddy, Jason, Michael, Pinhead, whoever else is out there, Leprechaun, who else? – Candyman is the only one that is presented as sexually appealing. I mean, that does sort of dangerously edge onto sexualizing a Black man and then making him dangerous. Or am I overthinking that?

Well, I think there's two things at play there. One of which is the fact that at its heart, Candyman is a love story. So Candyman is a romantic which, you know, is a strange juxtaposition with a slasher. We get characters like The Phantom of the Opera who are romantics, but as a slasher, you don't get other slashers who are in it for the romance. Him being a Black romantic is another thing that I love about this character.

And then the other thing is that [because] he's Black, and in order for the audience to know, to remember that he's Black, you can't mask him. Slashers usually have a mask. Freddy is all burned, not masked, but he does have a grotesqueness about him. And I'm glad that they didn't do anything grotesque with Tony Todd's face because that's an important part of that character. He has to show himself. The hook for the hand is grotesque enough.

As we talk about this, I’m realizing that for all his romantic pursuit of Helen, Candyman never attacks her sexually. And he certainly could, given the rules of the film.

More of the character’s romantic charm on display. It’s more about wooing his prey into coming to him. There is some sexual tension between the two, but that releases into violence towards other people. Instead it becomes more of a power play, which of course is an interesting subversion of Black and white social roles. He’s calling the shots, and then exits through the window, leaving her to be held responsible.

Another thing that is interesting about the movie is the idea of urban legends, because that plays into Black community a lot as well. Most communities have their own urban legends, but having taken something that was a legend that was kind of familiar already, 'Bloody Mary,' and then putting a Black twist on it – I remember we used to play Bloody Mary. Then after this movie came out, we're playing Candyman. And that adds to the longevity of the movies and the character, I think, because it becomes a part of your culture. Candyman seeped into our lifestyles when it came out.

That’s how important the film was to Black communities. He became, like, not a real urban legend because we weren't expecting an actual Candyman to show up, but he became a part of our existence. He ended up being a party game, or a character that would come up in conversation all the time. And it wasn't something that, even with his problems, even revisiting later with all the problems that I noticed in the movie, it's not something that I can just toss away because there were so many positive and uplifting things that came out of it as well. And I think that's important to have in the context of all of it.

That's interesting. For white audiences, Candyman is obviously a movie that we love and he'll always be considered one of the great horror franchise villains. But he's not one of the ones that we’ll contextualize as number one, if that makes sense. It’s always Michael, Jason, Freddy. I’m wondering if that's different in the Black community?

Yes, absolutely. And it's because we see ourselves in it, so it sticks in our head more. It's funny, when the first Candyman came out, I don’t think they were even planning to franchise it, but because it did well enough, they decided to make a couple of sequels. But still Candyman has never hit, you know – Freddie, Jason, Michael all have nine, ten movies in their canon. Candyman has three, one more to come, and that's it. But yet even with that minimal amount of movies, you ask a Black person what their favorite horror movies are, and there are high chances that it's going to be something related to Candyman in their list. There are obviously other Black horror movies, but there's something about Candyman that really sticks.

It does seem strange there weren’t more. The first one was a studio film, and it did really well. They beat franchises like Hellraiser and Children of the Corn to death, but just three Candyman flicks.

Candyman wasn’t generic enough, not like scary kids in a cornfield or the various cenobites that could show up in the Hellraiser movies that you can do a lot of different things with. I think that a lot of studio heads who were, more than likely, not Black, were unsure of what to do next. Again, the sequels were still centered on white women. It's like the sequels are just retreading the same story. He hits all the same beats as the first movie. So it's like they really didn't know what else to do. And you can only do that story like two more times before it gets old.

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Is there something in addition to the iconic Black villain and the setting that sets Candyman apart from the rest of the big horror franchises?

I think that, in the context of slasher movies, Candyman isn't quite as tongue-in-cheek. Like I said, there was some theatricality about it, [and] there are a couple of moments where it goes into some camp, but it's a very serious movie for the most part. There are serious consequences to what's going on. Getting to know a character like Vanessa Williams’ before she suffers her trauma is different than just having a random character die at the hands of a slasher. And so it is a bit heavier for that reason.

So Candyman is defendable?

It's very defendable. For all the reasons that I fell in love with it in the first place. Candyman is still an icon on the status of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, all of the big, big names. Candyman is a little more esoteric, but at the same time he's the representation that I want. I want to see Black people in roles like this, I don't always want to see Black people being the hero, as important as that is. As wonderful as that is, I want to see Black people getting to play bad people, as well, because it shows the diversity and range of Black people and Black talent. When we get pigeonholed into a certain way of thinking about people or a certain story that we want to tell, we just tell that same story over and over again. It gets boring. And so I want to see Black people get to take on a juicy role like this, and just, like, eat it up, which Tony Todd absolutely did.

Again, I look at this as a gay guy, right? There was a time when we were starved for gay representation that wasn't, you know, Aidan Quinn dying a week after he found out he had AIDS in a TV movie, that kind of thing. But then we get to a point where I feel like, you know, if we want to be treated equally, we have to be ready to be treated equally, which means not only being the hero, but also being the themed villain.

There's that great documentary, Horror Noir on Shudder. I literally cried watching that movie… Obviously I have the Black community who share all these same feelings, so I've had discussions about these movies, but seeing a full documentary, just bullet pointing all of the ideas that I've had about movies over the years and how great they are and how underrepresented they are... I just felt like that documentary was speaking directly to me. And even in that documentary, when it gets to the Candyman segment, Candyman has his entire own segment. And everyone there is like, 'Candyman. Candyman is the one.' So this movie is one that really, really did speak to the Black community at the time, problems and all, it still was one of those things where you, you know, you weigh your options and this is still the way you're going to go. Because there wasn't anything else like this. It was an incredible kind of breakthrough movie – a Black slasher. I mean, [Black people] are a part of the world and of the genre, and if there are slashers, we are going to be a part of that, too.

Candyman represents an unheard voice in slasher films. We still don't have many other Black slashers or characters that are presented in quite this way. So he's still the top of the top. He's still giving sweets to the sweet.

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