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Sweets To The Sweet: Candyman, A Startlingly Relevant Halloween Horror

Candyman: The Short Story

Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman … Clive Barker’s 1985 short story The Forbidden is a haunting exploration of poverty and disenfranchisement. It was first published in 1985 as part of his ground-breaking horror anthology, Books of Blood.

Set in the desperate sinkhole estate of Spector Street, Liverpool, England, the story takes place in October with several references to Bonfire Night being the following week. This means we can be fairly sure the events of the story take place around Halloween.

The Forbidden follows Helen, a graduate student. Originally researching graffiti as part of her thesis, she gets pulled into the stories of estate … Stories that are as claustrophobic and labyrinthine as the ill-lit walkways of Spector Street, besieged with rubbish and crawling with rats.

Through Helen, Barker examines the dangers of obsession and how it can lead one down a dark path. When Helen hears of a series of murders at Spector Street, she abandons her original project and starts researching the killings instead.

Urban Legends

These investigations point her in the direction of a secretive legend whispered on street corners and revealed within the gaudy pictures daubed on the walls of the estate. From there, more stories: an old man murdered in his bed; a learning disabled child who is sexually mutilated; a baby with its throat cut.

Obsessed with the estate, Helen is like a locust, or vulture. She sees Spector Street as a gold mine for her research, forgetting this is not some ant farm for her amusement. There’s a fantastic moment when she meets young mother Anne-Marie, who tells her what it’s really like living there.

Over a cup of tea, Helen is described as ‘tiring of this catalogue of misfortunes’. She asks glibly, ‘Is it really so bad?’ Eeesh!

Privilege Vs Progressive Values

A middle-class woman, our protagonist Helen in The Forbidden is unaware of her own privilege. The disgusting conditions of the estate are not lost on Helen, but she sees it as something that ‘just happens’.

Barker describes how Spector Street is ‘a dump where the undesirable and disadvantaged were tucked out of public view – all that was liberal commonplace, and she accepted it as an unpalatable social reality.’

Barker nails it here how progressives turn a blind eye so often. This is backed up as Helen’s friends claim that if it’s not in the newspapers, it can’t be real. (These days it would be “pics or didn’t happen!” Yet social media is curated too).

The contrast of the estate with Helen’s life is brilliantly done. Barker paints her friends as vacuous, self-important, and petulant. Her husband Trevor is a lecturer, older than her and a philanderer.

Trevor is condescending and loves himself; so are all of their friends. In these moments we can see why Helen is so bloody-minded about her research. We may even empathise why she might want to prove these arseholes wrong.

Yet just because her friends are worse arseholes, does not mean Helen is not. When Anne-Marie is hostile to her when she returns to the estate, Helen realises how she has treated the residents badly.

It is not to last, however. When Anne-Marie’s baby Kerry is killed, Helen reveals her hypocrisy. She is sickened by the ghoulish onlookers as if she wasn’t one herself just five minutes’ earlier.

Sweets To The Sweet

Feeling increasingly disengaged from her husband and friends, Helen is unable to stay away from Spector Street. She returns to the estate, supposedly to pay her respects to dead baby Kerry (she lies to herself consistently through the story).

But she can’t keep away from flat 14, the original apartment that captured her attention. There are those infamous words ‘SWEETS TO THE SWEET’, as well as that iconic portrait of the Candyman, his mouth a chasmic yawn thanks to the door and hallway.

It’s there Helen is finally faced with the Candyman. The body of baby Kerry is revealed, a macabre offering to the creature. The funeral for the child below is fake, a mockery. Helen is bewitched by the Candyman, who tells her she can live on in whispers and gossip, just like all his other victims. She only just manages to escape.

When Anne-Marie arrives to spirit the body of baby Kerry away, Helen realises the residents of Spector Street are co-conspirators with the monster. When Anne-Marie places her son’s body inside the bonfire, Helen attempts to retrieve it so she might prove what’s happened. She wants to reveal the Candyman and pull the creature from the shadows into the light.

Unfortunately for Helen, it’s all a trap.

The Candyman is inside the bonfire and grabs her, holding her in place. She burns with him, helpless, as the residents of Spector Street watch the flames. Looking for his wife, Trevor turns up and watches the bonfire, oblivious of his dying wife trapped inside.

Candyman, 1992 Version Vs. 2021 version

It may surprise those who’ve never read The Forbidden that the name ‘Candyman’ is only mentioned eleven times in the short story … and all towards the end. There is no mention of mirrors or summoning him five times (that came with the movie).

Nor is there any specific mention of why Candyman died, or indeed why he has bees in his hollowed-out torso or carries candies with him. But that is Barker all over: he loves to create enigmatic monsters the reader can project their own fears and insecurities onto.

The success of The Forbidden caught the attention of filmmakers, with two notable adaptations being made – the first in 1992 directed by Bernard Rose, the second in 2021 directed by Nia DaCosta. Both films have garnered critical acclaim for their chilling portrayal and social commentary through horror.

In 1992, director Bernard Rose adapted The Forbidden into the film Candyman starring Tony Todd as the titular character. While sticking closely to the original source material, Rose added new layers to the story by setting it in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects.

The 2021 version also revolves around Cabrini-Green, which by the way is a real place. It had a long, dark history, known locally as ‘Little Hell’ before it became Cabrini-Green.

Protagonists

The basic plot of both adaptations follows a similar trajectory: in the 1992 version, Helen is a graduate student researching urban legends. Like the source material, she is very privileged but a new racial commentary is introduced to the story. Helen is white, whereas Cabrini-Green is a community of colour.

Just like the short story, Helen becomes entangled in the legend of Candyman, a vengeful spirit who haunts the housing project in Chicago. She wants to make her mark, be taken seriously.

At dinner, she petulantly announces that her research will ‘bury’ any naysayers. Hers and Trevor’s friends are vile, just like in the source material. But this time, they’re aware of the Candyman myth, pulling the rug out from under her.

In the 2021 version, the movie follows a male protagonist, Anthony. In contrast to Helen, he is black and not a student, but an artist. He is going out with art curator Brianna and has artist’s block. Like Helen, he has a considerable amount of privilege; he is well-educated and cultured, as is Brianna. Anthony’s brother-in-law Troy is gay, though his partner Grady is white.

Like Helen in the original short story and in the first movie, Anthony is desperate to make his mark. Unlike Helen however, Anthony does not get the benefit of the doubt from his friends and loved ones, falling from grace in almost an instant.

There’s a great moment in which Anthony presents his Candyman-inspired piece ‘Say My Name’. A critic eviscerates it, saying it’s clichéd. She even says artists are like locusts, consuming pain for profit. This leads to Anthony embarrassing Brianna by insulting the rest of the art exhibition viewers. He then stumbles out, drunk. Unfortunately, Brianna never feels the same about him again.

1992 to 2021

Obviously, a lot has changed in the twenty-nine years between the 1992 and 2021 versions of Candyman.  The societal changes that have occurred have greatly impacted the adaptation process of Clive Barker’s The Forbidden in the film Candyman. These changes have not only influenced the way in which the story is told on screen, but also how it is received by audiences.

One major societal change that has had a significant impact on the adaptation process is the advancement of technology. In 1992, when Candyman was released, special effects and CGI were limited and not as advanced as they are today.

This meant that filmmakers had to rely more heavily on practical effects and storytelling techniques to bring their vision to life. In fact, that infamous moment Candyman had bees in his mouth was done for real! Tony Todd managed to negotiate an extra $1000 for every sting he received in his mouth and on his face. Depending on which articles you read, he received an extra $20-30,000 on his pay cheque.

However, with the advancements in technology over the past three decades, filmmakers now have access to a wide range of tools and techniques that can enhance the visual elements of a film adaptation. We see this in the reboot most obviously in the animations and computer-generated imagery as characters recount the Candyman myth. 

Production Design

Candyman expands on Barker’s original vision by creating a visually striking world. The Cabrini-Green housing projects serve as an ominous backdrop for much of the film, with their decaying buildings and graffiti-covered walls adding a sense of decay and despair to the story. This change from a dilapidated council estate in Liverpool adds another layer to Candyman’s origins as an urban legend born out of poverty and neglect.

The original Candyman adaptation is faithful to the short story, including multiple daubings of ‘sweets to the sweet’ and of course, that iconic mouth-doorway in flat 14 (renamed flat 404 in Cabrini-Green).

In contrast, Candyman (2021) only uses graffiti a couple of times and eschews the mouth-doorway altogether, utilising shadow puppets and animation instead.

Another significant difference between The Forbidden and both versions of Candyman is the use of violence and gore. While Barker’s short story relies heavily on graphic descriptions to convey horror, director Bernard Rose takes a more restrained approach in his 1992 adaptation.

In direct contrast, Candyman 2021 is more faithful to the short story, using bloody horror and stomach-churning sound effects, making us wince.

Candyman himself

In the 2021 remake of Candyman, the story starts in 1977. William Burke is introduced as a child, who accidentally causes the death of an innocent man, Sherman Fields. White police officers beat him to death, believing him to be a child stalker who gives candy with razor blades to local children.

Of course, this is not the case.

When Anthony hears this story, he becomes obsessed with it. He starts a dark descent into madness where he discovers he has a horrifying link to the original Candyman movie. I won’t spoil what it is here, but it’s a doozy for the fans.

Unfortunately, structurally I believe it’s in the ‘wrong’ place; especially as there is an abrupt POV change straight after. We swap from Anthony’s arc to his ex-girlfriend’s Brianna’s. Whilst she is an excellent character and the final act has some pleasing gore, it never recovers from the POV switch in my opinion.

There are also some odd logic fails: is Candyman supposed to ‘protect’ Cabrini-Green from gentrification, white supremacy, or police brutality? Whilst all of these things are a huge problem, by not zeroing in on one, it ends up feeling a little muddled.

Vengeance Against … Who? And Why?

This in turn impacts Candyman himself: if he is an instrument of (deserved) vengeance against white people’s trespasses, then why does Candyman also kill the black schoolgirls in the flat in the 2021 version? This seems especially random when we consider he spared the black student when he kills the white students at the school earlier in the movie.  For me, his actions – and that of our antagonist, who creates Candyman – ask more questions than they answer.

In contrast, the 1992 version of the movie, Candyman’s origin story goes back to the 1800s. (It was apparently fleshed out by actor Tony Todd himself). Like Anthony in the remake, he was an artist, Daniel, who lived a life of privilege, sent to the best schools by his former slave father.

Daniel is hired to paint a wealthy white woman’s portrait

They then fall in love and she becomes pregnant. The white woman’s father finds out and is outraged. He hires a group of thugs to attack Daniel. They cut off his hand and smear him with honey so he is stung almost to death by bees. They then set him on fire where Cabrini-Green ends up being built.

Candyman’s motive for stalking Helen (rather than killing her immediately, like the many others who summon him) is never nailed down completely. However, this does not seem to affect the plot negatively, instead inviting viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Many fans of the film feel Helen, as a white woman, could be the reincarnation of Daniel’s lover. There’s also definitely a sexual frisson between the characters. There’s also great chemistry between Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen, who plays Helen. Candyman’s murders then could be seen as a ‘macabre’ gift to her. (This could also be a nod to the ‘offering’ of the body of baby Kerry, in the short story).

Other fans do not believe this and say instead it’s more of a revenge tale because Helen ‘goes where she shouldn’t’. As a white woman, she causes trouble by thinking she knows best and riding roughshod over people of colour. This is definitely in keeping with the short story, though instead of class it is replaced with race. It also remains startlingly relevant as a theme, even today.

B2W’S Verdict

I love Clive Barker, as I’ve written many, many times before. That said, I don’t believe The Forbidden is his best short story. For me, that crown probably goes to In The Flesh, a Sisyphean tale of madness. Or maybe Down, Satan!, both also from The Books of Blood.

I was a child when the first Candyman came out and loved it. I recall saying ‘Candyman’ five times in a mirror with my friends. This was long before TikTok and the rest of social media. It was a phenomenon!

I approached the 1992 version with some trepidation before re-watching. I remembered it had racial commentary and figured it probably would have dated quite badly. After all, even though movies have always been ‘woke’, time moves on … What seemed progressive in one decade is rarely seen as such many years later.

So I was pleasantly surprised by how little it has dated. Sure, the style of acting, shot composition, costumes etc looked ‘old’. Yet in contrast to the 2021 remake, the question mark over Candyman’s dark obsession with Helen really added something. In contrast, all the questions about WHY the 2021 Candyman did what he did undermined the story for me.

Look, I love the Candyman myth

The short story has the kind of gut punch I love. I also thought Nia DaCosta’s sharp direction of the 2021 remake was fantastic.

The addition of the creepy animation was a masterstroke too. Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfield also wrote the script with DaCosta, which makes for a real dream team.

But ultimately, 1992’s Candyman is still deliciously relevant today. For me, that makes it the clear winner.

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Happy Halloween!

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2 thoughts on “Sweets To The Sweet: Candyman, A Startlingly Relevant Halloween Horror”

  1. Superb article, Lucy, and it’s made me want to rewatch both films after reading the short story.
    I’m a sucker for film trivia, and I had no idea that Tony Todd came up with the backstory for Daniel Robitaille / Candyman. Very impressed.

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