Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The OG: Candyman

With the new Candyman revival/sequel packing in movie houses this weekend, we find it time to revisit the original film that started it all. Candyman began life as a story from queer horror writer Clive Barker, the brilliant, macabre mind behind Hellraiser, Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions. Readers and critics often note Barker’s characteristic intertwining of sex and death, pain and pleasure, magic and horror. And, of course, Barker loves to work in some good ‘ole fashioned homoeroticism too.

Writer/director Bernard Rose adapts Candyman from Barker’s original story The Forbidden, transplanting from Britain to the United States. The always-wonderful Virginia Madsen stars as Helen, a grad student, investigating urban legends. Her search leads her and her fellow student Bernie (Kasi Lemmons) to Chicago’s Cabrini Green apartments, low-income housing that, by the 1990s, had become synonymous with drugs, violence and poverty. There she learns the legend of the Candyman (Tony Todd), a demonic entity summoned by saying his name a mirror five times. Residents in Cabrini Green attribute a string of murders to Candyman, and when Helen begins to have visions of the man herself, she begins to suspect the legend is real.

Candyman became an unexpected hit back in 1992, due in large part to the psychedelic, hallucinatory visual style of Rose, and thanks to the terrific performances by Madsen, and in particular, Tony Todd. The two actors subvert the usual damsel-chased-by-a-monster trope by leaning into the erotic tension between the pair: the horror of meeting a demon might turn Helen on just a little. For the Candyman, killing Helen feels the same as making love. Todd knows the perfect way to use his towering build and basso voice to intimidate and seduce. He embodies the sex & death hallmark of all Clive Barker’s work better than any other actor ever has. It is, quite simply, a great performance.

The movie also became a hit as it offered African-American viewers a flamboyant if sympathetic, monster–a sort of Phantom of the Opera that evoked both fear and pity. Candyman’s backstory reveals that he once lived as a very educated African-American artist, murdered by a lynch mob. The horror of that event transformed him into a demonic killer. Moreover, given that most of the story focuses on African-American characters and makes subtle observations about systemic racism and classism, the movie had a peculiar sociological relevance to it.

Viewed today, as artist and commentator William O. Tyler recently pointed out, the movie shows its age. As a character, Helen falls into the silly “white savior” trope. That Candyman also spends most of the movie terrorizing other African-Americans rather than the white woman that actually summons him doesn’t play well, either. Still, while Candyman may be a film of a different time, it still has a lot going for it today, starting with Todd’s remarkable performance. This is a horror film about ideas more than gore, atmosphere more than quick cuts and loud noises designed to make the audience jump. Candyman argues that injustice perpetrated against one man can haunt a community for generations.

Now that really is scary.

Streams on Peacock, Amazon, Hulu & YouTube.

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