Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Candyman at 30: How an urban legend became a horror classic

Writer-director Bernard Rose looks back at bringing the Candyman myth to life, working with Phillip Glass, and appeasing the MPAA's "blood lust"

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Tony Todd as Candyman in Bernard Rose’s Candyman.
Tony Todd as Candyman in Bernard Rose’s Candyman.
Photo: TriStar Pictures

Although Candyman recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, writer-director Bernard Rose’s adaptation was of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” remains vivid, unique, and powerful. Starring Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd, the film defined and deconstructed the phenomena of urban legends through its story of a white semiotician who uncovers a vengeful force while researching Cabrini Green, an impoverished area of Chicago largely inhabited by people of color. Cabrini Green no longer exists as it was chronicled in the film, but Rose’s movie endures as a standard-bearer for genre filmmaking that delivers both great thrills and thoughtful cultural commentary.

Rose recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Candyman, its creation, and its legacy, including the 2021 follow-up-cum-sequel. Here Rose talks about the inspirations for making his first horror film, asking the right questions to ensure his landscape and its people were not exploited, and the prospect of outmaneuvering a then very-powerful MPAA (not to mention a know-it-all studio exec) to deliver the film he wanted to make.


AVC: Candyman offered a unique amount of social commentary for a horror film at the time of its release. How much of that was a deliberate choice?

Advertisement

BR: Well, I think it’s something that happens, whether or not you intended it, in as much as all films made during the ’40s are about World War II, wherever they’re set. I don’t have an agenda. I certainly don’t have a party political agenda. So I feel like there are things going on around me that get my attention, that are interesting and I feel like it’s worth putting them in there. But I’m not trying to make films with a dogmatic point of view. Sometimes just being aware of what’s going on is enough. Whatever you’re doing, it’s worth trying to somehow include what’s going on, because then at least these people in the future will go, oh, that’s what it was like. And Candyman’s a good example, as much as Cabrini Green does not exist anymore. If we hadn’t made that film, no one would know what it looked like.

(from left) Virginia Madsen and Kasi Lemmons in Bernard Rose’s Candyman.
(from left) Virginia Madsen and Kasi Lemmons in Bernard Rose’s Candyman.
Photo: TriStar Pictures
Advertisement

AVC: Even though Candyman is focused on a blonde white woman, it skillfully integrates racial elements at a time when, frankly, most people wouldn’t have expected that in a horror film.

BR: The story wasn’t written with a racial element, but it was after I went to Chicago, I just thought, “This is how it really is.” The story was written and set in a housing project in Liverpool, and it was about poverty rather than race. But I think the racial aspect just added an enormous amount of extra power—and it was just what was there. I think whenever you’re doing these things, you can’t be wrong if you’re telling the truth, and you’re always wrong if you have an agenda, whatever your agenda. But in retrospect, it was considered very radical doing it that way. But it’s what keeps the movie alive too.

Advertisement

AVC: Clive Barker says you were drawn to the idea of making a horror movie about horror movies, which was undertaken more explicitly in a film like Scream a few years later. What films inspired this project?

BR: Well, I think that the idea of storytelling is very central to the movie. And to me, the concept of storytelling and story within stories goes back to Shaherazade. I mean, it’s not something that starts with horror films. But the telling of a tale that has a mystical or magical or frightening aspect to it definitely is something that’s part of human society from the beginning. And I think that was the idea, the idea that there was a modern folkloric tradition that people could now investigate that came from the idea of urban legends. And everyone knows about urban legends now, but when I wrote the screenplay, it wasn’t a phrase that was in common parlance. It was the subject of academic books. And there were actually a couple of academic books that I managed to read, particularly The Vanishing Hitchhiker by Jan Van Brunvand, which really elaborated that. And I think that really gave it a real basis. So, yes, in a sense. And also, she is a semiotician. So she is somebody who is, by her nature, analyzing the tales from a meta point of view. And so the film takes on that mantle as part of its subject matter rather than it being imposed upon it. And it always was structured that there would be stories within stories within stories, and every time you got one layer closer to the actual thing. And the whole point of an urban legend is that it’s always “a friend of a friend.” So supposing you actually suddenly got one degree closer, that would be something terrifying. What is the Bible except telling you stories about a friend of a friend? “Well, my friend Moses went up the hill and met God.” “Oh, yeah?” That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Advertisement

AVC: You’ve mentioned that the more you show a monster, the less scary it becomes. How did you decide how much of Candyman to show?

BR: Well, I think the problem with a horror movie is once you show the monster, how do you actually continue the film without it either just escalating the number of murders or becoming laughable? That’s always been the problem with horror films. Halloween confronted it by showing you that he was a kid at the beginning, the opening scene, and then it was always some guy in a mask. You never really knew who he was. It was the same thing with all the ’80s slashers. They always had that sensation. But Nightmare On Elm Street was always a great example of a film, I think, where after the third film or even the second film, Freddy became more of a stand-up comedian. And there becomes this very strange shift of allegiance where the audience suddenly is on the side of the monster. If it’s Frankenstein, that’s not a problem, because that’s the story, that you love the monster. In Kong, it’s not a problem because you love the monster. But if you’re supposed to be still scared of this person, it’s a problem, and then it has to turn into something else. Which is always why The Exorcist is such an effective film, because you never see the monster, really. You only see the effect on the little girl. And you never see the monster at all in Rosemary’s Baby. You barely see the creature in Jaws. And when you do see, it’s a mistake. It’s scary in Jaws because it doesn’t look like any shark I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t stop it being effective, because the movie’s so well organized at that point.

Advertisement

So the problem is always what happens when you show the monster, because then what’s he going to do? He’s going to sit and talk to you? That’s why I think the film does shift once Tony comes on. Luckily, Tony was so wonderful that you start to root for him. But because the first half of the movie is very frightening before you meet him, enough of that still carries over so the second half can work. But there is a big shift of tone. And that’s always why I think sequels are so difficult for horror films, because they’ve already shown him.

AVC: You mentioned Jaws. Were there specific films that you drew upon for inspiration, because you had not made a horror film prior to this?

Advertisement

BR: Yeah, certainly Jaws is a very clever textbook of pacing and scares. [But] there’s always [the question,] what is actually a horror film? I know people always say that you really need a supernatural element. I tend to agree. So I would even say, although Jaws is a monster movie, it’s not really a horror film because it’s not a supernatural story. But obviously The Shining is very brilliant in terms of its just atmosphere. And Rosemary’s Baby, a lot of the films of [Roman] Polanski. But these films were very powerful. The Exorcist, of course, is a great movie. The ’70s was such a great period for high end, quite serious horror films. And I always liked the original Texas Chain Saw. It’s a great movie, and so is the original Halloween.

Kasi Lemmons and Virginia Madsen in Bernard Rose’s Candyman.
Kasi Lemmons and Virginia Madsen in Bernard Rose’s Candyman.
Photo: TriStar Pictures
Advertisement

AVC: I want to go back to Cabrini Green. You were exploring fears about inner cities in the film, but you had to be careful not to exploit the people who lived there.

BR: Well, I was just trying to show what life was like in Cabrini for most people, which is, most people when they close their doors, it’s just somewhere to live. I think that’s Helen’s problem. She’s attracted to all that stuff. She wants to go in there and cause trouble, and she ends up making it worse. Far from saving anybody, she ruins it for them. And I think that happens a lot in real life. I’m going to go in and sort everything out.

Advertisement

AVC: Sort of a gentrification.

BR: Well, yeah. Gentrification doesn’t really help anybody except property developers. That’s what the new film is about, and I think that was the right thing to start with. It was definitely what happened to Cabrini, because by the early 2000s, the whole place had been knocked out. But you can imagine that the Chicago Housing Authority were planning to demolish it long before we were there. And the fact that they were kind of letting it rot so that they could say, we have no choice but to knock it down, was more to do with the fact that the land was very valuable there, right by the Gold Coast. And right by downtown Chicago. So the state of the place was a deliberate policy.

Advertisement

AVC: Some of the violence is the film does more by showing less. But some is more explicit. Is there something that you have to deliver, regardless of how much you want to show restraint?

BR: Yeah, I’ve never really been trying to show restraint. I think the only thing that was restraining me on that film with the MPAA. The film was originally rated NC-17 and we made some very minor cuts to it, which, frankly, made no difference whatsoever, to appease their blood lust.

Advertisement

AVC: Do you remember the points of contention with the MPAA?

BR: It was to do with the scene where he eviscerates the psychiatrist. They didn’t like the amount of blood that was spurting out. They didn’t want any shot of the hook going in, entering him, if you know what I mean. They were very funny about any form of penetration back then. It was almost like they were looking for sexual imagery in the violence. They’ve always been an odd bunch. [But] there were a couple of things where we had slightly less gory takes and the pieces of film had been made up, ready to go. We showed them the tougher version, imagining that they would object. And then we would have literally have swapped out the pieces of negative and it would have been a very, very easy and low-cost procedure. I think there was a couple of those they never even noticed. Spurting and penetration I think. It was all about sex for them.

Advertisement

AVC: Philip Glass’ score elevates the film so much. What was that collaboration like?

BR: Philip pretty much does what Philip wants to do. And then it’s up to you to find out how are you going to make it work for your movie. That’s pretty much what happens with Philip. And I’ve done three movies with him. He’s a real composer. He’s on a different plane of existence than most film composers, who know how to hit the big low notes and get the subwoofer going, which is a cliche, be honest. And I was always very keen that Philip would write something that didn’t have to carry the suspense or the jumps or anything like that. That stuff would be done with sound design rather than done by music.

Candyman (1992) - Official Trailer

AVC: His music is there to create a certain mood, but it’s not something that’s leading the audience through moments of horror.

Advertisement

BR: If you’re in a movie and the scary music clicks in, I’m actually thinking, “Ah, time for a nap,” because you’re just being led by the nose. But now, the scoring in movies is such that it starts at the beginning and it goes all the way through to the end. And every single beat moment and thing has to be slammed in your face with horns kind of thing. And that’s tedious. I don’t like that. You look at The Exorcist, there’s hardly any music in it. I mean, in the scary scenes, I can’t even remember a cue.

AVC: Was there a moment after you finished this when you felt like you accomplished exactly what you wanted, or were vindicated by its success?

Advertisement

BR: There was a funny moment like that where we were doing test screenings of the film, and although it got very strong reactions from the audience, they would never mark it very high because test screenings don’t really work in the same way for horror films with people. But we’d worked on the film quite a bit and it was in very good shape. And I think there was a point where there was some [studio executive] idiot who thought he was an expert who wanted to come along and say, oh no, this film is really slow, and we need to cut all this stuff, and cut it all to ribbons, and make it much more just a bunch of kids getting knives stuck in them kind of thing. And then there was a test screening, and it just went through the roof. And afterwards, we just politely said to this guy, “Maybe you should just go back to your office, take out the wastepaper bin and put yourself in it.” It’s always fun when that happens.