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Original ‘Candyman’ held a mirror up to a divided Chicago

Was the 1992 cult horror classic more than just shock and gore? You can say that again.

Tony Todd plays the title ghost in “Candyman,” who can be summoned by saying his name five times into a mirror.
TriStar Pictures

“They will say that I have shed innocent blood, but what’s blood for, if not for shedding? With my hook for a hand, I’ll split you from your groin to your gullet.” – Opening warning from “Candyman.”

When we think of the 1992 cult horror classic “Candyman,” we’re instantly reminded of the infamous urban legend from the movie that says if you face the mirror and say “Candyman” five times, a hook-handed ghost will “appear behind you, breathing down your neck,” and will gut you like a freshly caught fish — and while there are indeed some grisly gotcha moments in Bernard Rose’s exquisitely frightening chiller, there’s more to “Candyman” than mere shock and gore.

With the direct sequel “Candyman,” co-produced and co-written by Jordan Peele and directed by Nia DaCosta, lurking just around the corner (or maybe he’s right behind you!), I revisited the original for the first time in years and was reminded of how a movie set in a supernatural world also managed to weave in some insightful and timely social and political commentary about the Chicago of the early 1990s. (“Candyman” is based on the Clive Barker short story “The Forbidden,” which was set in Liverpool and explored class warfare in the British class system, but writer-director Rose moved the tale to Chicago and shined a spotlight on similar themes.)

By the time “Candyman” was released in 1992, we had been indoctrinated by a steady diet of horror films from the 1970s and 1980s involving virtually all-white casts either in suburbia or in rural settings, e.g., the “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchises. Then came “Candyman,” set largely in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, one of the worst public housing failures in 20th century America —a gang-controlled, crime-riddled, terribly neglected, dilapidated set of high-rise apartments situated only a few blocks but a million miles away from Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. (Just two months after “Candyman” was released, Cabrini-Green was in the national news after 7-year-old Dantrell Davis was shot and killed by a sniper’s stray bullet as he walked to school with his mother.)

Before “Candyman” morphs into a horror story, it’s a tale of the divide between Chicagoans who lead drastically different lives, due to the circumstances of their social class and the luck of the birth draw. Time and again, we see overhead shots of Chicago as we move from neighborhood to neighborhood, while a choir straight out of “The Omen” amps up the feeling of something awful about to happen.

Chicago native Virginia Madsen is authentic and empathetic as Helen Lyle, a graduate student at the University of Illinois-Chicago who along with her fellow student and best friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, wonderful) is working on a thesis about how the residents of Cabrini-Green believe in the legend of Candyman as a coping/defense mechanism against the real violence permeating the projects.

Grad student Helen (Virginia Madsen) runs into trouble when her research takes her to Cabrini-Green.
TriStar Pictures

In the movie, Helen lives with her professor husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley) in a North Side condo complex called Lincoln Village (which is in reality the Carl Sandburg Village). As Helen explains to Bernadette, “My apartment was built as a housing project … but once it was finished, the city realized there was no barrier between this place and the Gold Coast, [so they] sold the lot off as condos.” As proof of the cheap original construction, Helen takes Bernadette into the bathroom and removes the mirror — which offers a direct view into the adjacent apartment, just like in Cabrini-Green, where the Candyman supposedly lurks behind every mirror, waiting to be summoned.

Once Helen and Bernadette actually make the trek to Cabrini-Green, where they’re harassed by gang members and suspected as cops, their safe and scholarly library research suddenly becomes real, and they’re stunned by the omnipresent graffiti, the horrific living conditions, the possibility of violence everywhere. (At one point, Helen is confronted and brutally beaten by a gang leader who says he’s the real-life Candyman.) Meanwhile, we hear the origins story of the Candyman legend from a condescending professor who finds the whole thing greatly amusing as he recounts how one Daniel Robitaille, a well-known Black portrait artist in the late 1800s, fell in love with and fathered a child with a white woman, which caused her father to send a lynch mob after Robitaille — a mob that cut off his right hand, smeared him with honey and unleashed a thousand bees that stung him to death.

A gang leader at Cabrini-Green (Terrence Riggins) confronts Helen (Virginia Madsen) and says he’s the real Candyman.
TriStar Pictures

That’s a LOT to unpack in a horror film — and indeed, we don’t even see Tony Todd giving his iconic portrayal of Candyman until we’re 40 minutes into the movie. From that point, “Candyman” turns into more of a standard horror film, albeit a stylish, well-photographed, suitably gross affair with some fantastic practical effects, a beautifully haunting score by Philip Glass and one hell of a twist ending. The Chicago we see here is dark and gray and ominous; when Helen stands on the Randolph Street Bridge with the Chicago River swirling below, we wonder if she’ll jump just to escape from the madness of seeing and hearing the Candyman even as she’s suspected of multiple murders, because come on, it can’t really be a hook-handed ghost from the 19th century creating such carnage, right?

Right?