The Daily Stream: The Original Candyman Is One Of The Best Horror Movies Ever Made

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: Candyman (1992)

Where You Can Stream It: Peacock

The Pitch: An eerie, elegant work of horror that brings an urban legend to terrifying life. Residents of Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects are eternally haunted by a hook-handed ghost who comes when summoned. A grad student digging into the story for a thesis assumes it's all hokum, of course — but she quickly learns that the legend is terrifyingly real.

There's a new "Candyman" in town this week, as Nia DaCosta's very good sequel/update heads to the big screen. But before you see the new "Candyman" you should probably pay a visit to the original, even if you've already seen it countless times. Why? Because no matter how good you remember the movie being, I assure you it's even better.

Why It's Essential Viewing

There are very few modern horror movies I would consider "elegant." That's not a slight on modern horror, mind you — it just doesn't seem to be a term that applies to what we think of when we think of horror. But the original "Candyman" is an exception. There's something classical about the entire affair. Perhaps it's because of Philip Glass' gorgeous, haunting score. Or perhaps it's because of the directorial style of Bernard Rose, who doesn't go for the cheap or easy scare here. While there are maybe two or three moments that could be considered "jump scares" in "Candyman," the horror in the film comes from the atmosphere; the style; the hopelessness. Yes, "Candyman" is unapologetically bleak. Whenever I revisit the film it's not the bloody kills that scare me. It's not even Candyman himself, even though Tony Todd's performance is up there with Bela Lugosi's Dracula in terms of iconic monsters. Rather, what always gives me the chills is how utterly doomed the main character Helen Lyle is. She tumbles down a deep, dark hole into a world where nothing can save her. After all, how can you defend yourself against an unstoppable ghost? You can't exactly turn to someone for help. 

In "Candyman," the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago are the home to a particular urban legend — if you say "Candyman" in front of a mirror five times, Candyman himself will appear and rip you open with his hook hand. This legend isn't exactly new — the "chant a name in front of a mirror" game is very old school, recalling the childhood game of Bloody Mary. But "Candyman" puts a unique twist on the matter. The residents of Cabrini have turned him into their own personal boogeyman — and as it turns out, there's a hint of historical detail backing up the story. As grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) learns, the origins of Candyman date back to the story of a Black man (he's never given a name in the original, but the sequels call him Daniel Robitaille) who was murdered by a white mob after impregnating a white woman. Issues of race prevail throughout the film, although they remain mostly in the background. 

Helen thinks this is all just a ghost story with no real danger, so she dares to summon Candyman in front of a mirror. This turns out to be the biggest mistake of her life, because soon the spirit is summoned and begins cutting his way through Helen's friends and family. And that's where the hopelessness sets in. The cops and the people in Helen's life don't believe for a second that a ghost is responsible for the crimes — they think Helen herself is to blame. And she has no way to convince them otherwise. Even Helen's boyfriend (Xander Berkeley) turns on her, carrying on an affair with one of his much younger students. There's a scene where Madsen, as Helen, stares into the Chicago River, the dark waters churning, that feels scarier than the entirety of most modern horror. Nothing scary actually happens in the scene, but the utter hopelessness radiating off the moment as Helen realizes she has absolutely no one to turn to is downright terrifying.