‘Candyman’ at 30: director Bernard Rose on the cult horror’s lost meaning

"I think there’s been something slightly missed about it," says the cult filmmaker

“Horror is a filmmaker’s medium,” says Bernard Rose, director of ‘90s classic Candyman. Scary movies were considered cheap and schlocky when his creepy flick hit cinemas – and we’ve just asked Rose what appealed to him about the genre. “Most horror films suck, but the ones that don’t suck have been made by some of the very best filmmakers.” He namechecks Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. “People go [to watch horror films] for a kind of physical reaction, and that gives you something very concrete to deal with.”

Candyman (1992), 30 years old this year, is based on Clive Barker’s eerie short story, The Forbidden. Written during the mid-1980s when Thatcher was in power, Barker’s Scouse horror legend mixed together themes of social abandonment with supernatural nightmare. In both The Forbidden and Candyman, a well-intentioned but blundering university researcher, named Helen (Virginia Madsen), explores an impoverished inner-city space. There, much to her surprise, she discovers a demonic presence. The Candyman isn’t a clichéd ‘80s slasher villain, however. He’s drawn from gothic literature. He’s swooningly seductive, and fond of quoting Shakespeare. He’s Count Dracula meets the Phantom of the Opera, not a Freddy Krueger type.

Rose, on friendly terms with Barker, snapped up the film rights. “I liked the central concept, the idea that there’s a monster who relies on people’s fear and belief in him in order to exist,” he tells NME via Zoom as a new 4K restoration is released on Blu-ray, “and if they were to stop fearing, stop believing in him, that he would cease to exist.”

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Shifting the narrative from the UK to America, from a council estate in Liverpool to a housing development in Chicago, could have spelled trouble. “Going to Chicago was a kind of slightly random thing. I went there to scout it, take a look around. The stuff that I saw and experienced in Chicago [the social deprivation], it was genuinely shocking,” Rose remembers. “Obviously, a lot of things [from the film] came from the real place and from what happened there. And it added a whole other aspect to the story, which had a whole other element to it, which was the racial element, which I think made it a much bigger film.”

After Rose selected the rundown Cabrini-Green housing project as the setting for his film, the Candyman had to be played by an African American. “There was no way it could be a white guy. It just wouldn’t make any sense whatsoever,” Rose states. Tony Todd’s elegant performance subsequently made him an icon and his casting reworked the material in radical ways. “With a short story, you can expand and go into things in more detail and play them out in fuller scenes. Whereas with a novel, you’re always looking at things to cut. And you never know if what you’re cutting might be the thing that actually makes the novel work.”

While on the subject of casting, Rose is keen to debunk the long-circulated rumour about Eddie Murphy being offered the part. He’s baffled as to where this blatant nonsense came from. “That whole bullshit thing that’s around about Eddie Murphy, there’s not a shred of truth to it,” he laughs. “It was never even talked about.”

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Virginia Madsen plays university researcher Helen in ‘Candyman’. CREDIT: Alamy

The Forbidden easily translated across the pond, as fear of poverty-stricken environments reverberates beyond borders. “The Illinois Film Commission wouldn’t go in there without an armed escort of police officers,” he says. Their frightened approach only proved how fear of the streets operated institutionally. “We’re scared of poor people?” Rose continues, unimpressed back then by the lack of sensitivity. “I did get talking to a woman, a young mother who lived there, and I took her telephone number. And later on, I went back on my own. And it was a very different experience because I wasn’t travelling with cops.”

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A white director from Britain telling a story set against the backdrop of America’s social issues, past and present, might come in for plenty of online flak in today’s climate, but Rose says he’d make Candyman again today, no problem: “I would make this film today, or something similar. You’ve got to remember, [the story] is told from Virginia Madsen’s [character’s] perspective, a white person going in there. I think there’s been something slightly missed about the film [in the wake of Nia DaCosta’s sequel last year]. It’s an inversion of the ‘white saviour’ narrative [in which a white central character rescues characters of another ethnicity from unfortunate circumstances]. Instead, she goes in there and makes things worse. And I think that’s the point [of the film].”

Rose’s matter-of-fact portrayal of economic hardship, and his observational camera style – expressionism mixed with social realism – is what gives Candyman its lasting impact. “There’s fear of the Candyman, which is irrational, but there’s also the bourgeois fear of the projects, which is equally irrational, and is at its heart, you know, an excellent demonstration of racism. And I think that’s where the film got its power from.”

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Jordan Peele produced a ‘Candyman’ sequel last year starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. CREDIT: Universal

While Rose has little positive to say about the immediate sequels churned out in the 1990s, he is complimentary about the sequel, produced and co-written by Jordan Peele. “It follows on directly [from the original] and Jordan’s film has an interesting thesis. And what a lot of people don’t know is, Jordan was developing Candyman before [game-changing 2017 horror] Get Out.”

How does it feel to have made a horror movie so highly regarded, canonised as a genre classic, a work that seemed to sense the future and tackled gentrification long before it became a buzzword? “It’s nice to make something that people still like, after all this time. Because, as they say, the alternative is worse. In the end, it’s almost like it’s not your business anymore. Like [the film] leaves home, it’s gone off [to live a life of its own].”

‘Candyman’ is available now on limited edition 4K UHD and Blu-ray

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