I don’t scare very easily. I find many horror films to be mere rehashes of old tales, rendered soft by convenient cliches and mass appeasement. But every so often, you get a film that tries to do more than just shock its audience with grisly images and stock “Boo” moments. Films such as The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Cape Fear, and The Exorcist understood that fear comes not from strips of flesh and blood, but instead the unknown capacity of an evil we cannot control or understand. Bernard Rose, who directed the important horror film Candyman, crafts a superb slasher flick that not only induces fear with grotesque images but also pairs them with a masterful production and socially relevant ideas.

Helen Lyle (the beautiful Virginia Madsen) is a graduate student who is writing her dissertation on urban legends. Though most individuals would direct an urban legend as a cause of intense fear, Helen believes that the disenfranchised African-American population of Chicago is using the Candyman (Tony Todd using his baritone voice to great effect) urban legend as a crutch — a cause for their plight and the ensuing violence. This makes for a very interesting concept: Like the gods and demons that many people believe in, these urban legends are entities that are made real by collectively concentrated thought. Is Candyman a true phantom that scours the greater Chicago area, killing with his hook, or is he merely a mix of blind faith and tall tale? No one can know for sure, as those who have “seen” him lay dead on the floor in pieces of bone and gore.

When Helen and her partner in the study, Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), go searching for Candyman’s alleged lair in the heart of the projects, they happen upon an environment emblazoned with signs of fear and violence. Some of these designs point to the Candyman, such as the pictures on the wall that describe his origin. Others, memoirs of the despicable acts that occurred at the tip of his infamous hook. Helen isn’t buying it, and takes on the challenge to summon the legend: Say his name five times in the mirror, and he will haunt you.

As expected, she could not have been more wrong. Once he appears, things spiral quickly out of control. She meets the Candyman face to face, and when she next wakes up in an apartment covered in blood with a knife in hand, she hasn’t an alibi to cover the crime. No one believes her visions of the Candyman caused her to blackout. It is too preposterous — just another fairy tale excuse. Many horror films employ this style, the “Goddamnit, would you just listen for a second and believe me!” motif, but here it always works. It consistently puts our heroine in danger and only creates a more threateningly sinister villain, a man who watches from the shadows as an innocent takes the fall.

Candyman comes to a shocking conclusion I don’t dare divulge, and this is what makes the film so great. It is entirely unpredictable, and throws many interesting ideas into play. Stylistically, it is top notch. There is powerful use of sound here, accentuated by Philip Glass’s hauntingly monochromatic score. Additionally, the cinematography and editing allow less for quick-scares and more a boiler pot, tension building approach.

Look in the mirror and say Candyman five times after you see this movie. I’m just curious to see if anything will happen, because I sure as hell won’t try it.

Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.

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