Helen, played by Virginia Madsen, and Bernadette, played by Kasi Lemmons, are University of Illinois students who investigate the Candyman legend for a graduate thesis. Candyman is a variation on the "Bloody Mary" legend and is summoned when his name is spoken five times before a mirror. Witnesses tell of a man with a hook for a hand who appears and eviscerates the one who summoned him.
Helen discovers that Candyman is reputed to live in Cabrini-Green, which at the time the film was made was a gang-infested Chicago housing project well-known as among the worst in the United States. She has a small connection with Cabrini-Green: The building in which she lives was built as a project, but the city dressed it up as luxury apartments when it was realized that there was no barrier to separate it from the valuable lakefront real estate.
Helen and Bernadette go into the project to investigate the alleged site of a killing and to interview residents. They are greeted with much mistrust. Gang members are gathered in front and take the pair for police, while the building's law-abiding residents aren't worried about police but have yet to see any good come out of a visit from white people. Helen plunges forward fearlessly, but Bernadette is scared witless. Paintings of Candyman decorate the walls. Despite Helen's skepticism, the images have a strange effect on her.
The pair's professor later fills them in on the backstory. Candyman was a well-educated and artistic black man who was lynched in the post-Civil War era. A gang of thugs chased him to Cabrini-Green, sawed off his hand and left him to be stung to death by bees.
Helen learns of another murder that took place at the project. Her investigation leads her to the place where it occurred, a putrid, bee-infested public restroom that doesn't appear to have been cleaned up since the crime. There, she is severely beaten by several men whose leader carries a hook and introduces himself as Candyman.
Helen responds to this with characteristic courage: She figures that she has gotten to the bottom of the legend. Publishers are interested, and she's escaped with her life and made a name for herself. Then the real Candyman shows up, and Helen's name starts sounding real bad. She starts to have blackout spells from which she wakes up, drenched in blood, in strange locations. All Candyman had was his legend, and now that it has been debunked, Helen must take his place.
An important difference between Candyman and other possession- or slasher-type films is that Candyman is not an evil presence but is himself a victim. That in itself is not unusual, as it is very common for killers in slashers to act in revenge for some past wrong. The difference is that Candyman does not act out of revenge. Candyman simply continues the cycle of bloodshed that brought him to be. He never asked to be part of it and is powerless to stop it.
Lynching is a technique that was, and unfortunately still is, used by majority whites to control minorities through fear. Candyman's continued presence serves as a reminder that keeps fear alive in the minds of the Cabrini-Green residents. This is symbolized in the film's opening sequence by a cloud that darkens the city and is the reason that someone must take Candyman's place. These tactics are still in use, so a new source of terror is needed. Note that Helen moves boldly through the project, immune to the controlling fear that Candyman represents, but Bernadette is so fearful of the place that she won't even drive near it. Because Helen is different, she cannot be a figure of terror in the way that Candyman was.
As the victim of a lynching, Candyman is as tragic and sympathetic a figure as is Helen. This helps make her transformation into the new Candyman feel less like a downer ending and more like a triumph. In death, Helen replaces Candyman's symbol of fear and becomes an inspiration to the Cabrini-Green community. Her sacrifice opens the possibility of change.
As Candyman says and graffiti proclaims, "It was always you, Helen." This twist is foreshadowed by the giant graffiti face through whose mouth she steps early in the film. Look at the high cheekbones and the curve of the forehead- that painting resembles Helen an awful lot more than it does Candyman. Throughout the film, the camera focuses on Helen's face in ways that echo that image. This reinforces the sense of Helen's destiny.
Virginia Madsen is superb. She brings a warmth to her role that is hardly ever seen in a horror film. Tony Todd is perfect. A towering, supernatural spirit with a hook for a hand is threatening on its own, and Todd wisely plays up the character's tragic, human side instead of overstating his menace. The supporting cast is also top-notch.
The minimalist orchestral composer Philip Glass wrote the soundtrack, which is unusual and gives the movie an extra touch of class. Glass also wrote the soundtrack for the art film Koyaanisqatsi, which uses his slowly evolving music to contrast images of nature with images of technology and its sometimes destructive effects on society. Frequent aerial shots of traffic and structures, as well as the bee motifs, combine with the Glass score to give Candyman a feel strongly reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi.
Candyman is among the best of the best. Not only is it an intelligent and a well-made film, it also has heart. It is capable of raising emotions even as it creates fear and makes a statement about real-world issues. This is everything one can hope for in a horror film, or indeed in any movie.