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Bobby Bermea: A little ‘Candyman’ in your trick-or-treat bag

The 1992 movie raised the stakes on horror films by casting a Black man as the villain and, like 1999's Japanese "Audition," giving a glimpse of the future.

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Tony Todd, bringing the scares in “Candyman.” Photo: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment © 1992

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“They will say that I have shed innocent blood. But what’s blood for, if not for shedding?”

– Tony Todd, Candyman

Most great horror movies depend on a singular charismatic performance at the center. Bela Lugosi in Dracula. Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Anthony Perkins, Psycho. Sissy Spacek, Carrie. Kathy Bates in Misery. They don’t even always have to be the villains: Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, for instance, or Toni Collette in Hereditary. But there needs to be one performance around which the entire enterprise centers, that draws the audience in either through the performer’s villainous magnetism or their ability to completely tap into the well of audience emotion and experience and bring it to the fore. Before 1992’s Candyman, there had been no iconic Black horror movie monster. Tony Todd changed all that. 

Tony Todd was, in many ways, an old-school horror movie archetype. Tall and imposing with a velvety baritone, he seemed forged in the same fires that brought the world other fantastic fear-fiends such as Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Jr. and Karloff. Todd wasn’t pretty, but he was captivating in a chiseled, rugged way that was still seductive. Aside from his imposing physique, he was able to infuse his Candyman with romance, elegance, and a sense of suffering, while never compromising his palpable sense of malice and gravitas. In an era when Hollywood would allow five Black movie stars, one being Denzel Washington and the other four being comedians or rappers, Todd accomplished something that hadn’t been done before: He was a Black man who became one of American cinema’s acknowledged bogeymen.

Candyman is about a graduate student, Helen Lyle (played by Virginia Madsen) who is studying urban legends. She learns of a murderous ghost, Candyman (Todd), who haunts a housing project, Cabrini-Green, on the southside of Chicago. The legend of Candyman is that he appears whenever you say his name five times in a mirror. Naturally, Lyle is at first skeptical, and herself says his name into a mirror five times. Bloodshed and havoc immediately follow.  

Tall and imposing with a velvety baritone: Tony Todd as Candyman. Photo: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment © 1992

It says a lot about Todd’s performance that he is by far the most memorable thing about Candyman. Even back in the ’90s, Candyman was problematic in its depiction of Black life and violence toward Black people perpetrated by a Black man. These different facets of the story were approached from what was then considered a “progressive” attitude, which a lot of times, only makes things worse. Such was the case with Candyman, which took this complicated and volatile subject matter and centered it all on the story of a white woman, Virginia Madsen. She actually dies saving an African-American baby from a bonfire. You don’t get much more “white-savior”-y than that! It’d be funny if it weren’t so cringey. And the math of the story, such as it was, just didn’t add up. In Candyman’s life on earth he was killed by a racist white mob for loving a white woman (who bore a striking resemblance to Madsen), but now he kills primarily Black people? (All of these mistakes and more were corrected in Nia DaCosta’s 2021 remake.) They could have made practically the same movie, made the Madsen character a Black woman, and lost about 90 percent of the cringe factor. But then we wouldn’t have been in 1992, and a whole lot of other things would have been different.

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None of those bad decisions or the numerous plot holes and head-scratchers undermined the work of Todd.  “Representation matters” is almost a cliché in 21st century America (except that it still matters, is still an issue, and is still resisted) but one of the nuances of this concept is that sometimes, representation can mean getting to play the bad guy. The coolest character in the Star Wars universe to this day is Darth Vader. As great as Jodie Foster was in Silence of the Lambs, the far more fascinating character was Hannibal Lecter. And for all of its artistic clumsiness and political short-sightedness , Candyman gave the world a Black monster that everybody was drawn to and moved directly into the American canon of pop culture phantasmagoria.

When the audience first meets Candyman, Todd, long and lean and in the shadows with a long coat and hook for a hand, exuded the same provocative allure as meeting Lugosi among the cobwebs in his castle, or meeting Lecter in his dungeon in the depths. Later on, Candyman kisses Madsen’s character, Helen, while swarms of bees pour out of his mouth and chest. That gleefully appalling moment brought literal screams from the audience back in 1992. To achieve it, Todd had to wear a special mouthpiece to minimize bee stings (when I tell you there ain’t enough mouthpiece in the world…!) and negotiated with the studio to pay him a thousand bucks for every time a bee stung him. Is it worth going through all that to become a cultural icon? Tony Todd decided it was, and subsequently became a cultural touchstone, still relevant today. That’s what we remember, and that is the lasting significance of Candyman

Candyman the film was adapted from a short story, “The Forbidden,” by horror maven Clive Barker. For me, the other sea change in fear flicks came from across the other, larger pond. Previously, my knowledge of horror films from Japan revolved wholly around the fire-breathing, Tokyo-destroying, atomic leviathan of sea and land, Godzilla. Godzilla had a special place in the heart of elementary school-age Bobby B, as I had spent many a Saturday afternoon vacillating between awe and guffaws watching Godzilla vs. Rodan; Godzilla vs. The Thing; Godzilla, The Thing and Rodan vs. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster; Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla; Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and what seemed like dozens of others — and no, I never cared that you could tell Godzilla was a dude in a rubber suit and he was actually stepping on what appeared to be Matchbox cars and plastic models of buildings.

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Eihi Shiina in “Audition.” Photo © Lions Gate Home Enterttainment

All of this left me entirely unprepared, two decades later, for an absolute stunner of a movie called Audition, a 1999 film by  Takashi Miike

I’d missed out on 1998’s Ringu, also from Japan. Not for any particular reason, I just missed it. And frankly, I had to be dragged to see Audition. Nothing about the premise seemed remotely interesting to me. How could such a movie affect me, an old horror movie buff from back in the day? 

Audition follows the fortunes of a widower, Shigeharu Aoyama, played by Ryo Ishibashi, who stages a fake audition in order to find himself a new wife. Now, you might think that this is a dubious – at best – method of finding a potential life partner, and I’d be inclined to agree with you even before seeing this movie. Aoyama becomes enthralled with Asami Yamazaki, played by the astonishing Eihi Shiina, and…and…well, let’s just say that this particular column is about horror movies, so you might guess that things didn’t go well for our widower. Boy, you’d be right on the money. 

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As I mentioned above, the vast majority of quality horror movies are absolutely dependent on a villain, a monster, an antagonist who is diabolically appealing. Whatever the reason is that audiences go to see horror movies, whatever that need is, the ghoul at the center of your shock cinema has to encapsulate all of that. Eihi Shiina, with what appears to be a minimum of effort, skyrockets Audition to the stratosphere. “Kiri, kiri, kiri,” she repeats as a terrifying mantra — and to this day, when I even type those words as I did a few seconds ago, I get chills. It’s hard to find an exact definition of this word, but in the subtitles it’s translated as “deeper, deeper.” Which kind of makes sense in the context of what’s happening, but somehow, I don’t think that’s quite it. Whatever, in the annals of scary movies, that line went straight to the top. 

Why do I associate these two films together? For me, they provided a glimpse into the future, a vision in which now our collective lucid nightmares would more accurately reflect the world we live in. They told their stories in wildly different ways, and what was important to each film was deeply ingrained in the land from which it came.

Horror represents a typically violent deviation from the norm, but the “norm” previously had been one face, one complexion. Now, I could see not only my own face at the center of these dark fantasies, but I was witnessing other faces that were different than I was used to seeing. I was moved by these phantasms, both similar to and much different from the ways that I had been moved before. Candyman and Audition helped me realize that that was important to me — that I had needed that, wanted that, all along.  

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From writers Mary Beth McAndrews and Bee Scott, The 28 Best Japanese Horror Movies of All Time.

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  • Bobby Bermea: A piercing tale of horror. Jack Pierce and the invention of a Hollywood horror classic, the makeup and design of Frankenstein’s monster: Read Part 1 of Bermea’s series of Halloween essays.
  • Bobby Bermea: O, the (lovely) horror of it all! A television host called The Bowman Body opened the creaking lid to an overflowing casket of horror films – and a fascinated boy discovered a lifelong passion. Read Part 2 of Bermea’s series of Halloween essays.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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