Stars Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd talk about the subversive horror classic, 25 years on
CANDYMAN IS RARELY mentioned in the same breath as the great screen monsters of the ’80s and ’90s: the Freddys, the Jasons and the Pinheads. He should be. Bernard Rose’s adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story, about a woman (Virginia Madsen) who becomes a target for a spectral urban legend (Tony Todd) who can be summoned by saying his name five times into a mirror, is haunting, lyrical, and more relevant than ever. We spoke to Madsen and Todd about their Candyman experiences.
Madsen wasn’t Rose’s first choice to play Helen Lyle, the University Of Chicago grad student who falls foul of Tony Todd’s hook-handed killer in the 1993 horror classic. Rose had written the role for his then-wife, Alexandra Pigg, and had cast Madsen as her best friend, Bernadette. But when Pigg became pregnant, he turned to Madsen. At the time, Pigg and Madsen were good mates and Madsen admits she was “extremely conflicted” about stepping in, until Pigg persuaded her. “She said if anyone was going to play the role, it would have to be me.”
Todd had already dipped his toe in horror waters with a starring role in Tom Savini’s remake of Night Of The Living Dead a couple of years earlier. But he actually caught Rose’s eye in an entirely different film, and genre, playing a Kenyan Air pilot in The Last Elephant. “He knew that face and persona is what he wanted,” explains Todd, who was initially sceptical about playing a character called Candyman. “I thought they were referring to Sammy Davis Jr,” he laughs. (Davis Jr famously performed a song called ‘The Candy Man’.) But when he realised the role, and the film, was serious, he undertook a series of “personality tests” and meetings with Propaganda Films, who were financing the project, before a “lovely lunch” with co-star Virginia Madsen and director Bernard Rose sealed the deal.
The dynamic between Lyle and the Candyman is not the sort of thing you find in a typical horror movie. Tormented, tempestuous and tragic, it’s even tinged with a heavy hint of twisted romance. When it came to her scenes opposite the sonorous-voiced Todd, Madsen felt Helen should be in a hypnotic state. “Candyman was a very romantic, beautiful monster, the way Dracula was,” she says. “Dracula puts his lovers in a trance, then drinks their blood — very kinky.” In fact, she was actually hypnotised for certain scenes in the movie. “It was all very young actor-y bullshit, but it did work. It gave my face
and eyes a certain look. I would never do it again. I would use acting next time.” For his part, Todd didn’t see the character as a traditional movie villain. Neither did Rose, reimagining him as a terrifying but noble figure with a shocking backstory. A former slave-turned-artist, the Candyman (we learn his name, Daniel Robitaille, in the sequel) falls in love with a white woman, and is tortured to death by an angry mob, who replaced his painting hand with a hook, administered bee stings, and then immolated him for good measure. “Candyman is not a slasher,” says Todd. “He’s a wounded romantic, more like a Phantom Of The Opera. His greatest crime was he fell in love with a woman who wasn’t his particular race. All those things struck the tragic chord for me.”
THE BIG CHANGE
‘The Forbidden’, the short story from Clive Barker’s Books Of Blood upon which Candyman is based, is a fairly different beast. It’s set in Liverpool, not Chicago, for one thing. Yet Rose, a fellow Englishman, didn’t transplant the action to America on a whim. In reimagining Candyman as an African-american man, a former slave, no less, and in setting key scenes in Chicago’s Cabrini-green housing project, he gives the film a cutting political and social edge that sets it apart from its kin. Yet the decision ruffled certain feathers even before shooting began, with producers concerned about accusations of racial stereotyping. “Bernard had some challenges with the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People] who wanted to have a script read,” Todd recalls. “That comes from kneejerk liberalism, being afraid of not knowing the context of something. You can’t censor something before something is made.”
When the film was released, less than a year after the Rodney King trial, Madsen says cast and crew were prepared for a political discussion about race that failed to materialise. “It’s like with Sideways — nobody asked us about drink driving,” she sighs. “[But] if Jordan Peele remakes Candyman, he might make an even stronger statement”.
It’s true. Jordan Peele is attached to a Candyman remake, and word is he may even direct. Should it come to pass, Madsen feels there’s only one man who can play him. “It would be a shame if they didn’t let Tony. He created that role. I couldn’t play Helen, because Helen would still have to be young and naive. But I would have to be in there somewhere, wouldn’t I?”
As for Todd, Candyman — franchise and character — has been good to him. Despite initial concerns that the role would see him typecast as a baddie, he went on to star in two sequels and remains intensely proud and protective of the character. “Whenever I do a convention, he remains my number one seller, which I still find mystifying. But I’m always honoured.” He would absolutely be on board for the remake, and you wouldn’t even have to say his name five times. “I think it’s wonderful,” he says. “And I’m sure I’ll be involved one way or another.” In fact, he and Rose are hoping to meet Peele to pitch their take. “Bernard and I have been talking about a remake for years. We wanted to do a Bride Of Frankenstein and get Virginia and I back together. In my heart, I know the character inside and out, like nobody else.” You could even say he’s hooked. MARK SALISBURY CANDYMAN IS OUT NOW ON BLU-RAY
Above: Tony Todd, post “personality tests”, as Candyman.
Clockwise from top: Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) with baby Anthony; Candyman creates a buzz; That electric blanket was just a bit too toasty; Candyman and Lyle play with fire.