Candyman :: The Last Temptation of Helen Lyle

The film CANDYMAN is highly regarded but not highly regarded enough for me. Not only is it the cream of its decade, I'd say it deserves to stand among the best of all time. Director BERNARD ROSE's obsessive, God's eye geometric visuals are positively KUBRICK-ian, the score by PHILLIP GLASS is gloriously inspired and the acting, most particularly that of VIRGINA MADSEN is award worthy for any genre. Based on the short story "The Forbidden" by CLIVE BARKER, CANDYMAN hides a bee's hive of intricacies behind a deceptively basic slasher coat. Perhaps the reason many don't appreciate the film's full exquisiteness is because they walk away overpowered by the mythos of the title character. The figure of Candyman, as in the tale itself, is a dynamic catch-all Rorschach sponge of urban fears but inside his shadow lies an even stronger presence, that of MADSEN's character Helen Lyle.

When we first encounter Helen she is working on a thesis involving urban legends. She is particularly drawn to the story of Candyman, a murderous phantom that can be summoned at will. We learn early on that her relationship with her husband Trevor (XANDER BERKELEY), a university professor, is important to her yet strained. There is a competition of sorts at play as Helen's research coincides with her partner's expertise. Helen clearly suspects infidelity and Trevor hides his fears of being challenged and surpassed with condescension.

As Helen learns more about Candyman, she subconsciously builds a springboard away from her marriage. Just as Trevor seems to yearn for a more submissive, child-like partner as represented by his flirtation with his student Stacey (CAROLYN LOWERY), Helen desires something deeper and more spiritual as represented by Candyman (TONY TODD). You can find characters like hubby Trevor in just about any romantic comedy, he's the shifty, superficial "Mr. Wrong" that the audience wills away from the protagonist. Strange as it may seem, Candyman reads as "Mr. Right", he is more than able to accept the entirety of Helen, which includes her attraction to darkness and her burgeoning desire to unearth the unpleasant. (Candyman may offer chocolates spiked with razor blades but hey, they're chocolates just the same.) Helen's research into his legend is really a bid to be taken as an equal. As frightening as Candyman may be he also offers validity and ultimately even immortality to Helen.

Don't worry, there's a pyre being constructed for all this lovey-dovey romance stuff. The fire that Candyman fans within Helen, even he won't be able to contain. If you're at all dubious of the film's connection to romantic melodrama though, take a gander at the snapshot of MADSEN below, lit up and oozing like a DOUGLAS SIRK heroine...

As Helen progresses forward on her path (spurred in one instance by a dismissive male colleague of Trevor's) she becomes more and more socially unacceptable and less useful as an ornament for her husband. She's publicly viewed as a possible murderess and written off as completely insane. After breaking free from a mental hospital and journeying back to her home (whispering pleads to herself that Trevor will be there) she walks in to find him shacking up with his chippy in the wings and painting their apartment PINK!

The color pink (which Helen vehemently and vocally hates) perfectly captures the mandatory traditional feminine values that Trevor requires but there's something bigger here too. This is a whitewash of a different hue, the conscious smudging out of the undesirable truth, the blatant opposite of what Helen has committed herself to. Helen surpassed her husband's capabilities the moment she stepped foot in Cabrini-Green, the hell's nest where she gathered her information on their shared interest first hand. Trevor wants to play house, he's an academic and an armchair researcher. Helen has learned to get dirty; she has learned to look into the mouth of the beast. Unlike Trevor, Helen is no longer a poseur, she has accepted a wider variety of color into her world (think of the graffiti in Cabrini-Green!) and some of the colors aren't pretty.

This is the height of feminist horror but it also speaks to the innate power and subversive bravery of the horror genre itself. In my opinion, Helen speaks for every horror fan, every true artist and every minority poised to shove back when she utters this next line to her happy to paint the whole world pink, bourgeois husband...

"What's the matter, Trevor? Scared of something?"

If he were capable of honesty or any self-awareness Trevor's answer would be, "Yes" and well it should be.

So Helen and her schismatic shadow suitor Candyman now get to walk hand in hook into the sunset right? Listen, this movie is NOT about Candyman, I don't care what the title tells you. Candyman says it himself...

"It was always you, Helen."

In case you didn't hear him, that sentiment is also painted on the wall clear as day. Now, I know that some read this sentence as confirmation that Helen is the reincarnation of Candyman's past love or evidence that everything is in her head and that she is guilty of the bloodshed we've seen. To me though, this movie is all about fables within fables and the power of legends and storytelling. The viewer can read this line anyway they like, but I believe it literally means "Hey Helen, this story, this legend, is ABOUT YOU not Candyman!"

We can give the iconoclastic Candyman some props for being a catalyst for change in Helen's life but she's the one who births him in her mind after all. He's really nothing without her. With every story she hears she adds to his vigor, but make no mistake about who made who flesh. In fact, Candyman uses Helen's desire for meaning against her. He claims that he will free an infant child he has stolen if she will sacrifice herself and become legendary alongside him. This turns out to be a rouse, a way for Candyman to in fact subjugate and shadow Helen just as Trevor wanted to, a way to keep her latched to his coattail.

Instead, Helen kills Candyman (no sequel can tell me different) and crawls THROUGH FIRE to save the child. She dies a martyr's death, hair aflame like JOAN OF ARC. Her journey has been a solitary one, understood and acknowledged by few. Poetic justice prevails though, as the residents of Cabrini-Green somehow understand what she has sacrificed and accomplished. Perhaps finding a hook amongst the rubble was proof enough or maybe they just instinctively recognize that Helen raged against the same machine that they must. As her whispered story spreads she is finally able to surpass not only Trevor but also Candyman. Like a true hero her journey ends when she transforms into what she was seeking.

Trevor ends up haunted by the memory of Helen. (Like Candyman once did, she now lives in the minds of many.) The safe, unchallenging world he has created with Stacey is unsatisfactory and Stacey clearly feels the same. Without Helen as the monstrous other to seal their complacency pact, life seems quite the bore.

The last scene of the film shows Helen's full metamorphosis into her own creation, her own deadly phantom. She now IS Candyman. She's not working for him, they're not in love in some spectral plane, Candyman does not exist anymore; she has made him obsolete. Helen has absorbed Candyman's strength and now stands alone without a partner or crutch. Her first order of business is to eradicate Trevor completely (repeating the ten thousand dollar question "Afraid of something?") and then frame Stacey for the crime (perhaps sending her on a similar path.)

I don't mean to shortchange Candyman, our one truly vital African American horror icon but in the singular universe of the first film, and considering the romantic mechanisms bubbling underneath, the smooth talking psycho doesn't offer Helen much more than her husband. In other words, "Thanks for showing me the ropes on how to be an immortal, tall dark and dangerous, but maybe we shouldn't see each other anymore!" (By the way, speaking of CM's romantic undercurrents, guess who was first in line for the role of Helen if MADSEN should decline? Can you believe the then unknown, future queen of rom-coms SANDRA BULLOCK?)

As I said before, the film's fascination with urban legends and oral history is constant. History is written by the winners and stories and recollections are known to mutate as they pass from person to person (as in the game "telephone" a.k.a. "Chinese whispers".) Candyman is an undeniably seductive presence but let's not let his magnetism drown out who really carries this film, on her back, through the flames.

We all know I'm prone to hyperbole so stand back because as far as I'm concerned understatement is anesthesia. VIRGINIA MADSEN as Helen Lyle delivers what should be considered one of the best performances in the history of horror film and it's a travesty that it is not more widely regarded as such. There's never a false note that I can detect and she's asked to travel emotionally from alpha to omega and back again. She shows us everything from the absolute physical pain her character must plow through to the deep guilt and remorse she suffers as her lone confidant Bernadette (KASI LEMMONS) falls victim to the demon Helen has conjured. She convincingly conveys both authentic intelligence and earned bravado and she is able to flash from stunned awe to whimpering mental collapse within a heartbeat. How the living hell does this performance go unmentioned so often? Yo horror fans, you've gotta frickin' JESSICA LANGE level performance in your midst, you wanna do so something besides dust room off your shelf for your TONY TODD action figure?

Put aside the performance now and let's look merely at the character of Helen Lyle again. You people don't want to celebrate a horror heroine of such fortitude? Egad, what, she's too complicated for you? Forget "final girls," Helen isn't "final." She's eternal and she sure as hell ain't a girl, she's a fully realized being. She did more than conquer her boogey man for crying out loud, she leap-frogged over him and swiped his mojo. She encompasses all of the qualities that horror fans purport to hold in high regard and then some and yet her name is rarely uttered.

What's the matter fanboys, afraid of something?

Let's wrap this up before I crush the wine glass in my trembling rage fueled hand. CANDYMAN is some super fine sweets for the sweet. As for Helen Lyle (and by association VIRGINIA MADSEN) consider me among the residents of Cabrini-Greene who walked en masse to testify at her funeral. It's an ironic shame that although the film allows her character to scale over the forces that seek to dilute her that the outside world of horror fandom continues to succumb to Candyman's hypnotic spotlight stealing gaze. I love you Candyman, don't get me wrong; I'm just saying that there's a sleeping giant of a horror icon in your movie and it's high time you stepped to the side and let her get her rightful due.

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13 years ago

My absolute favorite horror movie.  I was so pissed they made sequels! It sort of cheapened the story to me (like you say, its all about helen, how the hell can Candyman then go pursue some other chick(s)????

13 years ago

I remember being particularly excited when this film came out. It didn't seem like anything else at the time. And it really wasn't. Watching it in the theater I was profoundly interested and terrified all at once.  It's only taken 18 years to become so clear in my head. 🙂
Thanks Unk! Wonderful write-up.

13 years ago

A classic, truly frightening film.  Brilliant choice of setting in Chicago's Cabrini Green section and it brought Tony Todd into the public consciousness.
And easily one of the best film scores ever.  Philip Glass never topped himself after this.

13 years ago

Fantastic film, been awhile since I've watched the DVD, just might have to whip it out. It's also been playing On Demand on the FearNet channel…

13 years ago

That…. was amazing. I've never been able to capture what it was about Candyman that so fascinated me (and my feminist-horror-loving friends), and you've done so perfectly. It always did seem like Candyman was just a background presence to Helen's journey, but the ingrained habits of a thousand slasher films insist on pulling him to the foreground unnecessarily, even in those of us who should know better.
Going to have to watch it again, now!

13 years ago

The most shocking and frightening part of the film was just how inevitable it all seemed. She was a lamb driven to slaughter, and the fact she loved and accepted it at the end out-Polanski-ed Polanski. You understood and agreed with her reasoning, or unreasoning somewhat, unlike Polanski's knucklehead in "The Tenant." The film captured Barker's notion better than his own story.

Final Girl
13 years ago

Lame comment, I know. But FANTASTIC piece!
This terrific movie gets ignored/forgotten regularly by genre fans, so I'm glad to see it get any kind of love- but this is outstanding. Kudos!