Book Review:

Candyman (Devil’s Advocates), by Jon Towlson 

Reviewed by Morgan Payne

Diversity in Horror

Review of Jon Towlson’s Candyman, Auteur Publishing (Devil’s Advocates), 2018. 120 pp. Paperback (‎ISBN-13: ‎978-1911325543). 

Jon Towlson’s Candyman (2018) is a part of the Devil’s Advocates series, which focuses on exploring horror cinema from an academic perspective. Written for a film scholar audience, Towlson’s work is nevertheless entertaining and approachable for even the most casual horror fan. There’s something for everyone, whether it be an in-depth movie analysis, an exploration of urban legends, behind-the-scenes stories, film trivia, or an interview with the director. The first chapter introduces us to the men responsible for the creation of Candyman, author Clive Barker and director Bernard Rose. After this brief bit of background, we plunge into the heart of the book.

Towlson argues that eighties horror films reinforced traditional, neoconservative family values by implying that drugs, underage drinking, and premarital sex lead to violent death. These morals are also reflected in popular urban legends of the time. Candyman fuses horror film tropes with popular urban legends (the hook-handed man, Bloody Mary, razor blades in candy, etc.) to create a terrifying and unique cautionary tale. Towlson explains that “urban legends create and reinforce the world view of the group within which they are told” (33). In this case, the vengeful specter, Candyman, haunts the terrified residents of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Houses who share his story. While the titular character is portrayed as elegant, gothic villain, “his sexual overtures to Helen . . . play on cultural fears of the ‘Mandingo’, the well-endowed Black man who seeks to mate with White women” (38). He too-briefly points out the themes that Candyman shares many with Blaxploitation films and leaves the ethics of those intertextual connections to the reader to evaluate.

In the third chapter, Towlson switches gears to focus on the more technical aspects of the film’s production. Here, Towlson provides behind-the-scenes details that will delight many a fan: my favorite bit of Candyman trivia involves Helen’s last name, Lyle, which Towlson reveals is a reference to Lyle’s Golden Syrup. The Lyle’s label, which has remained unchanged since 1885, depicts bees flying out of the corpse of a lion above the caption “Out of the strong came forth sweetness.” According to Clive Barker, screenwriter/director Rose chose the name because he liked the idea of “something perversely sweet about the monstrous” (71).

The discussion of racism is picked up again in the fourth chapter, “Return of the Repressed.” Representations of race and gender in Candyman are easily the film’s most hotly debated elements, causing controversy since the film’s initial release in 1992. Despite being seen by many as progressive due to its focus on racism, sexism, and class struggles, Candyman has also been criticized by a number of scholars for how it “ultimately seeks to reinforce traditional prejudices and phobias” (61). Towlson argues that “Candyman, as a neoconservative horror film, represents white liberal co-option of the black experience” (67). Attempting to create a balanced discussion of a difficult topic, Towlson offers opposing viewpoints in this chapter, but unfortunately, he puts the White protagonist’s experiences with sexism on the same level as the racism endured by the residents of Cabrini-Green. Racism and sexism are both forms of oppression, but they are not experienced in the same way, and no good comes from trying to compare the two. Not only does this hurt both women and Black folks by making it a competition for “which is worse,” it completely ignores the misogynoir experienced by Black women, who are often left out of both feminist and anti-racist movements. If Towlson had included more Black academics and critics in his research, this chapter could have been greatly improved. There are over forty people cited in the bibliography, yet only four of them are Black, a disappointingly small number for a discussion of a film considered a defining piece of Black horror cinema.

Towlson dedicates his final chapter to the films inspired by Candyman, from Scream (1996) to Get Out (2017). (The book predates Nia DaCosta’s Candyman [2021].) A final appendix offers an interview with Bernard Rose, bookending the mini biography in the first chapter. The two men discuss everything from alternative British cinema to Rose’s views of the internet. While I wish they had focused more on the film itself rather than on Rose’s opinions of various artforms and the state of Hollywood today, I will grant that it is a fascinating insight into the director’s worldview.

Towlson provides an intelligent, scholarly discussion of an underrated horror film. While every chapter makes a meaningful contribution to the overall product, it’s the second and fourth chapters that truly stand out, and whether they agree with Towlson’s interpretation of the movie or not, readers can use the wealth of information that he provides to draw their own conclusions: he avoids telling the reader what to think. Candyman is detailed and well-researched, a true labor of love by a dedicated fan.

-27 July 2022