Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we look at Tony Todd’s titular role in Candyman.
Before the character came to symbolize our nation’s legacy of racial prejudice, Candyman was just a supernatural slasher conceived by Clive Barker, the visionary mind behind the Hellraiser series. In “The Forbidden,” part of the multi-volume omnibus Books of Blood, Candyman is an urban legend entity brought to life the moment his existence is challenged by Helen, a graduate student working on a thesis about the graffiti in a deteriorating English housing development.
This central concept is faithfully realized in writer-director Bernard Rose’s 1992 Candyman film, but he moves the story’s theme of urban decay out of the Liverpool projects and into the sprawling concrete high-rises of Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green Homes. He also gave the character his most recognizable gimmick: if you say Candyman’s name five times in a mirror, you’re as good as dead.
The most significant change from book-to-film is that Candyman is a complete enigma in Barker’s story. The author isn’t interested in exploring the origins of the character; he wants to show how perpetuating urban legends can give supernatural myths their power. Candyman isn’t a man turned into a monster, but a metaphysical embodiment of everything that attracts us to these dark fantasies. He’s seductive and alluring, charming us so that we don’t notice the violent horrors lying just beneath his buzzing coat.
This beguiling characteristic is manifested in the film by Tony Todd, who effortlessly makes the audience feel both horrified and horny with his mesmerizing charisma and deep baritone.
But the way Todd purrs deliciously macabre lines like “The pain, I can assure you, will be exquisite” isn’t what makes this character so enduring. What immortalizes Candyman is the given circumstances Todd invented in preparation for this role. As Rose racked the story’s focus from working-class England to the socio-economic racial divide of Chicago, Todd used the opportunity to transform Candyman into a tragic figure birthed from the frightening, violent legacy of racism in the United States. As Fangoria reported in 1992:
“During the rehearsals, Rose urged [Virginia] Madsen and Todd to improvise a history for Helen and Candyman, a karmic relationship that would field their deadly ‘love’ affair […] Todd hit upon the background of ‘Granville T. Candyman,’ the scion of a rich black family in 1870s Chicago. Having gained fame for his portraits, Granville is commissioned to paint Helen, the ravishing daughter of a wealthy landowner. Granville demands that Helen pose in the nude as Venus, and her shock soon turns into love. This forbidden interracial affair brings the city’s wrath down on Granville. Cutting his right painting hand off with a rusty blade, the lynch mob then covers his naked body with honey, cheering as he’s stung to death by bees.”
The name Todd gave Candyman – a nod to “Black Edison” Granville T. Woods – would be changed to the more subtle Daniel Robitaille, but everything else he came up with would become part of his character’s history.
No other sequel-spawning movie maniac from the ’80s or ‘90s has the kind of poignancy Todd infused into Candyman. He’s not an escaped lunatic or an undead pedophile; he’s someone practically Shakespearean in the depths of his tragedy. We may pity a monster like Jason Voorhees, who died because of some neglectful camp counselors, but we lament the fate of Daniel Robitaille, the victim of vicious hate who had his passions ruthlessly ripped away. It’s what makes Candyman’s anger and rage feel completely justified.
Even though we learn about Daniel Robitaille in the original Candyman, it wouldn’t be until the sequels that filmmakers began engaging with his devastating backstory in a substantial way. In the first film, Candyman wants Helen (Virginia Madsen) to become his victim as the ultimate act of acknowledgment of his legendary existence, rather than a reckoning for the agony and structural violence that created him. For the subsequent sequels, 1995’s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and 1999’s Candyman: Day of the Dead, Todd was given the chance to fully express the eternal pain that Candyman carries with him.
In the climax of Farewell to the Flesh – as the protagonist Annie (Kelly Rowan) aims to smash a mirror keeping the spirit of his legend alive – Candyman tells her, “I was not always this way. This is who I’ve become.” As he recounts to her in a vivid flashback how he was lynched, we see this heartbreaking expression come across Todd’s face. His voice fills with anguish as he tells Annie, “My only sin was to love Caroline… They took everything from me. My family. My child. My life.” We watch as his menace subsides and his eyes narrow as he unflinchingly fights back tears recalling the fear he felt surrounded by the disturbed mob chanting “Candyman! Candyman!”
The misery in Robitaille’s eyes during the flashback is juxtaposed by the anger and sadness we see in Candyman’s eyes throughout the scene. “See how I became the reflection of their hatred, their evil. See what it means to call me by that name.” The morose tone Todd gives this moment, as his tears finally break, makes us realize something profound about the character: saying his name isn’t just a reinforcement of his existence, but a slur feeding into the hate that made him a monster. The sympathy Todd exudes in his haunted, broken stare makes us not want to see Candyman defeated like other movie maniacs from the era; we want to see his tortured soul set free. The world owes him that much.
The Candyman sequels, unfortunately, couldn’t support the weight of the massively impressive villain Tony Todd, Bernard Rose, and Clive Barker cumulatively created. Both Farewell to the Flesh and Day of the Dead have forgettable characters and uninspired plots that are essentially rehashes of the original film. They both delve into more of Daniel Robitaille’s life, but they aren’t keen on exploring these themes of historical prejudice and systemic racism deeper than surface level, which is a frustrating missed opportunity.
It’s why, in the hands of a creative team like Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele, we gain an opportunity to see a more nuanced Candyman set in the communities impacted the most by the injustices that produced the urban legend. For the monumental accomplishment Todd made in bringing this character off the page, he deserves a story that fully embraces the complex web he weaved for Daniel Robitaille.
Clive Barker may have created Candyman, but Tony Todd clearly gave the character his soul. He took the yin and yang of sensuous violence that is paramount to all of Barker’s works and smartly grounded it in a heart-wrenching fable of racial atrocity that has been able to resonate with the shared experience of people of color across the United States. More than the films themselves, Todd’s performance is what makes Candyman live on in our collective consciousness, enticing each new generation to look in a mirror and say his name.