Candyman: How Bernard Rose and Clive Barker Created the Horror Classic

Writer and director Bernard Rose discusses the journey that saw Candyman go from a Liverpool-based literary bogeyman to Hollywood’s first great horror icon of the 1990s.

Tony Todd as Candyman
Photo: Tristar Pictures

In the winter of 1992, one word was enough to send a chill down the spine of horror fans far and wide: Candyman.

Released in October of that year, Candyman was a slasher movie with a killer hook – quite literally. A horror movie built around an urban legend claiming that if you say the word “Candyman” five times into a mirror, a murderous spirit with a hook for a hand would appear, with grave consequences for those who summoned him.

In a time before the internet and social media, the original Candyman’s lore was enough to spark discussion among curious moviegoers who asked each other: would you say the potentially deadly incantation?

It was a talking point the movie’s marketing leaned heavily into with taglines like “We dare you to say his name five times!” and “Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman… Don’t Say Again!”

Ad – content continues below

Director Bernard Rose took inspiration for the idea from the urban legend of Bloody Mary, rather than the Clive Barker short story “The Forbidden,” which Candyman was adapted from. 

According to the legend, Bloody Mary’s spectre could be summoned by chanting her name repeatedly into a mirror. One of Rose’s masterstrokes was to assimilate this folklore into the Candyman mythology, although it was not without its teething problems.

“In the original script, they were supposed to say Candyman 13 times, not five times, because in the Bloody Mary legend they say it 13 times,” Rose tells Den of Geek. “During the first read through they started going ‘Candyman, Candyman…’ and I was falling asleep. You can’t do it 13 times. It goes on too long. Five is about the largest number you can hear. It did come from Bloody Mary but I had seen Beetlejuice, so I’d have to say Beetlejuice should probably get some credit.”

Rose first hit upon the idea of adapting “The Forbidden” after he was approached about making a film out of another story from Barker’s lauded Books of Blood anthology, “In the Flesh.” But that story wasn’t quite suited to a cinematic adaptation.

“I thought it was really well written, but impossible to make because it’s about two prisoners in complete darkness in a cell,” he says. “And of course, the one thing you can’t represent in a movie is darkness, because if you are in a movie theater there’s nothing to see. It would make a great radio play but wasn’t really a great idea for a movie.”

It was during his initial research into the Books of Blood that Rose read “The Forbidden,” Barker’s short story about a university student who, while studying and photographing graffiti at a local housing estate, learns from locals about a string of murders attributed to a mythical killer known as Candyman.

Ad – content continues below

A rising star at the time, Rose had already collaborated with Jim Henson on The Muppet Show and The Dark Crystal, as well as directing iconic music videos like the S&M themed promo for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax,” which ended up being banned by MTV. His debut feature, the dream-like dark fantasy horror Paperhouse, had been released to widespread acclaim opening up a wealth of possibilities when it came to his next film. 

Rose was immediately struck by Barker’s story and the way it played on “the idea of belief.”

“All of these people believe in the Candyman, which actually means the Candyman exists, whereas if they stop believing in him he disappears, like how the old deities, like the Roman gods, died because people stopped caring. The idea that if enough people believe something, they manifest it. That’s scary.”

By the time he read “The Forbidden,” Rose had already struck up a friendship with Barker, who he met at Pinewood Studios while the latter was working on Nightbreed, the follow-up to his wildly successful directorial debut Hellraiser.

It was a match made in heaven – or maybe that should be hell – and a bond that made securing the rights to the short story that would become Candyman “really easy” according to Rose, who simply called Barker up with the author agreeing to sign off on the deal and sign on as executive producer.

Rose credits Professor Jan Harold Brunvand’s book The Vanishing Hitchhiker as a major inspiration to his script. A folklore scholar, Brunvand’s book explored the origins of several notable urban legends and has been widely credited with igniting America’s obsession with the phenomenon. 

Ad – content continues below

“The whole urban legends thing hadn’t actually been addressed in a movie at that point, which is kind of extraordinary when you think about it,” Rose says. “It helped give the film this intellectual aspect, the idea of having an intellectual elite character studying the myth not from a sociological point of view, but from a semiotics point of view. Somebody who was intellectual and therefore naturally skeptical about something supernatural.”

While some authors have been known to be especially protective of their source material when it comes to adaptation, Rose recalls Barker encouraging him to “run free with it.”

“He liked the script very much. He was very behind it and at certain key moments, as much as anything, he was an enthusiast. Clive is wonderful. A really nice, smart guy.”

One thing they agreed on was that the story would need to be relocated from its original setting in Liverpool, England, for a very specific reason.

“At the time within genre films, there was there was a real problem with people understanding regional accents, and Clive had that problem on Hellraiser where they ended up having to loop (ADR) the whole movie and change it into a sort of weird unspecific setting, when it’s clearly some market town outside London,” he says. “If we were starting the film now, unquestionably we would have done it in Liverpool. It’s funny, things change, but back then, we wanted it to be somewhere specific. So I said, let’s make it specifically American. That seemed like the easiest thing to do.”

Rose hit upon the idea of setting the film in Chicago after noting similarities in the public housing found there and in the story’s original Liverpool setting.

Ad – content continues below

The Illinois Film Commission took Rose on a tour of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, which included Cabrini Green. “It wasn’t the worst place they showed us by any means, the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side but Cabrini Green was right by downtown Chicago and was just spectacular.”

Rose recalls first being taken there in the company of a “full police escort.” Eager to see the neighborhood from a different perspective, he returned later on his own and befriended somebody who lived there.

“That’s the woman who the character of Anne Marie [the single mother who helps Helen with her investigation and whose infant son Anthony ends up being abducted by the Candyman] is based on,” Rose says.

Another crucial step in the development of Candyman came when the filmmaker began researching the history of Cabrini Green.

“I discovered old articles in the Chicago Reader about a series of murders that happened in Cabrini Green, including one where the killer came into the apartment through the medicine cabinet through a breeze block.”

One such article, by Steve Bogira, detailed the killing of 52-year-old Ruthie McCoy, whose pleas to a 911 caller explaining that intruders were breaking in through her bathroom cabinet went ignored. 

Ad – content continues below

“There was a weak spot that you could actually get into people’s medicine cabinets, which is basically inserting holes in the breeze block and you can just literally punch them out and get into somebody’s apartment.”

These articles ended up featuring in the film for real, during the scene where Helen (Virginia Madsen) began researching the Candyman myth. Another element that rang true to life was the fact that the nearby Sandburg Village was “architecturally identical” to Cabrini Green with the only difference being that the former was turned into condos while the latter became public housing. These elements all combined to inform Candyman’s biggest departure from the original short story: Candyman would be Black.

“I wanted to make the film grounded in reality and the whole racial subtext of the film came out of that,” he says. “It wasn’t part of the original story. That was about politics and class differences. The racial element was added to it by the specificity of the location.”

Rose also incorporated his own experience discovering much of this material into Helen’s narrative. “I think that’s why it still feels relevant and powerful now because it came out of something real.”

The filmmaker credits the architecture of Cabrini Green with adding a layer of dread to proceedings.

“The early 80s was the point where we were seeing how modernist architecture could really decay in the most frightening ways and be more scary than the old Gothic spaces that were always designed to be plain and simple.”

Ad – content continues below

Rose felt the film offered an opportunity to draw parallels between the Candyman myth and the myths attached to life in Cabrini Green.

“There was always this kind of exaggerated fear of the place like you might get shot, which is ultimately a very powerful form of racism,” he says. “The real danger is probably very, very small unless you happen to be very unlucky.”

While the stories of murderers emerging through mirrored medicine cabinets tied into the Candyman mythology, mirrors played a wider thematic role in Rose’s film.

“The film has got a lot of mirroring in it, from the imagery to the mirrored apartment. The idea that Helen’s apartment is the same as the ones in Cabrini green. It’s just about what side of the road you are on.”

Even so, Rose refutes any suggestion of Candyman having any kind of deep agenda. 

“The film was not done with a thesis in mind that I then went out to prove. It was more like I was interested in the setting we had and the story which is unchanged from the short story.”

Ad – content continues below

Madsen ended up landing the role of Helen, the protagonist after Rose’s then-wife Alexandra Pigg, who had been cast in the role, was forced to drop out after discovering she was pregnant.

When it came to the Candyman himself, one rumor Rose immediately squashes is the notion that Eddie Murphy was ever considered or even interested in the part.

“If Eddie Murphy had wanted to do it in 1991, it wouldn’t have even been a discussion, it would have just happened,” he says. “Yeah, that’s not even a tiny bit true.”

Instead, Rose and the film’s producers only ever had eyes for Tony Todd

“He pretty much just came in and was fabulous and that was that. He just had it in every sense of the word and it was pretty obvious. There wasn’t even a discussion about it.”

Securing the rights, finding a great location and landing a stellar cast had all  proven relatively straightforward for Rose. One thing that definitely wasn’t straightforward, however, would be the film’s use of bees.

Ad – content continues below

The film called for scenes in which Madsen would be covered in bees, while in one particularly memorable shot, the insects would be seen emerging from Todd’s mouth, as per Barker’s story, which took its inspiration from the Bible and the story of how Samson killed a young lion only to find bees and honey in its corpse. The imagery struck a chord with the author, who weaved it into the ever-expanding Candyman mythology.

Coming at a time before filmmakers could fall back on CGI, Rose was in need of an expert bee wrangler. He found one in apiarist Norman Gary.

“I saw him, he was on the Johnny Carson show playing the clarinet, covered in bees. He was quite a character,” Rose says. “He had synthesized queen bee pheromones and had hives of bees on the top of the studio and he was hatching them for the first 48 hours of their lives. Their stingers aren’t fully developed at that point so they’re not really that dangerous.”

Gary would supply the immature bees for the crucial scenes, using pheromones to have them cluster in the areas Rose required before gently vacuuming them up into a pouch when filming was complete.

Rose speaks in glowing terms about the bees themselves, describing them as “intelligent but also very predictable” which made filming the scenes somewhat pain free. Except in the most obvious sense of the word. 

“Everybody got stung quite a bit and certainly when we were doing those scenes, there were quite a lot of crew members who just stopped turning up to work,” he says. “I think people didn’t want to go into a studio that was literally buzzing with bees all the time because you would get stung. I remember asking Norman ‘How do you prevent yourself from getting stung?’ and he said  ‘You don’t. You just decide it doesn’t bother you.’”

Ad – content continues below

Away from the sound of bees, Rose credits composer Philip Glass with delivering a pitch perfect score, that imbued the film with a sense of both the Gothic and the academically-minded analytical. 

“I gave him a brief to just score it for organ, voices, and piano,” Rose says. “He loved that idea of it being very kind of minimal orchestration. So he wrote the suite basically of the music that’s in the film. I think he’s hands down the best living American composer. Very original.”

For all the praise the film and its score received, Candyman was not without its detractors including several notable Black film directors at the time.

Reginald Hudlin, who had directed Boomerang and House Party and would go on to serve as a producer on Django Unchained called it “worrisome” while fellow filmmaker Carl Franklin said the decision to made Candyman Black and move the story to Cabrini Green was “irresponsible and racist” for casting a Black man in the role of a killer.

“People were nervous before we made the film because of his ethnicity, but I always said I understand how horror villains work,” Rose says. “The bogeyman is the hero. That’s it. That’s how they function. And it’s certainly true in the case of Candyman in that Tony’s character becomes larger than the film’s other characters.”

Much of that was down to timing. “The most disappointing thing you can do in a movie is bring out the monster,” he says. “This is why The Exorcist is a masterpiece. You never see a monster. What you see is its effect on the little girl.”

Ad – content continues below

In the case of the Candyman, Rose used the first half of the film to build a sense of dread tinged with a sense of tragedy with the character’s backstory which explained how he was killed in the late 19th century over his relationship with a white woman. Even as audiences catch their first glimpse of Todd in that striking leather, fur-lined coat, they are being told a story.

“The idea of the costume was to show that he was quite bourgeois, like he was on his way to the opera when he was killed. It was a reminder that he was successful and affluent yet none of that protected him.”

Rose took his cues from the Orson Welles classic The Third Man in holding back on the introduction of his titular killer. 

“Every single conversation in the first half of The Third Man is about Harry Lime.” he says. “So when Orson Welles finally appears It’s one of the great entrances in film history because you’re just dying to hear what he’s got to say,”

The Candyman writer also points to an alternative reading of the film that adds a fascinating subtext to the role of race in the movie.

“It’s an entirely subjective movie told from the perspective of Helen,” Rose says. “So whatever happens in the film, it’s what she thought happened and isn’t necessarily objective. There is definitely an interpretation of the film where she committed the murders.”

Ad – content continues below

The film, he says, offers up an extension of one of the original themes of Barker’s book which was the fear of poverty.

“Inequality and oppression creates fear among the oppressors, because they’re afraid of one day being called to account,” he says. “The film is about that in some ways, and that’s why it is still powerful. But I did not have any sort of agenda except to try to represent what I’d seen in Chicago as realistically as possible.”

Rose would not return for any of the sequels, with 1995’s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh helmed by future Twilight Saga director Bill Condon. In his absence and despite the best efforts of Todd in the titular role, the franchise died out after a third film, 1999’s lamentable Candyman: Day of the Dead

Rose puts these failures down to a mismanagement of the properties and a rush to get a follow-up out after the surprise runaway success of his film, which made $25 million from a modest $8 million budget.

“The temptation when making sequels is to just basically do the same thing again which actually doesn’t satisfy anyone,” he says. “You have to develop it and you have to make it more complex and make the story actually have a grander arc. I had ideas, but they wanted to make damn sure that they got them out of me as quickly as possible so they could get on with the serious business of fucking it up. But that’s fairly normal, unfortunately.”

However, he says he submitted a proposal for a sequel which was “pretty extreme.”

Ad – content continues below

“One of the producers read it and said it was the most disgusting thing he’s ever read. All I can say about it is that it involved cannibalism and royalty.”

Though he remains coy on the finer details, he insists it would have made a “great movie” though it wouldn’t have been a straightforward sequel by any means.

“It was an expansion of the ideas in Candyman and also involved another short story of Clive’s that was actually made later by somebody else, ‘The Midnight Meat Train,’ which was set on the London Underground.”

That said, Rose remains fully supportive of Nia DaCosta’s new film, which has breathed life back into Candyman once again.

“Honestly, I think that sequel is probably better than anything I could have come up with,” he says. “It needed to be taken over by someone African-American, so it’s better that way because if I make the film again, it’s just going to be about the same thing as the first one.”

Ultimately, he feels “immense pride” at the idea that Candyman has earned a place as a horror icon to rival the likes of Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger though he sees that as “something separate to the movie in a weird way.”

Ad – content continues below

“It was intended as a horror film, as a subjective, visceral experience. Obviously, if you write something and direct it, whatever you make is a reflection of your views on a myriad number of subjects. That’s one of the things that’s good about the film, the story is open to exploration.”