Candyman is a Clive Barker movie. His only involvement was as "executive producer" (a title which can cover a multitude of sins) but Bernard Rose adapted it from Barker's short story The Forbidden. It's in the fifth volume of his Books of Blood, if anyone's interested in digging it out.
I always have more respect for writer-directors, and here Bernard Rose has done a damn good job. There are many differences between Barker's version and Rose's movie, but they all make sense and it's not smart for an adaptation to be excessively faithful to the original for its own sake. I'll go on to compare one with the other, but for the moment let's just consider Candyman in its own right. Any film deserves that much.
Helen Rose is studying urban myths, which is a fantastic set-up in itself. "Don't go in the barn" is the invariable cry of horror movie audiences, but here our heroine is researching legends which are "obviously" untrue. She's also played by Virginia Madsen, which is my cue to bemoan the unfairness of the universe. Why oh why must actors forever labour under the curse of lookism? Good-looking mannequins steal parts from their more talented brethren... but dammit, Virginia Madsen is beautiful and it makes such a difference. Candyman just wouldn't be the same with a grunter in the lead role. Virginia's gorgeous, she's fabulous and I could watch her all day. I'm shallow. I'm a pig. It's the way the universe works and it's not fair, dammit!
The film's portrayal of the delineations of American class seems pretty sharp to this uninformed Englishman. It's also spooky as hell, more so when the Candyman's offstage but not bad in later scenes either. Tony Todd was an interesting choice to portray him - obviously he's a big, imposing black man, but he has an air of class and dignity instead of being just a stereotyped hook-handed ugly boy. You can believe in this near-mythological figure... hell, forget the "near". He *is* mythological. That's the whole point. If we take urban myths at all seriously, as the modern counterpart of ancient folk tales, then the Candyman is an evil deity in a pantheon of one.
There are one or two possible script lurches. You'd think the police forensics department could do some damage to the plot, but perhaps we're meant to realise that. There's a lot of ambiguity going on here. More damaging is Helen Lyle's decision to head for home at a time when it would be the very dumbest thing she could possibly do. It's not hard to rationalise this decision (she has extenuating circumstances), but the film doesn't even try. An important scene is the result, but that's no excuse for this kind of lapse.
I also loved the ending, which goes on for several minutes after any other film would have rolled the closing credits and is worth every second. This is a story about the power of myth and symbolism and I thought Rose's ideas were cool.
Candyman takes a premise that might have been used as mere window-dressing for yet another slasher flick and turns it into something damn creepy and Barker-esque. It's about Helen Lyle, her choices and what happens to her. The Candyman is awesome, in all senses of the word. I was very impressed by this.
Then, afterwards, I reread Clive Barker's original story and found the resulting comparisons to be almost as interesting as the movie.
Candyman is upfront right from the beginning about what it's about (urban legends about a hook-handed killer) and spooks the living shit out of you with it. The Forbidden is completely different. Clive Barker's Books of Blood often start deceptively, apparently giving us a police procedural or some other genre before spinning off into the sickest realms of Barker's imagination. His Helen is writing a thesis about graffiti, not urban legends. She visits the Spector Street Estate to see what's been written on the walls, not even hearing the Candyman's name until there are less than six pages to go. In a short story, it's probably a more effective approach. The reader never has any idea what's coming next, instead being struck by the force of Barker's writing and led up the garden path by false trails and misdirection.
And make no mistake, Clive Barker is a stunning prose writer. I actually prefer his Books of Blood to his long novels. He brilliantly captures the sordid squalor of a British inner city while adding his own hallucinogenic twist in a manner that Ramsey Campbell could be proud of. His graffiti will spook the hell out of you. Bernard Rose sensibly doesn't even try to capture this aspect of The Forbidden; prose can suggest things that a movie camera can't. Candyman has graffiti all right, but it adds some backstory to the Candyman himself to justify the more outre visual images Barker serves up. Rose's Candyman was once a painter. I thought that was quite clever.
Moving for the film from Britain to the US is sensible. American inner cities are more horrible and scary than British ones, though as someone whose sister lived in Manchester for three years I don't say that lightly. Mind you, the transatlantic hop cuts out one plot detail. America doesn't have our peculiar English custom of Bonfire Night, in which we go back to our pagan roots and celebrate Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow up Parliament in the early seventeenth century. They'd probably find that even spookier than I do.
The movie's ideas (except the ending) are all in the original story, though Barker takes his time unfolding them. The biggest single difference (apart from the addition of a movie-length plot, which shouldn't surprise anyone) is Helen's partner, the Trevor character. Barker's Trevor is slime on a stick with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, but Rose grafts this into a more complex personality. The movie's Trevor Lyle (played by Xander Berkeley) is often well-meaning, but weak and evasive. Personally I think each Trevor is an effective choice for that particular medium, 37-page short story versus 99-minute movie.
Candyman is a respectful adaptation of The Forbidden, but not afraid to make big changes for the sake of creating a vibrant, evocative movie. Neither version of the story suffers by comparison with the other. Both are highly recommended.