One of the most important foundations of cinematic acting, especially when playing the ostensible villain of a story, is that presence is everything. From the manner in which an actor carries themselves to the delivery of their words, every single element must be calibrated to create an imposing figure. When it all comes together, it can create a performance that feels both genuinely chilling and utterly intoxicating, capturing a cocktail of seemingly conflicting emotions: Complete and utter fear mixed with a dangerous desire. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it feels truly special.
The original 1992 candy man contains a standout example of such a performance all due to the outstanding work of veteran actor Tony Todd. In playing Candyman, Todd didn’t just create a multilayered character that still remains forever etched in the minds of all who saw it. He also created a new horror icon that lives in the tradition of gothic horror by becoming what his co-star said was a Dracula for the modern era, commanding a similar power of allurement that still becomes all his own. The character is as deeply mesmerizing as he is because of Todd’s show-stopping performance, ensuring he is impossible to forget.
It is Todd’s hauntingly seductive voice, with rich tones and an enthralling intonation, that makes every single sequence he graces the screen in a memorable one. There is no one that has done it like him. Todd’s deep voice is like the honey of the bees that swarm around him, sweet enough to make you think you could have a taste only to realize that the pain of the sting can be your doom. The dulcet tones of his voice become all the more dread-inducing because of how he uses them to mask his duplicitous nature. It is an outstanding vocal performance that sees Todd savor every syllable and create tension out of even the briefest melodic monologue. It is fitting that he has actually voiced Dracula in an audio drama, and is also set to embody Venom in the next Spider-Man videogame; he is still that good of a vocal performer.
It is his committed performance that remains disturbingly magnetic enough to get him these new roles, even as it has been several decades since the film’s original release. With the newest candy man from writer-director Our DaCosta and writer-producer Jordan Peele building upon the legacy of the character, it is worth revisiting just how Todd laid the foundation for what became an unshakably terrifying new myth. It is his fingerprints that are all over the story and the new iteration of it; according to Film School Rejects, it was Todd who came up with the character’s entire backstory that endured as being his complex motivation, adjusting Clive Barker’s original short story “The Forbidden” as he needed.
This legacy has endured even as the lesser sequels, 1995’s Farewell to the Flesh and 1999’s Day of the Dead, became increasingly haphazard (thankfully for audiences, DaCosta ignores these sequels in favor of just building off the foundation of the original). But what remains strong is Todd’s performance. Its endurance is a testament to Todd’s commitment and mastery of the role, a mastery that only makes sense as he reinvented the character to become a horror icon. Todd wasn’t just the only actor who has since appeared in all the films; it was his conception of the character that served as the connective tissue that held it all together.
This is because the Candyman is a horror “monster” where the fear conveyed comes from the seductive, silky power of Todd’s voice that draws in his victims. This feeling is present in all the films, making every moment you hear his voice one that immediately attracts you to the man while also giving you goosebumps. When Todd speaks, his voice is powerful enough that he is able to lure unsuspecting yet willing targets who begin to desire death. His voice, heard briefly even in the climactic moments of the newest candy man, is what gives this character his hypnotic draw and ensured he became a part of horror legend. The closest reference point is to Dracula (another aforementioned Todd role), who also was portrayed as having great sway over his victims in the many books and films about him. What sets Candyman apart is Todd’s voice that is absolutely all his own. It is that voice that ensured he carved out a place for himself in the essential horror canon that began from the moment his words echoed through our minds.
From the first time he emits an eerie “Helen” while approaching his unsuspecting target, Virginia Madsen‘s Helen Lyle, he immediately buries deep inside your psyche. When Todd repeats Helen’s name three times, each simple utterance cuts painfully through your mind and puts you on edge while also eerily hypnotizing you. Even from across the span of a parking garage in an opening scene, Todd’s presence is both alluring and alarming as Helen can’t escape the pull he has on her.
These scenes unveil a horror film defined by its villain’s delicately subtle charm mixed with a creeping sense of dread. Todd’s performance isn’t a shocking spectacle where he becomes a rage-filled slasher in which the fear comes from his unhinged nature. While he certainly is capable of that extreme violence, it is juxtaposed with his charm and confidence, establishing him as being utterly unworried. He is a master manipulator who knows the power he holds over people, making him all the more terrifying. When he first approaches Helen, who has completely fallen under his spell and is in a daze, he does so without urgency. After all, why would he?
It is the Candyman who is in complete control, and Todd captures this cool yet calculated cadence with precision. Whenever he methodically moves towards Helen, he only ratchets up the intensity of the allure in his voice. It is reminiscent of the manner in which Dracula would draw in his unknowing prey, at first seducing them with his charm and making them seem like they could trust him. Candyman, too, lures them into a trance with every ounce of hypnotic power in his being. Todd makes this all his own because of how distinct his voice is. When Helen first questions him, wondering if she knows him, he says, “No, but you doubted me.” It is impossible not to get wrapped up in his sonorous words even as they spell an implicit danger. He maintains a piercing stare as he commands Helen to “be my victim” before giving his most evocative monologue that remains one the most memorable of the horror genre — though it would be nowhere near as impactful without Todd to speak it into existence.
“I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom! Without these things I am nothing. So now, I must shed innocent blood. Come with me.”
In another scene when he tells Helen that her “death will be a tale to frighten children, to make lovers cling closer in their rapture” before commanding her to “come with me and be immortal,” there is a moment where she seems like she may actually be considering it. That is the power Todd conveys in his performance, always keeping you on a needle’s edge between infatuation and annihilation.
It is that contrast that gets to what makes the character so transcendent and memorable. Todd can shift from using a voice that carries the promise of splendor to one that seals your fate in destruction. His voice is brimming with passion in the promises he offers, a temptation that proves desirable to those like the awestruck Helen. He is a being of great power, ensuring the desire to say yes to him remains dangerously potent to those who are unfortunate enough to get caught in his web. To say yes would be to say yes to oblivion, but what a sweet nothingness that would be. Todd’s sultry voice gives Candyman motivation, making him a sympathetic villain as he just wants to have someone with him to ease his suffering. You can’t help but feel the tug to be caught up in his voice forever. It is Todd’s performance that makes this desire such a central one. It is his voice that ensures he commands such a powerful presence and makes the audience contemplate whether they, too, would join him as his victim.
So for all who see the new candy man, it is worth it to do yourself the favor to revisit the work of Todd getting the chance to fully inhabit the role. When the new film asks the characters directly to “say his name,” it recalls all the power that name carries with it. It is a terrifying thing to do, something that foretells doom for the characters that do it, though it also carries with it excitement. That Candyman himself still has such an impact on a film decades later shows how both simultaneously horrifying and delightful Todd’s performance made this character. People still can’t stop talking about him, even if speaking it out loud is to tempt fate and risk your life. That desire to resurrect the past Todd created is both exhilarating and terrifying, a fitting testament to the power of the monster he created. It all makes the brief glimpses you get of Todd in the newest film all the more impactful and affecting.
It is his performance, no matter which film he is in, that is one of the most resonant in all of horror cinema. Because of the seductive power and ability of Todd’s remarkable voice to command our collective attention, we are continually left devastated by how he spins his web of temptation. We still fear him while also remaining enthralled by him at the same time. It is a balance that the story needed him to accomplish, but most actors only wish they could achieve. Todd did all that and more, making his silky yet chilling commands ones that will be impossible to shake. It is his voice that made the Candyman a name we all know and won’t soon forget, no matter how hard we may want to.
KEEP READING: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris on Why ‘Candyman’ Is Still Relevant Now and the Importance of Filming in Chicago
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