Dead Horse Summer
By Sumiko Saulson
The things that frighten us most are those that remind us of our fragile existence and the terrible ways we can die; like the frozen grimaces on the face of a peat bog man or the ashen screams on the faces of a child found under Mount Vesuvius at Pompeii. Kilauea is the most dangerous volcano in the country according to the US Geological Service – yet thousands of tourists walk on it every day, as though nothing bad is ever going to happen there again. My father didn’t think anything bad would happen there in the summer of my twelfth year. We moved to Hawaii from Los Angeles, and after a brief stay with his mother on Kaneohe, on the island of Oahu, we moved to the Big Island, where he’d found cheap land for sale. He took us on a tour of the subdivision, driving us down the pitted and dusty, unpaved and rust colored roads made up of ground down red volcanic rock. The weight of his car bore down onto the already grooved dirt road, deepening the pair of tire tracks left by the vehicles that traveled this way before us.
It was during our first summer when I came across a pathetic festering corpse of a dead horse in Kalapana, on Black Sands Beach. It was lodged within the rough, onyx-colored sands made of lava rock. The sand had only arrived on these shores mere hundreds of years earlier; they were still sharp and rocky, not smoothed by erosion. My toes poked from rubber-heeled plastic thong sandals called zoris. Hard rocks protruded from the sands, and I smashed my heel painfully against one, causing me to shrink back away from it in pain, blood oozing out against hot skin.
I stumbled away from the rock and landed almost directly on the dead horse, partially hidden beneath a palm tree – the kind that grew out of the tide pools, and were bent sharply inland through some natural force. The crook of the low, bent palm hid the corpse until the last moment, and then I saw it. The water had come up over this dead horse several times, and receded, and what the low tide revealed now was skeletal, with a few places where the hide covered partially protruding bone. It didn’t smell. I had the sense that sea creatures had torn away at most of the flesh, leaving bone with flaps of leathery skin waving over it.
Although the horse’s life was gone, the bones were nonetheless reanimated with teeming life of the tidal pool: green slimy mold-like seaweed, plump brown seaweed, happy little hermit crabs in stolen shells with ambitions of making a new home here in the reclaimed corpse of this horse. The creatures were cranking away, creating this whole new aquatic ecosystem.
But I was only twelve, and unconcerned with the joys of the under denizens of this dead horse suburbia. My pre-teen mind would not absorb the entire ecological gestalt of this thing – in my mind, it was gross, disgusting, nastier than stepping in a pile of dookie. I was just a kid, not some teenager in the throes of an experimental philosophical phase where I was interested in examining the brevity of a jaunt with a livid life condescending into a sleepy death in a fantastic realm of either amazing or horrific possibility where even a horse might sleep with the fishes.
I threw death out the window, and instead turned and ran – screaming! Screaming, running, far, far away from the death of horses into the life of a safe public restroom with its comforting public showers.
I left behind pomegranate waving colors of sea stalks taking root in wet spots on yellowing bones in the red rocks covered in rusty blood into the cold concrete square encasings of cubicles, stalls, with closing casket doors but water… hot and cold water, descending in rainy rivulets from the faucet. Warm water and lily-scented shampoo poured over me, enveloping me, caressing me like love. They washed away hard little black pebbles stuck to my heel by hot gushes of blood, and terrible memories of a dead horse, all down the shower drain and back out to sea.
It is a motion the earth itself would repeat over the years, as the lava eventually poured over the beach, the showers, the streets and the houses, destroying them all. Five years later, the angry volcano came to wash it all away, burying the dead horse beach under fifty feet of lava.
A dead horse wouldn’t have angered Pele, for her battle was with Kamapua’a, the wind god, who looked like a man-pig. He was in love with her, and wouldn’t leave her alone. My aunt told me once when we were traveling from Hilo to Kailua-Kona over Saddle Road never to cross Saddle Road with any pork in the car, because it would anger Pele and she would cause the car to stall. We were to throw any ham sandwiches off to the side of the road as an offering to Pele.
My aunt by marriage is Hawaiian and Portuguese, and she was the one who told me about Ka wahine ‘ai honua, Pele, the earth-eating woman. She taught reverence of her heritage and her ancestors. Not all who lived in Kalapana in the time of my Dead Horse respected Pele. My dad is haole. That means stranger but is used for Caucasian. He and his friends grew marijuana, or pakalo. Back then the high quality weed of the area was known as “Puna Butter” because it tasted so smooth. My brother and I were called hapa – meaning half. We were called hapa-haole or hapa-papolo. Papolo, meaning purple, is the name of a plum – we had a tree of these small, very dark purple plums in our yard in Kalapana – they always splattered down on the hood of my daddy’s Lincoln Continential. Papolo was also the name for the color of the plum, and for African American people.
I don’t think that my dad’s friends growing the marijuana awakened Pele, but I could be wrong. The marijuana plants attracted many loud helicopters that were part of the police drug enforcement program called “Green Harvest”. Maybe it was these copters, swarming over the top of the hillside like flies over a rotting guava that disturbed her? They were generating wind against the hillsides. Hawaii legend says that a huge battle over control of this area took place between Pele and Kamapua’a,. Maybe the helicopters made Pele think Kamapua’a was back to sexually harass her or try to pressure his way back into her favorite home?
Or maybe she was awakened by another thing: My dad and his friends hunted wild boars in the forests but they never left any pork for Pele. Maybe if they had, she wouldn’t have grown angry and taken back her land.
I remember a family that painted the lava rocks gold and sold them to tourists, knowing it was considered unlucky to remove them from the island. They lived high on Kilauea, much closer to Halema`uma`u crater, which was supposed to be Pele’s favorite home. Maybe they were the ones who made her angry. They lived in Royal Gardens Subdivision, which was one of the first places to be hit by the volcano in 1982, the same year we moved away to Hilo.
Pele consumed our old home in Kalapana Gardens in 1986, just six months after the last time we came over from Oahu to visit it. By the time I was back again in 1991, so many landmarks of my childhood were gone. I would never go back to visit the Queen’s Bath in Kalapana, a fresh water spring in a collapsed lava tube surrounded by high cliffs from which we used to jump. I remembered it being as big as an Olympic swimming pool and about eight feet deep, but I would never be able to go back there and dive in. I would never find out it would seem smaller because I grew four inches between the age of fourteen when I last swam there, and adulthood.
The half-dozen neighbors we visited in homes that dotted the sparsely spotted Kalapana Gardens subdivision live somewhere else now. The Star of the Sea Painted Church, where I once attended Catholic services with my friend Stacy, had been moved somewhere else to prevent its being swallowed by lava. It is far away from the long-gone beach, where people used to worship amongst the paintings of the famous and sainted father Damien of Molokai doing his work with the lepers. Two girls giggling outside of the church about the number of times the pastor had them stand up and sit back down again, are long grown. The past has been swept away from Kalapana, along with the landmarks of its remembrances.
The beach of my Dead Horse summer is gone. Pele gave us all an eviction notice. The thick jungle smells of wetland underbrush along the ten mile trip between Pahoa High School – where I attended seventh and eighth grade – and Kalapana Gardens continued for the first eight miles as we headed in. All of the lush greenery ended two miles from my old house on Duff Street now, and the lush smells of sunshine and overripe papaya disappeared giving way to lifeless odors of dust and tar. The ground itself was singed and blackened, and within the coal tar colored surface were rifts and breaks, like the top of an overcooked brownie. The whole area looked like it had been left in the oven too long. I knew then I would never again experience the smell of fresh banana nut bread in the little store at Kaimu.
Where I used to live, there is new coastline stretching out a mile and a half into the sea. We walked out on the rocky surface built of the stuff I once cut my heel on. From here on the roads were destroyed. Our car could not pass, so we walked. Pele’s scorched-earth policy removed all of the palm trees, killed all of the sand crabs, and replaced whatever I remembered with this rugged, uneven surface that cracked like a bleeding skin. The colors were all shades of dark gray and black. Only the clear blue sky with its all-too-high clouds far and away in the distance remained the same. We approached the higher elevations from another angle after we returned to the car: there, we would see hot lava still bursting forth from tubes like fireworks in the night sky, thick and red as blood, blood from the heel of a frightened little girl running.
It is a testimony to the lesson of the Dead Horse of my twelfth summer: the uncomfortable knowledge that old things have to die to make way for the new, even if we don’t want them to. The consumption of Kalapana by Pele continues to this day; and during the month of my fortieth birthday, in 2008 there was an explosion at Halema`uma`u crater. Pele finally completely decimated the Royal Gardens subdivision by taking its last house. She covered what remained of my early adolescence in her hair and her tears – balls and strings of lava – which were flung from Halema`uma`u for the first time since 1982. There are five volcanoes on the Island of Hawaii, also known as the Big Island. There are five, but Kilauea is a favorite of Pele and tourists alike.
But by 2009, the US Geological Survey would know that America’s most active volcano was a lot more dangerous than she looked. While there was never a great city the likes of Pompeii to be covered with ash, there was evidence of giant rocks the size of baseballs flung in the air all the way to the shore. The things that frighten us most remind us of our fragile existence and the terrible ways we can die. They make us understand our insignificance.
Sumiko Saulson is a science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer. Her works include the reference 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction, novels Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, three graphic novels, and the short story collection Things That Go Bump in My Head. She writes for the Oakland Art Scene segment of the Examiner.com. She is a native Californian of African American and Russian-Jewish heritage.
Crystal Lake Publishing has just released Tales From The Lake Volume 3 and includes a story from Sumiko Saulson. Sumiko was the featured author on episode 109 of the horroraddicts.net podcast, she has also written various articles for the horror addicts blog and has an article in The Horror Addicts Guide To Life. Sumiko Saulson’s story is called Enclosures and you can find out more about her here:
The TALES FROM THE LAKE legend continues with volume 3 in this popular series.
Dive into the deep end of the lake with 19 tales of terror, selected by Monique Snyman.
Join “Maybelle” by Mere Joyce in a world where books become real enough to cause both pleasure and pain. Avoid the sounds of “The Cruel” by Harper Hull, lest you want to come to a terrifying end. Travel across the world to see what terrors lurk in an abandoned hospital with “Hush” by Sergio Pereira.
This non-themed horror anthology is filled with suspenseful stories, terrifying thrillers, tragic tales, mystifying mysteries, and memorable adventures that will leave you wanting more. Let these modern urban legends prickle your imagination, share it around a campfire, and revel in the magic of Crystal Lake’s exceptional authors.
The Owl Builder by D. Morgan Ballmer
Tragedy Park by Chris Pearce
Enclosures by Sumiko Saulson Woe Violent Water by Lily Childs
The Cruel by Harper Hull
Red Scream with Little Smile by Paul Edmonds
Maybelle by Meredith Cleversey writing as Mere Joyce
Rodent in the Red Room by Matt Hayward
The Deeper I Go The Deeper I Fear by Natalie Carroll
The Pigmalion Pigs by Mark Allan Gunnells
Chemical Oasis by Tommy B. Smith
Hush by Sergio Pereira
The Reaper’s Fire by Kenneth W. Cain
Effigy by Kate Jonez
Scents of Fear by Steve Jenner
The Bet by Amy Grech
A Hand from the Depths by Dave-Brendon de Burgh
The Monster of Biscayne Bay by Roxanne Dent
The Song at the Edge of the Unfinished Road by Patrick Bates
Foreword by the editor, Monique Snyman.
Proudly represented by Crystal Lake Publishing.
“A solid anthology representing the best in horror fiction, with tales that will stay with you for some time.” — Ben Eads, author of, Cracked Sky
Bad Egg by Sumiko Saulson
“Are you okay?” her mother-in-law asked. She was following her around the corner to the trash room. Resigned, Susan let her accompany her. There was a door on the trash room to keep out the raccoons. She shoved it open and walked over to the row of metal trashcans. They all reeked worse than the bag in her hand. She lifted the lid and dropped the bag into the closest can. She hoped her ordeal was finally over…
She continued into the kitchen, smiling vacantly. The television was still blaring, but it didn’t bother her. She took a seat on the couch and removed her house slipper. She began rubbing the sole of her aching foot. She could feel a big blister coming up at the heel. She kneaded it with her fingers.
I recently had a chance to talk to L.C. Cruell who has worked on such independent horror movies as 31 and Cemetery Tales. She is currently working on a new horror anthology called 7 Magpies which features some writers who we have showcased at HorrorAddicts.net in the past:
When did you start writing?
When I was but a wee lass. I lived in the country, so we spent a lot of time outside making up games and adventures and trying to see if we could spin at just the right speed and angle to turn into Wonder Woman. I think my very first story was called Strawberry Fields. About a cat named Strawberry who lived in a Field. As you can see my subversive tendencies had yet to make an appearance.
What were your biggest influences?
Films like 2001, The Shining, Star Wars (the originals), Indiana Jones, The Thing (80s), Tank Girl, and lots of great J-Horror, Euro-Horror, and Indie-Horror. Authors like Asimov, Pohl, Atwood, Shakespeare, and King. And, honestly, a lot of non-fiction. I was that level of geek that read encyclopedias for fun. I just fundamentally love knowledge, learning about new places, people, ideas, and possibilities. So, of course I loved all things history, sociology, anthropology, folklore, neurology, physics, astronomy, I just loved all of it. Still do. At my core, I feel that we’re here to learn as much as we can, grow, and then give back, create something new to add to the universe.
What got you interested in horror?
Horror, supernatural, fantasy, sci-fi, all deal with hypotheses and possibilities. They ask questions that start with, “What if…” Those are my favorite kinds of questions. Sometimes, they lead you to mind-blowing places, other times to dark, disturbing, places of warning. Both are intriguing to explore.
Could you tell us about your webseries 31?
31 is a supernatural horror/thriller told in 31, 31-second-long cliffhanger episodes about a character that wakes up in darkness and realizes she’s trapped, sealed in a box. She fights to get out only to discover that what lay outside the box is far worse. She has no memory and no ID besides the number “31” branded into her skin. It was initially released as a web event with episodes dropping everyday for 31 straight days at 3:31 each day.
The idea hit me in late September when I was looking forward to the upcoming 31 days of horror movies in October. It was such a trial-by-fire growth experience, as both a writer and director. I had to develop character, move the plot forward, generate suspense, and end on a cliffhanger all in just a ½ page of script! And then do it again, 31 times!!! Every word mattered. Then each episode had to be 31 seconds long, which meant we were in editing cutting down to the frame because every second mattered. It was pure insanity, but somehow it worked. The idea and the script got a lot of people excited so a lot of very talented people jumped on board and helped make it great. We shot it in 2 ½ days for $390 and released it 2 months later- also insane. We didn’t have any money for PR so it was all word of mouth and critical-acclaim. We got dozens of rave reviews and since had international festival selections and wins, Con invitations, YT partnership, and 9 different distribution deals with new subscribers and views everyday.
I’ve developed a pilot version. We’ll see where it goes. (It’s so bloody hard to break in to Hollywood from the outside.) But, I loved every moment of it!
Could you tell us about Cemetery Tales?
Cemetery Tales came about when one of the other directors came to me about putting together an anthology of short films by Atlanta directors. We did an Indiegogo campaign mainly to make ensure that we had the same great DP, Audio Sup, and Editor throughout. The stories are loosely tied together with a death theme and a wraparound I co-wrote. By the time it was finished I was one of the producers and came up with the idea of changing the name from it’s earlier Tales From Morningview Cemetery to Cemetery Tales. My segment I Need You is about a family that’s let the minutiae of life distract them from the act of living, and a house that may or may not eat people.
Because my writing comes from exploring issues and questions, there is always some deeper sociological, scientific, spiritual, supernatural, what have you, idea being explored. Otherwise, I’m not sure what the point would be, you know?
Where did the idea for Seven Magpies come from?
I LOVE horror anthologies. I’ve seen all the reruns of all the horror anthology shows from 60s, 70s, and 80s and all the films like Creepshow and even the old British films where in the end everyone realized they were already dead or in hell or something. So, I was so excited when ABC’s and VHS and all the others came along and made anthologies cool again. (Seriously, you couldn’t even pitch something with the word “anthology” before then. I know, I tried.) And as they kept coming, even XX, the all female-directed one, I noticed there were no black women directors, but honestly didn’t think much of it at the time. Until I started to see articles and posts even in my own women horror directors group asking if there were such a thing as black female horror directors.
I was stunned. It had simply never occurred to me that anyone would think there was a space in the world that was not occupied by people from any and every group. What could my gender or race possibly tell you about my relationship with horror, or with anything really? I don’t write characters with race in mind, but I don’t assume they’re all white or black either. They’re just people. We’re just people.
I know it sounds hard to believe but growing up in a small town where everyone knows you for being you made me horribly naïve about this kind of thing for a long time, but eventually I began to realize that “Perception is Reality.” Especially, in Hollywood, which, honestly, if I had known the depth of that town’s issues with gender, diversity, nepotism, and just general restrictiveness, I might have made different choices. A creative’s life journey is hard enough without all that BS. They don’t see us, so they don’t believe we exist, so they don’t think to hire or include us, so others don’t see us and the whole stupid loop just continues. “7 Magpies” is, I suppose, my way of yelling, “We are here! We are here! We are here!” Then after they see us and perceive us, we can all get on with the business of making great films together. Oh and this article helped a lot too:
What are the stories that will be involved in the movie?
They’re so cool. It all takes place one sultry Southern summer when the Magpies (7 birds, 3 women) come to town. The structure is based on (and the stories were chosen to fit) the poem “One for Sorrow” –
One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
Four for a birth,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told
The poem along with all the lore and superstitions regarding magpies made it kind of perfect. In the screenplay I adapted stories by Sumiko Saulson, Tananarive Due, Eden Royce, Linda D. Addison, Valjeanne Jeffers, Crystal Connors, and Paula D. Ashe. There are threads woven throughout that unite them all and a wraparound that connects them as well but yeah, great stuff.
When will shooting begin?
I’m hoping late summer. As soon as we find the right money people to come on board, we’ll dive right into pre-pro. The script, pitch package, everything is ready. The rough budget is $1M with no “names,” but with 7 strong, stellar roles for African-American woman, I’m pretty sure we can get a few names.
What is the hardest part of putting together a production like 7 Magpies?
It certainly wasn’t a lack of eagerness by the participants. Every writer and director I chose enthusiastically jumped on board. The only issue now is funding. Like anyone coming from outside Hollywood in not just location but gender, race, lack of connections, anything that makes you an outsider, the hardest part is getting this great script/idea that directors, audiences, and actors are exited to be a part of to the people who can actually greenlight something. It is not easy. Most gatekeepers do not welcome new names and faces. But, if any such person is reading right now, call me! We’ll find a way. This is too important. It is not just about widening the audiences for the authors or launching the careers of the directors to the next level but of changing that perception and opening those doors for everyone.
Where can we find out more about this production?
What other projects are you involved in?
Good god. Everything I can do to get noticed? I just finished shooting Flesh, a thriller that was chosen for fiscal sponsorship by From the Heart Productions, a 23 year old non-profit, because they believe it will have a positive impact on society and the industry. Seriously, they’re all docs, dramas, and my little horror/suspense/thriller. But that goes back to the ‘everything I write having a message/question woven through it’ thing. I did the same thing as before, wrote a script strong enough to get incredible talent on board. It’s a short that stands on its own but is also the first 15 minutes of the feature version. Mistresses of HorrorTM is a brand with over 10 directors attached that I’m trying to start for any media project from movies to comics that provides “great horror, by women, for everyone.” Cemetery Tales is on the festival circuit now. I have pilots for 31 along with 2 others (The Four and Neph). And I’m currently marketing scripts The Sitter, Crimson, and The Burning (director attached; location secured), among others. In a perfect world, one project scores, and then all the rest tumble through to create that 15-year-in-the-making overnight success story and the names Cruell and Cruell World Productions become synonymous with great horror/genre features, shows, episodes, etc. The name fits. And I’ll do my best. We’ll what happens next.
For more information on L.C. Cruell check out:
In honor of Black History month I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about two books by Sumiko Saulson. The first one is 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction. This book is a compilation of interviews, essays and biographies of Black Women horror writers. Some of the writers featured in this book include Octavia Butler, L.A. Banks, Tananarive Due and many more.
I feel this is an important book because it gives writers exposure. Writers have to work hard at their craft and its hard for them to get the attention they deserve. There are more writers out there than readers and it’s too easy for a good writer to go unnoticed. 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction shows that there are some great Black women horror writers out there. I only knew a handful of the writers in this book and after the in-depth interviews and short stories collected here, I found some new writers that I need to add to my to be read list.
This book starts with biographies and pictures of several writers and then gets into interviews with Linda Addison, Jemiah Jefferson and Eden Royce to name a few. One of my favorites parts of this book was how some of the writers talk about how women horror writers get treated differently than their male counterparts and there aren’t as many. In the case of A.L. Peck she states that she doesn’t know why there aren’t more female horror writers and she wants to change that.
There is also a great interview with Jemiah Jefferson where she talks about the hardships of finishing a novel while putting up with health issues, a stressful job and financial issues. This book doesn’t just give you a new perspective on what Black Women horror writers have to go through to get their work out to the public, it gives you a new appreciation for writers in general. 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction shows you what Black Women horror writers have to offer and gives a glimpse of what goes on in the mind of a horror writer.
Another book I want to talk about is Insatiable by Sumiko Saulson. This is the third book in the Somnalia series but it does work as a stand alone novel. This book centers on Charlotte who is the goddess of erotic dreams and her sister Mercy who has been reincarnated and now has a death cult that is on a killing spree. Charolotte has tried to turn a blind eye but if Mercy continues on like she is it could have disastrous results for all the gods in the Demos Oneiroi.
The thing I liked most about Insatiable was how the reincarnation works in the story. All of the characters have had past lives and when they come back again in another form, they’re still associated with the ones they loved in the past. At the heart of this book is a love story, but it’s not the kind of love story that you are probably used to. Insatiable looks at people who have more than one romantic relationship with several different people. The relationships seem to work though.
Insatiable has some great characters, they all have complex relationships and how they act towards each other is what makes the book interesting. There are also some moments of great horror here as we get into Mercy’s death cult and the things they do. This book made me think of a therapy session as you get into the head of several characters and find out why they are the way they are. Charlotte’s husband Flynn comes across as such a nice guy and a bit of a doormat who needs Charlotte more than she needs him. Despite his issues in this story we see him act like a hero at times. We also have Phobetor who is driven by jealousy and power but comes across as compassionate and shows how complex he is.
Sumiko Saulson writes horror novels aimed at intellectuals. There isn’t a lot of action or suspense in this book but there is a lot of great complex characters and it was interesting watching them interact with each other. The story also creates a new spin on an old mythology and shows how a mythological family could exist. Sumiko’s books are different from most horror novels out there. Insatiable is a character driven story that comes across as a philosophy text-book at times. If you like books that make you think then give this one a try.
Heroes of Black Horror History: The Inimitable Tony Todd
By Sumiko Saulson
My first exposure to the versatile and prolific Tony Todd was in 1990, when he starred as Ben Jones in the remake of George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic “Night of the Living Dead.” Too young to have seen the original performance by Duane Jones, Todd’s take on the role was indelibly etched in my mind moving forward. My budding infatuation with Tony Todd became a full-fledged love affair two years later, when he acted in what many consider his career-defining film, “Candyman.”
Not having seen the original “Night of the Living Dead” until well after I watched the reboot, my first exposure to black representation in horror films had instead been the second in the Romero series of zombie films, “Dawn of the Dead.” In it, Ken Foree starred as the musclebound action hero type character Peter Washington. I was only ten years old, but I loved and rooted for its hero. Like many African Americans, I was proud to see such a positive portrayal of a black man in horror.
Watching Tony Todd in the 1990 remake of “Night of the Living Dead” was a much different experience. By then, I was a twenty-two year old woman and immune to neither an actor nor a character’s sex appeal. Ben Jones as portrayed by the unusually tall and thin Tony Todd, who is 6’5, was not a powerful man of action, but a soft-spoken, thoughtful character that remained poised and dignified in the most unusual and dire of circumstances.
Although both films are about humans trying to survive a zombie outbreak, unlike the action packed “Dawn of the Dead,” “Night of the Living Dead” spends a lot of time with its main characters in hiding or isolation. Ben Jones and Barbara Hamilton, a young white woman portrayed Patricia Tallman who is attacked by a horde of zombies at her parents’ gravesite at the start of the film, first discover and then gradually begin to rely on each other. Ben is a sensitive, soft-spoken character whose demeanor goes against stereotypical portrayals of black men. He rarely loses his temper, even when faced with racism on top of adversity. Along with other characters, the two struggle to survive against unfavorable odds by keeping their wits. Brains and calm and collected mind become more important than brawn and weaponry. Ben’s upbeat attitude in the face of tragedy gives the film heart. Because the Barbara character has more agency in this version than in the original, the Ben character is less the clear-cut protagonist of this film and Barbara’s role is more active and central.
After Candyman came out, I wasn’t the only one swooning over Tony Todd. His portrayal of the story’s iconic urban legend inspired title character was both nuanced and provocative. The movie was written by British horror master Clive Barker and directed by fellow Englishman Bernard Rose. Its subject matter, however, was distinctly American. Set against the backdrop of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green Public Housing Projects, it tells the tale of Helen Lyle, a white graduate student portrayed by Virginia Madsen who is investigating the true histories behind urban legends.
Despite the presence of a central white or white-passing character (the character is allegedly a distant descendant of Candyman), the backstory’s premise is steeped in the history slavery and the restoration. Most of the supporting cast is African American, including Helen’s bestie, Vanessa Williams, played by Anne-Marie McCoy, and Helen’s Cabrini information source Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh, played by Kasi Lemmons. There are several other key African American characters and a wealth of lesser or background characters.
None of the characters, including the protagonist, steal the show in quite the way Tony Todd’s charismatic and frequently sympathetic villain Candyman does. The brooding bad man approaches Helen in a provocative and often flirtatious manner, imploring her to understand the dark history of injustice and terror that lead to his monstrous afterlife. His deeply resonant voice is seductive and haunting. His character evokes such pity and empathy in the viewer that even as a villain, he could be considered a Byronic hero. When pleading fails, Candyman resorts to threats and bargaining. Helen is the hero and the catalyst for the story, but Candyman is clearly its star. In spite of this, and his stand out performance, Todd didn’t win any awards (he was nominated for one, “Fangoria”), while Virginia Madsen won three.
From the start of his acting career, Tony Todd seemed poised for the world of speculative fiction. Although “Night of the Living Dead” was his first starring role, his motion picture debut was as Barrington in the 1986 fantasy “Sleepwalk,” about a Chinese manuscript with mystical powers. Fantasy and horror weren’t his only speculative acting roles. Some of you will remember his appearances on sci-fi television program “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as Worf’s younger brother, Kurn.
Todd is often cast in villain roles, and horror is the genre he is most solidly associated with. He played the villain Grange in 1994’s classic dark fantasy film, “The Crow,” starring the ill-fated Brandon Lee, who died during production. The movie, based on a dark super hero comic book, contained many elements of horror. Grange, a gangster, is merely a henchman of the main villain Top Dollar. However, in classic Tony Todd character style, Grange is the one who discovers that the crow is the source of hero Eric Draven’s powers.
His characters often have dark mystical knowledge, even when they are neutral, or on the side of good. William Bludworth, his character in the “Final Destination” series, is a coroner who has some special magical knowledge of how death (the entity, not the action) operations. Like Grange, William Bludworth can be considered somewhat problematic as a cinematic trope known as the “magical black character.” These are token black mystics who use their special magical knowledge to aid the story’s white protagonists (or in the case of Grange, villain). However, he is a notable character in the series by virtue of being the only repeating character besides Clear Rivers, the original protagonist (played by Ali Larter) to appear in more than one film. Since death never appears in the flesh in the movies, the Bludworth character acts as an anchor for its personification, performing as a medium or mystic of sorts. He appears in more than half of the movies.
The movie “Candyman” spawned two sequels, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999). While “Farewell to the Flesh” was well-received and succeeded as a sequel, it lost much of the Afrocentrism of the original 1992 Candyman film. Fay Hauser as Pam Carver plays a significant enough role to prevent Todd from being the token black actor, but the significant decrease in black actors in both speaking and background roles makes certain elements of the backstory a bit more problematic.
In the story, Candyman originally existed as a free black man Daniel Robitaille. He was an artist and the son of a slave. His eternal torment is the result of having been tortured, maimed, and murdered by a white mob for sleeping with a white plantation owner’s daughter whose portrait he had been commissioned to paint and getting her pregnant. Candyman’s central targets as victims are women who are descend from his bloodline.
The story becomes increasingly problematic with each sequel as the viewer begins to wonder why these descendants of Candyman’s biracial daughter are predominately white. By the third film, one begins to wonder why the blonde starlet (Donna D’Errico) is the descendant instead of her black girlfriend Tamara (played by Alexia Robinson). In a seeming effort to relieve the second movie’s lack of color, the third film takes on a Day of the Dead theme, a series of Latino secondary characters, and a new Los Angeles location. None of this saves the movie, which is by far the worse of the three. Some of the other acting performances were so bad that not even Tony Todd could save it, and it ultimately killed the franchise.
Although these are his best-known horror series, Tony Todd’s notoriety as a horror actor has landed him a number of parts both large and small over the years. He played a parody of himself as an obnoxious, entitled actor in two episodes of the television show “Holliston” entitled “Candyman.” Some of this other movie roles include Ruber in “Dead of the Nite,” a story of ghosts, ghost hunting, and murder; Reverend Zombie in “Hatchet II,” and Reverend Abraham Stockton in “The Graves.”
Tony Todd remains very active in acting and other pursuits and at 61 years of age, is still widely regarded as a sex symbol. He was a voice actor in a 2015 animated treatment of “Night of the Living Dead” subtitled “Darkest Dawn.” Other 2015 forays into horror for the busy actor included Eddie in “Frankenstein,” Detective Johnson in “Scream At The Devil,” Dr. Murphy in “Agoraphobia,” and the pastor in “Live/Evil.” “Frankenstein” was written and directed by Bernard Rose, co-wrote and directed “Candyman.” Tony Todd also keeps up his creepy bad guy image with a recurring role in the television series “The Flash” as Zoom, an arch-villain who is kind of the anti-Flash. He stars as Detective Sommers in the horror film “Zombie,” currently in post-production.
In addition to his successful movie career, Todd has a substantial history in both Broadway and off-Broadway theater. His onstage credits include Donkeyman in Athol Fugard’s “The Captain’s Tiger,” the title role in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” and Reuben Tate in “Zooman and the Sign.” He continues to be active in theater, and is currently starring in Jack Megna’s “Ghost in the House,” a historical piece about Jack Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. A victim of Jim Crow laws, the boxer convicted of violating the Mann act in 1913 for traveling with a white woman across state lines for “immoral purposes,” despite a lack of evidence. One of Tony Todd’s personal causes is working with other celebrities to ask President Obama to issue a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson for his unjust imprisonment.
Sumiko Saulson a horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy writer. Her novels include “Solitude,” “Warmth”, and “Happiness and Other Diseases.” She is the author of the Young Adult horror novella series “The Moon Cried Blood”, and short story anthology “Things That Go Bump in My Head.” Born to African-American and Russian-Jewish parents, she is a native Californian, and has spent most of her adult life in the Bay Area. She is a horror blogger and journalist