There is always a bit of pride in maintaining a sense of stoicism during a horror film, “I’m not scared” becomes a mantra people tell themselves until they believe it. The campiness or “cheesiness” of a horror film can dilute the elements of Terror so that even the more meek of us can enjoy it. Some film directors, like Eli Roth, are trying to give us nightmares. Nia DeCosta doesn’t seem to want to frighten us as much as she wants us to consider the real life horrors in the news cycle by blending reality and fiction. This film seems to want the audience to be thoughtful about how terrifying police brutality already is and since it’s already terrifying this film isn’t trying to scare us as much as it is asking for us to sit still and think for a moment about how we cope with domestic terrorism as a society.
Candyman is the first film I’ve seen in a theater in two years. My first viewing of this film was on a weekday in the afternoon. The theater was empty except for me. It felt luxurious, like I was roger ebert or someone significant. I got to be as obnoxious as I wanted without desturbing anyone. The whole film I squirmed in my seat and no one was there to judge. The film isn’t particularly gorey however the blood choreography was beautifully gross and the death scenes were borderline slapstick.
The myth behind the man takes many forms. As this is at least the third film based on this myth, Nia Decosta and the writers made deliberate moves to provoke the childish wonder of being told a spooky story by opening with a child talking thru shadow puppets. This creates the skeleton of the film as being a cautionary tale.
One of the lines by Burke (who’s performance is stellar), reminds us that this story is alive, “For me Candyman was Sherman Fields…” this sets us up with the idea that Candyman was many things depending on who was telling the story to whom. The myth is 100s of years old, rooted in tale of a painter hired to paint a portrait of a wealthy women. They fell in love but because of their differences in ethnicity he was tortured, covered in honey, and murdered when they were found out. His spirit comes back when people say his name in a mirror five times. This star crossed love story and the race related injustice is the foundation of the justice seeking ghost, our beloved anti-hero, Candyman.
Each film revolves around a protagonist who is seeking out this urban legend. In the 1992 film and in this 2021 film they find out its not a myth. The legend of Candyman is so palpable that Nia DeCosta hasn’t said his name. In an interview with the Guardian she jokes, “In fact, when I was watching auditions, I would get a little freaked out so I’d stop the audition before they said it all five times. So silly,” she admits, laughing at herself. …not superstitious, she insists. “It’s just that one bit. Nothing [else] about it scares me at this point. Except … I’m just not gonna put myself in the space for my brain to play tricks on me.”
The second time I watched it, it was in the evening and there was maybe a dozen people there. There was even a couple of adults making out in the back row (It was then that I realized I was watching horror wrong). Horror films aren’t romance and yet something about the genre is an aphrodisiac.
Which brings us to our first theme of the film: forbidden love.
In the Collider interview Nia DeCosta stated, “What I wanted to keep was the romantic nature of Candyman. There’s something really interesting about that, that they did in the first film. I really loved the way he was this darkly romantic, Gothic, anti-hero character, so I really wanted to keep those layers to him. It was also important to expand on who he was and what that meant.”
In this newest version the story begins as we meet several loving couples reminding us that the touchstone of this story is love. The couples we are introduced to are clearly emotionally and/or financially supportive of one another and so as an audience we’re rooting from them from the beginning.
While this film does stand on its own it, the writers brought back several elements from the 1992 version including audio of Helen Lyle’s research recordings found by McCoy on a library. This film goes a step above by bringing back one of the 1992 film’s main actresses Vanessa Williams who reveals a plot twist.
Theme two: love of being in places we aren’t supposed to be
In the 1992 version we’re introduced to Lyle who’s school project revolves around an urban legend in Cabrini-Green. This plot speaks to the emphasis on gentrification of the 2021 film. In both films, the plot and the characters constantly revolve in places they ‘aren’t meant to be’ starting in a neighborhood deemed unsafe for any occupants and now we see in the 2021 its deemed safe through gentrification. The commentary on being pushed out of a space by rising housing costs begs the deep question of ‘where are any of us meant to live?’
In the Collider interview Christina Raddish asked, “What made you decide to use Cabrini-Green as a location for the modern update, since the housing project was torn down in 2011? Was focusing on gentrification a part of the story, from the beginning?
DaCOSTA: It was a part of it a bit, but the key thing for us was that you have to go back to the scene of the crime, as it were. We wanted to connect it to the land, to the place, because the story of Cabrini-Green is an over, um, cause now it a story about a community that’s been kind of disappeared from that location. And we want to talk about what was left behind. So gentrification has ended up having to be a part of the story in a bigger way.”
In the interview Nia DeCosta talks about the importance of the locations of the film, “We shot in places that really existed. We didn’t shoot on stages too much. Even when we built a gallery, we built that in the neighborhood where the gallery would have been. We went to what I call the Honeycomb Buildings in Chicago to shoot there because they’re amazing.” (Collider)
Several significant scenes take place in a laundromat owned by Burke. Part of me wants to read into this, like, it’s a a symbol of laundering our pain into art for money. And part of me just wants to take it for what it is. Burke is a character who has known about Candyman since childhood and opening a laundromat may have been a way for him to cope with his experience with police brutality against an innocent man.
Theme three: love of fame
The third major theme we’re exploring in this film is about how we process pain and trauma as individuals and as a community. Through Burke’s storyline we understand that the The myth of Candyman was, in part, created as a way to understand traumatic events where authorities murdered innocent people who were inconvenient to them. Candyman is both a myth about being cautious as he is a myth about getting justice.
Throughout the film we see McCoy and Cartwright struggle with the idea of using trauma to make art or to network. As we watch the characters develop we see them struggle with using their personal past trauma to hussle in the Chicago art scene. We see them trying to make names for themselves in the cutthroat art world on the merit of their work, the industry has other ideas, and they are continually confronted with situations where the world around them wants to exploit their pain for financial gain. We see this allegory play out through Anthony’s relationship with art agent he pitches his Cabrini-Green idea to and with the jaded art curator. In the story this is not only a part of the Horrorifying reality of the art world it is also commentary on the white gaze’s voyerism of Black/African-American pain.
In one particularly sadistic scene, McCoy just finds out about the murder of another artist and his assistant. When McCoy’s name and his art piece are mentioned in the news broadcast there is an ironic moment where he’s starstruck at the mention. There are so many instances where the news is reporting about the crime by a or death of a black man that his name being said in relation to art is an accomplishment here and still, it’s relationship to the brutal murders complicat that accomplishment. In this scene we’re provoked by the duality of noteriety (aren’t we all trying to make a name for ourselves?) next to the tragedy of murder. This film begs the question: what are we willing to do with to gain fame? Every artist has their own personal boundaries. Jordan Peele, one of the writers and producers, has spoken and written about how the horror genre can be a therapeutic way to process trauma and here we see him almost antagonizing himself on this point by calling out how art and the art community exploits human trauma and tragedy. Pain becomes a fetish and art becomes a kind of bdsm.
I’m going to keep editing this piece while I sit at the Atlanta airport, but I’ll leave it like this for now. Happy Halloween. I hope you can find this film or Antlers in theater this weekend or enjoy your holiday plans
As always thanks for reading with your eyes, ears, and hands.
Raise hell peacefully,
Interviews with Nia Decosta
Internet Movie Data Base for Candyman https://m.imdb.com/title/tt9347730/fullcredits/cast?ref_=m_ttfc_3