The Clive Barker short story that originally sparked the Candyman film series makes no racial reference at all; otherness is at work there through class alone. “The Forbidden”, published in Barker’s horror collection Books of Blood Vol 5 in 1985 (series motto: “Wherever we’re opened we’re red”), was set in an unnamed English city, perhaps Barker’s native Liverpool, on a recent but already rotten housing estate.
Helen Lyle, a conceited academic, investigates urban myth as seen in graffiti and falls to one of its main tropes, the Candyman, a “honeyed psychopath” with bees in his rotting torso. “I came for you,” he says, materialising because she doubted him. But he has no name or backstory – in this first iteration, there isn’t even the device of summoning him by repeating the fatal moniker five times in front of a mirror. But the story had legs. And a hook.
The classic 1992 film transferred the setting to the troubled Cabrini-Green Housing Projects on Chicago’s North Side. It’s a tour de force, from its sweeping Sky-cam aerial views, implicating the whole city, to its soaring Philip Glass soundtrack. As the stricken Helen, Virginia Madsen has her incredible face repeatedly held in traumatising close-up – and as the Candyman, in a big coat with a choral voice, Tony Todd has majestic presence. (Perhaps fortunately, the producers couldn’t afford their first choice for the role, Eddie Murphy.)
It was Todd, it seems, who came up with the character’s backstory during rehearsals – that the Candyman was Daniel Robitaille, the son of a slave who became a portrait artist for rich whites in the 1890s. Having fallen in love with one of the girls he was painting, he was murdered on the orders of her father. A lynch mob cut off his right hand and replaced it with a hook, and smeared him with honey so that he was stung to death by bees. He became legend: Candyman, a truly tortured artist, a kind of African-American Dracula, classy as well as monstrous.
Yet this 1992 Candyman was written and directed by Londoner Bernard Rose, with Barker on board as executive producer. The film had little to say about the black ghettos of the housing projects other than using them as a scene of horror and degradation: a choice that was surprising even at the time. After the film’s success, Bernard Rose hoped to make a prequel, tracing the Robitaille story. But instead there have been two lacklustre spin-offs: one taking Candyman on tour to New Orleans, the other to LA.
That the great reviser of horror, Jordan Peele, might want to revisit Candyman must have occurred to anybody who has seen Get Out and Us. This Candyman is very much the third Jordan Peele horror feature but, although he takes credit as screenwriter and producer, it has been directed and co-written by 31-year-old Nia DaCosta: known previously for her 2019 debut Little Woods, she is now on production with The Marvels, making her the first black woman to direct a Marvel picture. Candyman is quite a showreel for her talents, making brilliant use of inversion and reflection throughout. Together, Peele and DaCosta have made a definitive Black Lives Matter horror.
The setting is Cabrini-Green again, in the present day (but pre-pandemic, filmed on location in 2019). The tower blocks of the housing projects have been razed and replaced by expensive apartments, thanks to the artists leading Chicago’s gentrification. One such, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) lives there in swell style with his pushy gallerista girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah
Parris) but, after initial success, he has lost his way artistically. With a show scheduled but no work ready, Anthony seeks inspiration in the history of the area, investigating a derelict house from the projects and talking to an old-timer, Burke (Colman Domingo), full of tales about the trauma of the past for black residents. Anthony begins with a conceptual piece called “Say My Name”…
Not such a good idea, perhaps. Anthony’s paintings become increasingly violent. During his investigations, he gets stung on the hand by a bee – and this injury doesn’t heal but worsens and spreads, the film lurching into full body horror, à la Cronenberg. Anthony begins to lose his mind. Then the killings begin: a grotesquely patronising white gallery owner is murdered, then a ludicrously condescending white art critic. Social satire morphs into slaughter.
In the original Candyman, Helen deliberately summons the monster against the psychiatrist holding her captive. Here it is Brianna who, previously aghast at Anthony’s transformation, changes her mind when attacked by murderous white cops. Mass carnage ensues, more or less openly celebrated.
This Candyman explicitly embodies the righteous return of all the injustice suffered by black men not just historically but more recently, particularly at the hands of the police. As Burke tells Anthony, “Candyman ain’t a ‘he’, Candyman’s the whole damn hive” – an incarnation of the pain and rage of all black men who have suffered at white hands (the depiction of that violence is tastefully distanced by being shown only in puppet shadowplay). “A pain like that,” we’re warned, “lasts forever.”
“Candyman” is in cinemas from 27 August
dir: Nia DaCosta
This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat