Hidden horrors: Remaking Candyman for the Black Lives Matter era

Filmmaker Nia DaCosta looks at modern issues affecting the black community in the US

Nia DaCosta: ‘I think Candyman is definitely a monster for sure’

Nia DaCosta: ‘I think Candyman is definitely a monster for sure’


Nia DaCosta’s creepy reboot of the horror classic Candyman finally makes it to multiplexes this week following a year-long pandemic-related delay. The director of the 2018 Sundance-breakout Little Woods is currently deep in production on The Marvels, a sequel to Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris (who also stars in Candyman), and Ms. Marvel’s Iman Vellani. At 31, she’s the youngest film-maker to be handed the reins of a Marvel movie.

Candyman is a significant and historical stepping-stone towards superheroism.

As Jordan Peele, the producer of the reboot has noted, without Candyman, there would have been no Get Out or Us.

“The original was a landmark film for black representation in the horror genre,” said Peele. “Alongside Night of the Living Dead, Candyman was a major inspiration for me as a film-maker.”

“I had heard about Jordan Peele wanting to make a Candyman movie from my agent,” recalls DaCosta. “And I’m a huge fan of Jordan Peele. And I love Candyman, the original film. So I just wanted to be involved. And thankfully, after my pitch, Jordan realised we all were aligned with what we’re going to do with the story. The collaboration was really great. I learned so much from just watching him. He really helped make the movie better, every step of the way.”

'The film is really about how storytelling is used around these horrific events to either help process, or to campaign'

When Candyman was released in 1992, Roger Ebert praised the film for “scaring him with ideas and gore, rather than just gore.” Bernard Rose’s fascinating and radical film, based on a short story by Clive Barker, has been subsequently reappraised by black and feminist critics. It’s a loaded film, one that scholar Kirsten Moana Thompson calls: “the return of the repressed as national allegory”.

The film’s hook-handed, bee-hive-bodied killer (Tony Todd) – who appears to residents of Chicago’s projects when you say his name five times in a mirror – embodies a history of racism, lynching and slavery, the horrifying buried legacy of US history. 

His monstrous feminine counterpart Helen (Virginia Madsen), is a gentrifying presence in the low-income projects of Cabrini Green and an intellectual interloper in her academic appropriation of urban myth.

While Helen investigates the legend, a series of gruesome occurrences seem to link back to a black 19th-century artist named Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), who fell in love with a young white woman whom he was painting. For this crime, a white mob lynched him. They cut off his hand, smeared him with honey and unleashed a swarm of bees on him before burning him alive. His ashes were spread in what was then the site of the Cabrini Green development. 

Helen’s precarious status in the patriarchal, academic world and her final terrible fate has allowed many film scholars – including Stacey Abbott and Lucy Donaldson – to explore the film’s depiction of oppression based on race and gender. 

The original release at the tail end of three terms of damaging Reagan-Bush conservatism – with attendant cuts in public housing that further disenfranchised lower-income families – is mirrored by the arrival of DaCosta’s post-Trump reboot.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Anthony McCoy in Candyman
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Anthony McCoy in Candyman

Candyman’s 2021 appearance revisits and expands on the gentrification theme of the 1992 original. Set more than a decade after the last of Chicago’s old Cabrini towers were torn down, artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his art-gallery-director girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris) are typical of the upwardly mobile millennials who populate the reboot in the luxury lofts of contemporary Cabrini. (One especially tart exchange frames the creative community as the instigators of all gentrification.)

A chance meeting with an older neighbourhood resident introduces Anthony to the Candyman legend and a potential subject for a new artistic endeavour. His interest, however, soon reawakens the vengeful spectre of Candyman, a resurrection that plays out against a very contemporary backdrop of police brutality, trauma, and discrimination.

“I think we just wanted the film to be as specific as possible,” says DaCosta, who co-wrote the script with Peele and Win Rosenfeld. “For me, the film is really about how storytelling is used around these horrific events to either help process, or to campaign, or to create a martyr out of people who end up leaving us too soon through these terrible acts of racial violence. And that sounds specific, but it also has so many facets to it, how does storytelling operate in our culture? And how does storytelling operate to the point of getting somewhere like a character like Candyman?

“I love gore. I think body horror is really important. But it has to have its place. So I knew that most of the gore and body horror would happen to characters we cared about as opposed to throw-away slasher stuff. So there’s that element of it that you have to balance with the real-world themes that we’re talking about.

“I really care a lot about those things. And I care about portraying them in the right way. And then I’m also a huge fan of the original Candyman. I was coming to it from a fan point of view, and also as someone who really cares and who is a part of the community that these things deeply affect.”

In this spirit, DaCosta and Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions are currently collaborating on #TellEveryone, a social justice initiative designed to foster conversation around the themes within the film. There is power, she says, in the saying aloud of names like Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake. Even if Candyman remains a tried and trusted movie monster.

“I think Candyman is definitely a monster for sure,” says DaCosta. “I really loved the way he was this darkly romantic Gothic sort of antihero in the original film. I wanted to keep those layers there. I think he’s multifaceted for me; he represents how we change people from people into idols, or martyrs or icons or representations of a thing as opposed to living breathing human beings. He’s definitely a monster. It’s a horror movie. He’s definitely a villain of a sort. But we wanted to deconstruct who decided he was a monster. Who gave him that name and and and how did he get there in the first place.”

By making Anthony McCoy Candyman’s new spiritual collaborator – as opposed to Virginia Madsen’s Helen – there’s an interesting switch in the gender politics of the original. It falls to Anthony’s domestic partner to attempt to pull him back from the brink, a neat counterpoint to the unreliable husband found in Bernard Rose’s film.

“Something that people talk about a lot in the black community is how black women hold it up,” explains DaCosta. “Basically, for a lot of the trauma that happens, black women don’t get to really process and work through their trauma because they’re too busy dealing with everyone else’s. And that’s sort of what I wanted to talk about with the character of Breanna. Obviously, her partner is having a really hard time but she has her own trauma that we see in the film that she never really gets to deal with. And the closer this legend of Candyman gets, the more her own trauma keeps coming up and haunting her the way that Candyman, haunts Cabrini Green. That was something I really want to talk about because I see it and I’ve experienced it myself. And I thought that was a really important part of the love story.”

DaCosta says she hasn’t dared to say Candyman five times in a mirror, but she has, in making the film, felt an occasional shudder.

“When I was in LA with my producer during pre-production, we heard this sound. We looked outside. All the windows were open. And we just saw this huge swarm of bees. It appeared out of nowhere. I’ve never seen a swarm of bees that big before. We were rushing around closing all the windows and freaking out. We just looked at each other and said: that was f**king creepy. After that, we just kept finding dead bees all around the house. It was very strange.”

Candyman opens on August 27th

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