When British horror author Clive Barker first unleashed the monster Candyman into the world against a backdrop of Thatcherism in 1985, he looked a little different to the character that gave people nightmares in the 1992 film. Dreamed up for short story The Forbidden, he terrorised the slums of Liverpool in lieu of a housing project in Chicago and, crucially, he was white.
The story was still a critique on class, its setting just as dilapidated and depressed as its cinematic successors. But the element that makes both the original adaptation and the new Candyman sequel particularly poignant today is missing. In 2021, the most frightening thing about this urban bogeyman is not his hooked hand or the bees that swarm just before he slices into his victims; it’s the very real racism that created him.
“Candyman isn’t a he. He’s the whole damn hive,” says an exasperated William played by Colman Domingo, one of the few remaining residents of the Cabrini Green neighbourhood, Candyman’s regular haunt in the films. Directed by Nia DaCosta (Little Woods, Crossing The Line, The Ghost Tape), who co-wrote the screenplay with producers Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and Win Rosenfeld (BlacKkKlansman), the latest addition to the Candyman franchise (two lesser-known sequels were released during the ’90s) doesn’t pick up where the original film left off. Instead, it fast forwards to the present day, after gentrification has swept through Cabrini Green’s surrounding areas and pushed out locals in its wake.
Except for William, that is. He’s the man that upcoming artist Anthony comes across when he decides to centre his new work on Cabrini Green’s history, himself having recently moved into one of the swish, luxury newbuilds in the area. Played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Watchmen), once Anthony learns of Candyman’s fabled history from William, there’s no going back. He becomes obsessed and entwined with the legend, the latest addition to the Candyman hive.
Say “Candyman” five times in a mirror and he’ll appear to take you as his victim, the story goes. But like any good ghost story, the origins of the myth are more disturbing than the outcome. Candyman, as Anthony sees him, was once-Cabrini Green resident Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), a Black man who was accused of putting razor blades in sweets he handed out to children. He was then murdered by the police. His crusade against those who dare say his name, then, is an act of revenge, but Candyman is not simply out for personal vengeance. As expertly illustrated in the film’s haunting puppet trailer, “the whole damn hive” is every Black man who has been wrongfully accused of a crime in the area and then forced to pay for it with his life.
Make no mistake, Candyman is a genuinely scary horror film, gruesome enough to make you squirm in your seat and eerie enough to convince you to avoid mirrors for the foreseeable future. But it’s the metaphorical portrayal of intergenerational racial trauma that will leave you speechless and paralysed in your seat once the film ends. With its art gallery slaughters and supernatural CGI, the film’s plot may be extraordinary, but the heart of the story is devastatingly ordinary.
“For the entire time of making the film, I was safeguarding from going too fantastical, because I knew that this is about real life,” said Nia DaCosta last year. “If it’s not George Floyd or Philando Castile, it’s someone else. I always knew the world for what the world was.” For centuries, Black people have been killed for simply being Black. It continues to happen to this day, so much so that we’re relatively numb to it. We’re sad when we hear of another lost Black life, but we’re never surprised. What’s more horrifying than that?
So while the film warns you not to say his name, make sure you shout loud about all the lost lives that Candyman represents. Because, as William says when trying to convince Anthony that the legend is real, “A story like that, a pain like that, lasts forever.”