The conceit behind the legend of Candyman is that it – or “he” – can only survive through the persistent retelling of his story. That terrifying specter can only thrive if he’s permitted to linger in our collective subconscious. But there’s another perspective to the story, a view from the other side of the mirror. Perhaps Candyman is feared only because that’s how his story was framed, and that framing sunk into our collective mindset as understood fact. If Candyman is real, and his legend is true, why aren’t we focusing on his trauma? Why not analyze his fears? Our prejudices inform our fears, but who creates the prejudices and who declares they’re “ours”? For a figure so inherently evil, Candyman never stood a chance against the prevailing bias of the dominant white purveyors of his myth.
Nia DaCosta’s Candyman seeks to understand its titular entity from the inside of the mirror. It is a pointed reframing of the urban legend first captured in a 1985 Clive Barker short story and later thrust into the annals of cinematic horror in the original 1992 film. There’s a racial awareness in every telling of the story, but each iteration has been largely white-centered and populated by entirely white key creatives…until now. As such, this film functions as a recalibration, a black story no longer dominated by the white perspective, free to explore the neglected notion that the insidious evil of this centerpiece legend isn’t necessarily Candyman himself, but the world that created and still perpetuates him.
The origin story has never changed – a black artist living among 19th century white elites was accepted into society and celebrated for his craft…until he fell in love with and impregnated a white woman. He was brutally tortured and murdered by the townspeople, but returns across the ensuing centuries to kill anyone who dares to say “Candyman” five times into a mirror. The earlier works left the origin at that, pivoting without deeper introspection to Candyman’s gory killings, one hapless moron after the other staring into a mirror, summoning the ‘Man, and paying the price. Candyman remained a nameless cipher of evil all in the name of a good audience thrill. His story was tragic, but that never prevented anyone – namely previous filmmakers – from viewing him as anything other than a loathsome ghoul.
This film says his name: Daniel Robitaille. An act that simple opens a window into human empathy that the prior films never dared attempt – not even the 1992 original, which was and remains an ambitious and effective piece of horror, albeit from the limiting white perspective. That human empathy allows DaCosta and fellow screenwriters Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld to mine several layers of horror – not merely the horror of an unseen entity but of the insidious evil that infiltrates the everyday black experience, which redefines our understanding of “living in fear at every moment.”
Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) seeks to capture that fear in his art. He’s a struggling painter whose depictions of racial violence are viewed as on-the-nose and therefore uncompelling in the haughty art scene of downtown Chicago. When Anthony catches wind of the Candyman legend, it becomes his latest inspiration. In a visit to the now-gentrified Cabrini-Green neighborhood (central location of the 1992 film), a lifelong local (Colman Domingo) briefs Anthony on the long and complicated history of the urban legend. “For me, Candyman was…” he begins, intimating that Candyman isn’t an individual entity but a series of tortured souls that existed over centuries, only to be fused into one representative bogeyman. He also elucidates the tragedy of Daniel Robitaille in a way that resonates to this day: “They love what we make, but they don’t love us.” The urban legends that spur white fear are rooted in black trauma, and both ends of that spectrum persist today.
What’s fascinating about this new iteration of Candyman is that it not only actualizes that spectrum, but probes into the morass of twisted implications within it, from the optics of the white savior stemming from the original film to the subset of the black community that perpetuates the Candyman myth as a shield against the continued onslaught of racial violence. As Anthony digs deeper into the myth’s history, the aura of Candyman begins to overtake him, prompting the question: are any black bodies free of this spell?
All of that represents only the tip of the film’s thematic iceberg, which runs so deep that it’s hard to fully synthesize all its ideas in its lean 91-minute running time. It’s messy, but so is the state of the world. DaCosta captures this intentional mess with efficient style and building suspense, leading to a conclusion that goes out with a flourish of terror – part defiance, part tragedy. It’s the defiance that’s been missing all along, lost amid white-centered stories of fear of Other, but now reclaimed.