‘Candyman’ Is A Bittersweet Revival

Home Culture and Entertainment ‘Candyman’ Is A Bittersweet Revival

Even if we agree that DaCosta’s Candyman is a competent enough horror film of the slasher variety, we must still ask: what work does its story do?

This essay contains spoilers for Candyman (1992) and Candyman (2021)

"The pain, I can assure you, will be exquisite. As for our deaths, there is nothing to fear. Our names will be written on a thousand walls. Our crimes told and retold by our faithful believers. We shall die together in front of their very eyes and give them something to be haunted by. Come with me and be immortal."
—Daniel Robitaille, Candyman (1992)

Black art deserves to be treasured and protected. It also deserves honesty and critical thinking. Critiquing Black art is a necessary practice because thoughtful critique makes Black art better. But critiques of Black art, especially when it comes from Black critics, is so often met with ire and panic. Many people fear that anything less than unfettered praise is a betrayal and will somehow result in Black art disappearing entirely, and then we will have nothing left, not even crumbs. But I have faith that there will always be Black art and that there will always be space for us to think deeply about it. Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, a spiritual sequel to the 1992 classic of the same name, is a gripping piece of Black art and it deserves a loving critique. DaCosta’s Candyman—co-written by Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld—has made history as the first feature helmed by a Black woman to reach #1 at the box office, and it brings me immense joy that this was accomplished with a horror film, especially one featuring a ghost who captured my horror-loving heart years ago. 

While I recognize Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) as a classic and a seminal offering that both subverts and pushes beyond the slasher and vengeful ghost/haunting subgenres of horror, I still have my critiques. It is a story about the ghost of Daniel Robitaille, lynched for falling in love with a white woman, which centers around another white woman whose hubris and anthropological intrusion upon the Cabrini-Green housing projects and its poor Black residents brings about her own haunting. Candyman (Tony Todd) is the Black monster who lusts after and terrorizes Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen)—a familiar and grotesque motif regarding Black men and white women, both in film and in the social imagination—but the film ultimately culminates in a display of white saviorism, white triumph, and the (mis)appropriation of Candyman’s hook. It’s an imperfect tale that uses abject poverty, racial inequality, fear of miscegenation, and white violence as a backdrop for Helen’s haunting. Because it is also an examination of how urban legends take root and metamorphose into something bigger, Rose’s Candyman is as much about storytelling as it is about race, socioeconomic disparity, and housing development. 

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The new Candyman is a direct continuation of Rose’s, following the now-adult Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who was just a baby when Candyman took him as a means to lure Helen into the fire. Although, DaCosta’s Candyman gives us a different reason for Anthony’s abduction, one that alters its purpose significantly. He has apparently been marked by Candyman; it is Anthony’s destiny to join his legion. With his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), in a swanky new apartment building where the Cabrini-Green towers used to stand, Anthony unwittingly invites Candyman when he performs the ritual while looking at his reflection in a windowpane (Or was it the mysterious bee sting that set off the haunting? It’s unclear). But the ghost that appears this time is not Daniel Robitaille. Instead, it is a man named Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove) who was falsely accused of endangering white children by putting razor blades in their candy and beaten to death by white cops in the bowels of Cabrini-Green. 

DaCosta’s Candyman, as successful and loved as it is as a piece of horror, fails to fully embrace the opportunities it presents to us in the beginning. The film initially feels evocative of Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) and seems to promise a criticism of the art world through a lens that would provide a racial and class analysis. After all, Daniel Robitaille was an artist, Anthony McCoy is an artist, Brianna Cartwright is an art curator, and her father, whose death by suicide she was a child (which is not fully explored), was also an artist. The first three victims are directly connected to the art world and the high school student who conjures Candyman in the bathroom with her friends learned of the mirror ritual at an art show where Anthony’s shallow Black trauma art is on display. All of these details seem to set us up for a narrative that will interrogate art more deeply, especially when a white art critic boldly asserts that artists are the true gentrifiers. 

With the now-gentrified Cabrini-Green as its primary setting, DaCosta’s Candyman presents the perfect opportunity for a deeper exploration of the racism involved in housing development and urban planning. How when poor Black folks get pushed out of our neighborhoods to make way for gentrifiers, the erasure of our art is also part of that colonization and destruction. How Anthony and Brianna, as Black gentrifiers, also participate in an ugly practice that destroys poor communities. As Robert Daniels writes in a review for Polygon, “DaCosta’s film doesn’t work to convey that economic disparity, and why the city desperately wants to gentrify the former projects to make room for more luxury housing… The lack of a visual metaphor makes the film’s exploration of gentrification more of an assemblage of nonspecific dialogue. It talks about what gentrification is, and not what it looks like.” 

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The film’s treatment of Candyman himself feels similarly deflated. In comparison to the new Candyman, Robitaille was a more romantic monster. While Robitaille’s velvety voice crawled over the senses and beckoned Helen to him with elegant, seductive language, Sherman haunts in silence. His face is also misshapen, swollen, and bloody; reminiscent of Emmett Till in his open casket. While Robitaille reveled in the carnage his hook created, Sherman doesn’t seem to take much pleasure in skewering his victims. Overall, Sherman haunts in a fashion that is markedly different from the ghost we know, appearing almost immediately to slice into the flesh of anyone who speaks the name “Candyman” five times in a mirror. In Rose’s Candyman, Robitaille’s haunting was focused on a single person, Helen Lyle. Anyone he killed was directly connected to her in some way, and this served to sever Helen’s connection with humanity and sanity, ultimately driving her into Robitaille’s arms. The motivation for Helen’s haunting has been debated amongst horror scholars and fans for almost 30 years—some believe that Helen was a sort of reincarnation of the Robitaille’s forbidden love (pointing to his line “It was always you, Helen”), but my belief has always been that Helen was haunted by Candyman because she challenged his existence and presented herself as an authority on the lives of poor Black urbanites that she had no real understanding of. Robitaille says to her, “I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing. So now, I must shed innocent blood.”

Sherman’s more indiscriminate and immediate slaying of anyone who calls him up—even Black children in the projects, who he handed out free candy to in life—fundamentally changes who Candyman is as a figure. The question becomes whether or not this shift is beneficial or detrimental to the legend of Candyman. And how does it impact our connection with and empathy for him as a character? Moreover, DaCosta’s Candyman recasts Robitaille as a figure that compels the ghosts of other murdered men to take up the Candyman mantle and labor under/alongside him as ethereal monsters of hook-handed retribution as part of his hive. The film abandons its commentary on gentrification and art to ultimately become a narrative about Anthony McCoy’s slow torture—his living body gives in to decay as he is pulled deeper and deeper into Candyman’s honeytrap, he is forced into the hive against his will, he is mutilated, he is compelled to become a monster to be called upon and exact bloody vengeance. 

The ending suggests that this vengeance marks Candyman and his hive as heroic crusaders who retaliate against white supremacist violence—even though Candyman has never been this kind of hero. “Tell everyone,” Robitaille spits at Brianna as she stares in awe at the ghost who has just eviscerated a group of racist white cops, his head swarming with bees. Even though Brianna is the summoner, he does not harm her but instead charges her with sharing her testimony, a far cry from what Candyman has always been. This ending also suggests that all the Candymen in the hive share a single form—Robitaille’s form. He is effectively the keeper of these ghosts, and it begs a necessary question: Is the Candyman hive also a cage? Are the other ghosts trapped in servitude to Robitaille’s vengeful desires and thirst for blood? Are they now shouldering the burden of his need to be immortal? What does it mean when a ghost pulls other ghosts into his orbit and then dispatches them to carry out the haunting he began over a century ago? These are the questions I am left with, and more. 

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Even if we agree that DaCosta’s Candyman is a competent enough horror film of the slasher variety, we must still ask: what work does its story do? For our ghosts and for the loved ones they leave behind? What work does this do for Candyman himself? DaCosta spoke of “unwilling martyrs” when the chilling puppet show teaser for the film was released last year. So, what does Candyman really have to say about those martyrs? And does it do them justice? Even if we understand what the film’s intentions are, it’s still our responsibility as the audience to ask whether or not it achieves what it intended, and whether or not its impact aligns with its intent.

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