Horror filmmaking has always been political, but Candyman takes it to a new level: It’s a political horror film about politics in horror films. It’s also a devilishly sharp piece of meta-genre filmmaking, and one of the better movies I’ve seen this year.
To fully appreciate Candyman (2021), it helps to have seen Candyman (1992), which is based on “The Forbidden,” a Clive Barker short story from the 1980s.
Barker’s story was about a young woman researching graffiti in British public housing blocks for a graduate thesis. Along the way, she discovers an urban myth about a bee-infested ghost of a man with a hook for a hand—the Candyman—who seduces and kills victims whenever his cultural memory starts to fade. Yet even as she relates stories of garish housing project murders to her fellow academics, often over trendy wine and food, they disbelieve her, thinking none of it could have happened, since they’d never heard about any such thing. Barker’s story was a wry evisceration of the British class system, in which the divide between the self-satisfied haves of the university system and the have-nots of public housing is literalized by a monster whose murderous power comes from people not noticing him.
The 1992 film by Bernard Rose took Barker’s story and moved it to the slum towers of gentrifying Chicago, adding racial conflict to the mix. Now the titular Candyman was the son of a slave—a black artist who in the 1800s fell in love with a white woman. In return, a white mob slathered him with honey, tortured him with bee stings, then cut off his arm and replaced it with a hook. He lived on as a vengeful spirit who haunted the city’s dilapidated Cabrini-Green housing project.
On the surface, Rose’s film looked like a throwaway slasher flick, the sort of thing bored suburban teens of the MTV era might sneak out to watch at a shopping mall movie theater on a lazy Saturday afternoon. But watch it again today, and it’s clear it was something more—an atmospheric and surprisingly deft take on troubled inner cities and early ’90s racial strife that boasted a chilling performance from Tony Todd as Candyman and a genuinely distinct sense of time and place.
Sure, there were messy kills and blood-streaked walls and all the usual violent horror film trappings. As the legend went, if you looked in a mirror and said the word Candyman five times in a row, he’d dutifully appear to slice you up. If all you wanted was to watch it as a campfire tale about a guy with a hook hand who slit people’s gullets, the movie delivered. But unlike so many of its ’80s/’90s slasher-film contemporaries, the movie also operated on another, more intellectualized level, as an eerie prism through which to view gentrification, inner-city violence, and the urban racial divide.
But there was a thematic contradiction, or at least a complication, buried in the film’s setup: On the one hand, this Candyman was both victim and product of white brutality, yet many of his own victims were poor black residents of crime-ridden public housing that the affluent whites who lived in surrounding areas largely ignored.
The new Candyman takes that complication and seeks to iron out its contradictions. So it casts Candyman not as a single vengeful spirit, but as a historical continuum of Candymen, a sprawling lineage of black men killed and abused by white violence—often through the state—whose wrath falls largely on white victims.
In the end, some of those victims turn out to be violent, corrupt members of the Chicago police force, hinting at a Black Lives Matter–adjacent interpretation of the film’s politics: Candyman—say his name.
But it’s not quite that simple. Other victims turn out to be members of Chicago’s elite artistic community: a local critic and a preening art-world power broker, along with his Joy Division–quoting fling, all of whom have sought to promote, interpret, and exploit black art for their own purposes—and who only find it interesting when it becomes shocking and dangerous.
All of those victims are connected in some way to the film’s two central characters, a black couple—artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris)—who live in a stunning high-rise condo even while complaining about gentrification. McCoy, who has unexpected connections to the 1992 Candyman, is referred to as the “great black hope of the Chicago art scene.” But he’s going through a rough patch, and when he finally displays a set of paintings, a local critic dismisses the work. “It speaks in didactic media clichés about the ambient violence of the gentrification cycle,” she says. “Your kind are the real pioneers of that cycle.”
Is the movie sneering at the way the white critic treats literal black art about black pain? Or is it turning its criticism inward, at itself and its characters? Or is it simply struggling to reckon with its own place in the contemporary prestige horror continuum? What is being perpetuated, by whom, and for what intended audience? None of these questions are fully resolved. Instead, they sit uncomfortably next to each other, often in tension.
Candyman is hauntingly directed by the young and obviously talented Nia DaCosta, whose glossy, studied imagery gives the movie a creepy, almost architectural formality. (At times she sends the camera floating eerily through Chicago’s high-rise canyons, shrouded in dark clouds.) DaCosta directs from a script she co-wrote with producers Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peele, who rose to prominence with the politically-minded horror films Get Out and Us.
Their movie not only expands and refines a decades-old black horror mythos, it seems to question its own participation in that project, as if wondering aloud whether by repurposing the myth into a modern political project, it is merely playing into a different set of narrow expectations about black art and storytelling. And by doing so, of course, it asks viewers to consider their own involvement as well. The politics of horror filmmaking don’t stop at the boundaries of the screen.
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