Good mornin’, Mr. Benson,
I see you’re doin’ well.
If I had me a shotgun
I’d blow you straight to hell.
– Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, “Candyman,” 1970
* * *
The song that plays over the opening of Nia DaCosta’s 2020 film Candyman is Sammy Davis Jr.’s number-one 1972 single “The Candy Man,” originally composed for the hallucinatory movie musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But what kept running through my own head while watching Candyman were the four lines above from the Grateful Dead’s acid-folk blues, released two years earlier. “The line . . . that always gets the big cheers,” lyricist Robert Hunter termed it. “I couldn’t believe it. I hope that people realize that the character in ‘Candyman’ is a character, and not me.”1 I thought of these lines and of Hunter’s remark especially during the gory finale when Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), trapped in the back of a patrol car with a white officer blackmailing her from the front seat over the murder of her partner that the police have just committed, summons the titular killer through the rearview mirror to administer a bloody wallop of racial justice in which the viewers are invited vicariously to participate. As critic Dani Bethea writes, “This moment was poignant (and if I was amongst a different theater crowd worth uproarious applause).”2
The very white audience Hunter recalls applauding the Dead’s performance is decidedly not the “different theater crowd” Bethea has in mind here; however, what’s shared by these two otherwise divergent audiences is their glorying in a vivid experience of richly deserved stick-it-to-the-man violence.3 Just as this reaction felt problematic to Hunter but not to most of his audience, negative reactions to the new film’s finale and other directly political moments have been framed according to what one reviewer termed its “suffocating bluntness.”4 I attribute this framing not only to what Bethea calls the “dog-whistle” of it being “too woke” for some critics, but also to the specific ways its forthrightness diverges from certain genre conventions of horror. Rather than dispatch the supernatural killer in her role as “final girl,” Brianna instead discovers she can repurpose the killer’s supernatural power against the fully reality-based misused authority of the police that has been running throughout the film as an objective correlative to Candyman’s slasher violence. That repurposing is not just blunt political allegory, which is baked into plenty of horror and other popular genre narratives. All three principals in Candyman have survived horror as children; even the bloody scene in the high school bathroom has a Black witness (Genesis Denise Hale) cowering in the toilet stall (Fig. 9). And for any survivor of horror, as Carvell Wallace argues, “There is no happy ending. To tell an honest tale of horror, one that acknowledges the humanity of its subjects, is to acknowledge this fact.”5
This acknowledgment overturns the genre’s very form, a correlation in ethical terms of the opening inversion of the producers’ credits and the repeating transition shots of Chicago’s skyscrapers viewed from below, upside-down. The 2020 Candyman equally inverts the striking aerial views of the opening credits of the 1992 horror film to which, as cowriter and producer Jordan Peele said, it was the “spiritual sequel.” (Figs. 2 & 3) Candyman ’20 argues that racial politics – or, as Wallace puts it, “the horrors of this country, its history, its disfigurement of my soul and spirit, and of the souls and spirits of my family, my community, the people I loved,” and the ways those horrors and that history ceaselessly haunt the present – overturn the conventional morality that gives the horror plot its narrative arc from guilt through suffering into either death or survival. In this respect, its insistent bluntness or “preachiness” functions, paradoxically, in a way not far from what Bernard Rose, the writer and director of the 1992 film, claimed “horror should be . . . it’s transgressive, because it’s about things which are upsetting.”6
We first glimpse this renewed transgressive possibility when soon-to-be-Candyman-possessed artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) responds with blinkered pleasure to his own name and his new gallery piece Say My Name being mentioned in a news report on the white owner Clive and intern/lover Jerrica being brutally murdered in front of its mirrored surface. He’s quickly silenced by Brianna and her brother; in retrospect, the entire film will pivot on this readjustment of its moral compass to ally itself at least as much with his compromised allegiance to violence as with their conventional disapproval. This tension arises from the uneasy ways art and life mirror each other. As Wallace puts it, “We currently find ourselves amid a deluge of projects – Lovecraft Country, Them, Queen & Slim, Antebellum, and others – that leverage, with varying degrees of success, Black pain for drama and entertainment value, at precisely the moment when Black trauma is proving among the most popular forms of non-Hollywood spectacle.” To be sure, Clive’s assertion that “The South Side is played out” as a gallery topic shouldn’t really condemn him to death in real life any more than Jerrica’s complicity should; however, it’s really no different than the kind of moral misstep that typically gets one eviscerated in horror movies. John Waters satirized this convention way back in Serial Mom (1994), in which a white housewife (Kathleen Turner) capitally punishes suburban faux pas like wearing white shoes after Labor Day or recycling incorrectly; Candyman’s twist on such satire is sharper and politically incisive, and it plays out in many ways at once, which may partly account for the sense of confusion or of uneven pacing various reviewers noted. I want to parse some of the ways I see the satire working: how the film revisits, revises, and extends the 1992 original; how it racializes the tropes of the horror genre in ways both similar to and different from Peele’s and other films; and how it approaches the vexed question of gentrification on film and in practice.
If you ever go to Houston, boy, you’d better walk right.
And you better not gamble, and you better not fight.
’Cuz Benson Crocker will arrest you and Jimmy Boone will take you down.
And you bet your bottom dollar that you’re Sugarland bound.
– Huddie William Ledbetter, “Midnight Special”
The name of Mr. Benson in the Dead’s “Candyman” alludes to a character in Lead Belly’s (Huddie William Ledbetter) version of the prison blues “Midnight Special.” It’s believed the song refers to a member of the all-white police force of Houston that was involved in the “mutiny” of 1917 by the all-Black Third Battalion of the US Infantry.7 The anti-authoritarianism of Hunter’s lyrics more likely redounds to the slang association of “Candyman” with a drug dealer; however, the violence of the lyrics – not to mention Hunter’s and Garcia’s immersion in folk and blues – clearly also draws on the racialized resistance of “Midnight Special.” Their countercultural anthem simultaneously appropriated and amplified the power of the Black folk blues. Simultaneously appropriating and amplifying aptly describes the vexed racial dynamics of English writer-director Bernard Rose’s choice to resituate his English source material (horror maestro Clive Barker’s UK-council-housing-set short story “The Forbidden”) in Chicago’s then-notorious high-rise housing projects, Cabrini-Green. The 1992 Candyman is a mixed bag, offering a surprisingly nuanced exploration of Black urban poverty with some decidedly feminist moments but framed within a white savior narrative in a ghetto jungle whose inhabitants struggle to register in the film as autonomous human beings.
As Bethea frames this mix: “Candyman was one of the first horror films that I ever saw trying to engage with the overlapping dichotomy of Black horror versus Black people in horror, the complicated and bloody history we have with the landscape.” Peele similarly asserts that “The original was a landmark film for black representation in the horror genre. Alongside ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ ‘Candyman’ was a major inspiration for me as a filmmaker.”8 In hindsight, one can characterize the split between viewers that dismissed Candyman ’92 as, in filmmaker Carl Franklin’s words, “racist and irresponsible” and those for whom, like Bethea, the film has “been an integral force behind all of my writing and reflections about the genre since” as to whether one prefers one’s meanings to be messy, transgressive, and overdetermined, or if one prefers them to be clear, consistent, and univocal.9 The same split appears in then-residents of “Cabrini-Green and other low-income areas of the city,” who, according to a recent feature in Time magazine, “viewed the film with both reverence and frustration. Some loved it, including J. Nicole Brooks, who would go on to act in the new Candyman. . . . Others were wary about the way that the film fed into prevailing stereotypes about public housing.”10
Both productions worked hard to understand and to root their films in the locations they were using. Rose incorporated local history into his screenplay, including the holes behind medicine cabinets that allowed criminals and killers easy access into apartments – the fake headline “What Killed Ruthie Jean? Life in the Projects” (Fig. 5) was pulled directly from a 1987 article in the Chicago Reader by Steve Bogira – and, as Briefel and Ngai note, “Helen’s assertive expedition into the high-rise projects recalls an event highlighted by the media in 1981, when Chicago mayor Jane Byrne moved into Cabrini-Green to help restore order following a particularly violent period in the project’s history,” staying for three weeks.11 As Alex Kotlowitz recounts, “that single act by Byrne, more than any murder or plea for help, highlighted the isolation and alienation of these poor, mostly black inner-city islands. It was as if the mayor, with her entourage of police, advisers, and reporters, had deigned to visit some distant and perilous Third World country – except that Cabrini-Green sat barely eight blocks from the mayor’s Gold Coast apartment.”12
Slumming, as Seth Koven argues in his study of the phenomenon in Victorian England, is always a dubious endeavor and always messy and contradictory in its motivations and effects. Many slummers are well-intentioned, if not actively motivated by a desire to help the poor and work for better conditions; at the same time, they seldom recognize, as Koven’s analysis shows, additional motivations, whether profit, publicity, sexual desire, or simply escapism and a taste for spectacle.13 The slummer also seeks, as Barker clearly identifies in the slum’s allure for Helen in “The Forbidden,” an experience not available elsewhere: “Nor was it simply the presence of so many people that reassured her; she was, she conceded to herself, happy to be back here in Spector Street. The quadrangles, with their stunted saplings and their gray grass, were more real to her than the carpeted corridors she was used to walking; the anonymous faces on the balconies and streets meant more than her colleagues at the university. In a word, she felt home.”14 Before Candyman ’92, horror did not typically involve slumming on the part of its characters. Instead, they sought, as Barker’s title puts it, “The Forbidden,” wherever it might be found. Slumming spatializes horror’s curiosity over the forbidden or hidden; moreover, it injects that curiosity with a vertical traversal of class boundaries, the motion diagrammed in the film’s opening credits.
Accounts of both productions reproduce a similarly slumming excitement. The 1992 film’s producer Alan Poul boasted that “no film had ever been shot in some of the tightly gang-controlled sections of Cabrini”; at the same time, “The producers worked closely with the residents’ association and employed Cabrini-Green youths to act in the film, which also served to help the production’s credibility with the residents.”15 This contradictory imaginary is echoed within the film by young working mother Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams): “We ain’t all like them assholes downstairs, you know. I just wanna raise my child.” Towlson notes that “A number of the film’s personnel (some of whom were local Chicagoans who had never been to Cabrini-Green because they were afraid to go there) described how their actual experiences at Cabrini-Green challenged their expectations of the place and its residents.”16 Black actors involved in the production had varied reactions to their slumming experience. Actor and, later, director Kasi Lemmons commented that “Cabrini-Green is particularly notorious, and you don’t know from what you see in newsflashes or from what you hear, what you are going to find. But we found families. People just trying to survive. People with nice apartments. Some better than others. And little kids, you know, beautiful little children.”17
Where Lemmons’s memory almost exactly repeats her character’s dialogue in the film, Tony Todd, who has played Candyman in all four films in the franchise, recalled a different reaction to the combination of fear and normality: “I tried to come there with no expectations, but I still felt fear. Anybody who didn’t belong there was subject to danger. The cops told me to keep my eyes on the rooftops for snipers, and then I ran into a black woman and her two children. They were hustling back from the grocery store before it got dark, and thought the film security people were cops. She asked us when we were going to clean the projects up, which really got to me.”18 Like the viewer of the film, those involved in its production are caught by the fact that whatever it is they may be doing there, it is not what is actually needed. Nia DaCosta similarly speaks of her investment in learning the history and lived experience of Cabrini-Green, recounting that “she and her team talked to dozens of locals about their experiences . . . of pride and community. ‘We wanted to take that pride and expand it as opposed to chip away at it,’ DaCosta says. ‘We wanted to show this amazing sense of community and the way people took care of each other and looked after each other. And even when we introduce Candyman, it’s not the monster we think it is.’”19 Slumming, in DaCosta’s formulation, reveals a truth obscured by the sensationalism of the dominant slum imaginary.
Wallace neatly sums up the privilege of slumming and the privilege of fear that belong to whiteness with reference to the “Nope” scene in Candyman ’20 when Brianna turns down the ‘opportunity’ to descend into the unknown of a dark cellar (Fig. 6). “How many times have we watched horror films in which the protagonist makes the inexplicable choice to go further into danger just to find out what’s down there? For Black viewers, this habit is racialized: This is white-people shit, the joke goes. They obviously don’t have enough to be afraid of in real life, so they go around looking for dangerous situations, opening the door, releasing the curse, unsealing the tomb.”20 Or, as Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) responds to his boyfriend Grady’s (Kyle Kaminsky) teasing proposition at the gallery opening: “Black people don’t need to be summoning shit.” Slumming, too, is “white-people shit”; however, strange things happen when slumming meets horror. This conjuncture of two distinct kinds of privilege is almost impossibly perfect, so perfect that all of the ways they are not the same blow up with contradiction, especially when what Bethea calls the “dichotomy of Black horror versus Black people in horror” is collapsed into itself.
Barker writes of Helen, “She was not just passing through. Nobody ever just passed through; experience always left its mark.”21 (Fig. 7). Todd’s memory above captures a trace of this assertion; it is axiomatic within horror fiction. Even more than Candyman ’92, Candyman ’20 makes the analysis of slumming and gentrification central to its story world. Both Barker’s and Rose’s Helens bear all the traits of a conventionally slumming white savior: a privileged white graduate student journeys to a nearby slum to investigate urban legends, blinkered by her own project to such a degree that she is blithely unaware of the deleterious effects of her presence. But both story and film also provide ample space for the viewer to approach this slumming critically, especially in the ways Helen is challenged first by her Black friend and classmate Bernadette (Bernie) Walsh (played by Lemmons) and then by various inhabitants of Cabrini-Green itself, especially Anne-Marie. Anthony and – perhaps to a lesser degree – Brianna are similarly shown to identify as outsiders to Cabrini-Green; however, they are also, like seemingly every character in the film, fully aware of the racialized dynamics and history of gentrification. Their slumming is different in that, rather than lacking awareness of their class roles, they are shown to be almost tragically alienated from the spaces of Cabrini-Green by unacknowledged traumas. Rather than slumming as opportunistic white saviors in an alien space, they are slumming as ethically torn opportunists to a Black pain that they are compelled to monetize even as the more they appropriate it the more they uncover its hidden sources in their own pasts and their own bodies.
The film’s narrative arc is structured by revelations of childhood trauma. Early in the film, laundromat owner William Burke (Colman Domingo) fills Anthony in on the real-life origin of the Candyman myth in a harmless hook-handed eccentric killed by the police as a suspected inserter of razorblades into candy. Having traveled from the earlier – and surviving – low-rise housing blocks to the basement laundry room in the high-rise, young William’s howls of fear bring the police, who rush past him to murder Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove). About a third of the way into the film, we watch Brianna dreaming the memory of her artist father’s suicide from a high-rise project window: “I bet you didn’t know your daddy could fly.” Two-thirds of the way through, Anthony hears his own origin story from his mother Anne-Marie (played, as in 1992, by Vanessa Williams): he was the baby kidnapped by Candyman in Cabrini-Green. And, finally, at the start of the film’s Grand Guignol denouement, Burke, fully deranged, reveals that his sister had conjured Candyman from their bathroom mirror.
Rather than superseding his “rational” explanation of racialized violence, the second story establishing the supernatural reality of Candyman enters into a feedback loop of slumming and horror. As Burke explains in the moment in the narrative arc reserved for the “crazed villain” speech: “This neighborhood got caught in a loop. . . . They tore down our homes, so they could move back in. We need Candyman.” The slumming plot leads Burke to physically remake Anthony as Candyman, cutting off his hand and shoving a hook into it, while calling the police to tell them the killer is in the church. Like Helen, Brianna (“the witness”) and Anthony are punished for appropriating the slum for their own art/curatorial projects. In contrast to ’92, which ends at this moment in the arc, Candyman ’20 goes on to mash up slumming and horror from the supernatural side, when Brianna, trapped in the historical trauma of white violence that has motivated the myth since its 19th-century origin story, summons the extra-historical power of horror to eviscerate a police force in the face of which she has no recourse in the world-as-it-is. The prior victims in ’20 were all kills in the service of the horror movie plot; the final slaughter mobilizes horror in the service of raw racial justice. The slummers in Candyman ’20 only think they’re slumming; when, for instance, Anthony freezes and hides at the sound of a police siren during his first foray to what’s left of the projects (the actions that will summon Burke into his life), his reflexive action reveals that he and Brianna, in fact, do belong here.
When Anthony finds himself in the university library to study Helen Lyle’s archive, the recorded voice of Virginia Madsen making hypotheses about urban legend and interviewing two Black cleaning staff at the university about murder in the projects accompanies him into a mirrored elevator where Candyman manifests. When the elevator door eventually opens again to Anthony in a heap on the elevator floor, the stares of a half dozen impatient white students make clear to him and to the viewer that he remains an interloper in this non-slum space – even though the only violence in the scene is acted on him (Fig. 8). And where Candyman ’20 mashes slumming and horror into each other with the brutal violence of Burke’s insertion of the requisite hook into Anthony’s bleeding stump in the abandoned church, Candyman ’92 instead heightens that slumming tension as the fulcrum of its pattern of horror violence: each act of slumming, each foray to Cabrini-Green, not only does nothing materially to help the residents, but results in renewed violence and trauma for them. The only harm Helen is able to undo by the end of the film is harm that she had initiated to begin with. Her slumming does nothing either to address the root causes of the residents’ poverty or to improve present conditions. To his credit, Rose makes this fact abundantly clear to the viewer, especially in the cohort of venal male professors who make up the department where Helen is completing her PhD, or in the protesting accompaniment of her Black best friend in the department, who’s both an afterthought and a consciously inclusive note of common sense that is simultaneously genre-driven (it’s a horror staple) and also socially necessary. At the same time, unless one perhaps reads Helen as a personification of white guilt writ large, the punishment she receives for her slumming is grossly in excess of her crime. To me, this seems to signify more as a classic horror trope, however, than as social allegory; in genre terms, Helen’s trajectory could just as easily have been motivated by the sin of sleeping with, marrying, and sponging off her much older academic husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley). Whether politically astute or not, horror punishment is always in excess of the sin purportedly being punished.
I come in from Memphis
Where I learned to talk the jive.
When I get back to Memphis
Be one less man alive.
– Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, “Candyman,” 1970
The shotgun violence in the lyrics of the Dead’s “Candyman” bursts out of nowhere, evidently as an act of revenge following from the previous, Memphis-oriented verses cited above. The hypothetical shotgun is also – as the Black vernacular “jive” in these verses makes clear – a violence that simultaneously appropriates Black revenge, reverses the agency in Lead Belly’s version of Sheriff Benson, and displaces murder onto a Black surrogate. As in Get Out and other recent Black horror films, horror in Candyman ’20 arises in equal measure from social conditions and from supernatural or crazed killers. What distinguishes both versions of Candyman from many other similar films is that the protagonist is infected by and becomes complicit with the killer and their violence; what scares also scars. The horror in both films arises from Helen’s and Anthony’s growing realization that each is somehow not only implicated in but also the actual agent of the brutal murders. In ’92, the violence is perpetrated by the supernatural Black figure Candyman (as also by a very non-supernatural ghetto drug-lord) and blamed on Helen, although the viewer knows well she is innocent at least in a literal sense. In ’20, the violence is perpetrated by the supernatural Black figure Candyman outward onto white victims and also inward, especially onto Anthony’s own body.
What’s different is that the murders in Candyman ’92 are irredeemably horrible: the dog of the woman she’d been interviewing; her innocent best friend. Only after being arrested does Helen go on to kill the psychiatrist, and the only murder she could be said perhaps to desire is when her husband summons her himself through their bathroom mirror. Candyman ’20 references this dualism in the two versions of Helen’s story told to us directly. The first version, presented by Troy in the opening scene as if the canonical backstory exposition, retells Helen’s story by writing out Candyman and making her the crazed killer. Only much later, when Anthony confronts his mother, does she tell the “real” story – that is, the story according to Candyman ’92 (which she should know, since Vanessa Williams plays the same character in both films). Both stories are visualized through the same medium: voice-over on top of shadow puppets. And while we assume Anne-Marie’s version is the “true” one, given that the movie throughout stresses the instability of storytelling and its racialized inflections, the existence of multiple Candymen, and the need to continue the telling – the final words of the film are Candyman’s “Tell everyone” – noting the proliferation of versions seems as important as judging between them.
In contrast to Helen’s victims in ’92, the kills in Candyman ’20 begin with people Anthony actively dislikes or is bothered by; the violence is excessive and explosively sudden but not wholly unmotivated. He may not share the degree of Candyman’s fury, but it’s not that alien to him either. Moreover, the white victims in the first three kills all bring the curse on themselves by repeating the killer’s name five times in a mirror (well, we never actually see whether the art critic says the name, but she does excuse herself to go to the bathroom, and the camera cuts away from her making faces into her mirror). By the end of the film, all three principals have been established to have good reason for harboring murderous fury; the question is only finding the apt target. And until that moment, it’s Anthony who is closest to having done so, it’s just that up to this point he had sublimated fury into his art; indeed, when the film gets around to showing him painting, it films the act with the intensity and unhinged quality it devotes to the kills, and in much tighter framing.
Candyman ’20 visualizes what is both a de-sublimation process and a dysfunctional violence against self with recourse to a different horror subgenre: the body horror epitomized by David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), in which Jeff Goldberg is transformed bit by gruesome bit into a giant fly, losing his human parts and his human self along the way. (And there is a passing nod to a body horror moment in Blue Velvet as well; when Anthony is stung on the hand during his first incursion into what’s left of Cabrini-Green, the slapped bee’s corpse on the ground is swarmed by ants in what must be a direct reference to the ECU of an ant-swarmed severed ear near the opening of David Lynch’s boundary-pushing horror-noir, also 1986.) As Bethea notes, the moment when a bee emerges from beneath the fingernail of Anthony’s painting hand is a direct allusion to a memorable effect in Cronenberg’s film.22 Where Goldberg turns a detached scientific eye to his transformation while also channeling the changed metabolism and libido of the transitional figure he calls Brundlefly, Anthony seems to witness his own transformation into a human hive as if in a drug-induced haze. He picks at his scabs, but barely even attempts to hide the growing mutation.
In contrast to Goldberg’s Brundlefly, which sees its premise through to its inevitable conclusion, the body horror in Candyman comes from the incompleteness of Anthony’s transformation. Rather than an end in itself, it’s a kind of internalized body art that is also – as in the bravura homage to the “mirror” scene in Duck Soup (as noted in Richard Brody’s review in the New Yorker, Aug. 26, 2021) – mediated through prior performances, from Goldberg to McLachlan to Groucho. The overdetermined design around mirrors and reflections from start to finish imagines a fun house that is also a house of horrors, an intellectual exercise that is also a no-exit scenario. We might take Anthony’s initial, deadly installation at the Night Driver Gallery as an on-site enactment of this overdetermination, down to the midnight murders that it instigates. Playing on the original movie’s imagery of the medicine cabinet opening into a hidden room, “Say My Name,” according to the gallery notes, presents “both . . . proverbial skeletons in the community’s collective closet, as well as a racially loaded, allegorical palindrome about ‘longing’ and ‘reluctant becoming’” (Fig. 10). A spot-on parody of art-critical blather, certainly; nevertheless, it bears noting that the piece is brutally effective in transforming the lives of those who study it most closely: the gallery owner’s intern is gutted in front of it; the girl over whose shoulder we read the gallery notes will later be murdered with three of her friends in a high school bathroom enacting the artwork’s directive; and the art critic will bloody her own apartment’s window in one of the most stylish kill shots ever dreamed up (Fig. 11). “I’m trying to align these moments in time that exist in the same place,” Anthony explains to Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence), who responds no less cuttingly than the art’s summoning will do to her later: “Oh, it speaks all right. It speaks in didactic knee-jerk clichés about the ambient violence of the gentrification cycle.” They are, needless to say, both right, about “Say My Name” as also about Candyman, which does align two moments in time (1992 and 2020) that exist in the same place, and that does speak in didactic knee-jerk clichés, as all genre movies do.
Just as Finley’s critical voice attempts to appropriate Anthony’s attempt, in fact, to tell his own story, so is Anthony’s transformation temporarily hijacked by Burke, who had witnessed the murder of an innocent man by police outside the Cabrini-Green laundry room in 1977 and also Sherman’s supernatural return as Candyman through his family’s medicine cabinet. Trapped within his private world, figured spatially in the church that mirrors “Say My Name” as a structure whose door opens into a space existing in the past and the present, Burke transforms Anthony into body art and shifts the genre back to psycho-horror, a devolution of the narrative into Black-on-Black violence, one scarred soul further scarifying the other. Burke cuts off Anthony’s hand with a saw, replaces it with a hook, and sets up the police shooting that leads to Anthony’s death and threatens to incriminate Brianna. It is left up to Brianna, who not long before had refused to participate in the genre’s conventions, to pull the film back on track, summoning Anthony in his new identity as the “real” Candyman rather than Burke’s body-horror facsimile.
Both films thus turn on their climactic scene. Helen sacrifices her life to save the baby from the bonfire and to redeem her transgressions, fulfilling the arc of the white savior narrative she had begun with her first research foray into Cabrini-Green. The film does not end there, however; the coda finds her having fully embraced her union with Candyman, emerging from the mirror in the bathroom of her former apartment, now shared by her unfaithful husband Trevor and his newest student conquest. The viewer is fully invited to share the gruesome revenge she takes on a philandering husband who himself also seems torn by some kind of emotion. As Elspeth Kydd wrote, “The final pleasure the film offers, its most predictable moment, is the ritualistic, orgasmic and brutal destruction of the treacherous white male, liberal academic – a morsel of pleasure for the nonwhite-male in a white male world.”23 The patrol car scene in Candyman ’20 rewrites this coda according to the post-George Floyd and Breonna Taylor world. Unlike Helen, who assumes full complicitly with Candyman’s violent measures only after she has died in the bonfire, Brianna makes the choice in full awareness of what she’s doing, in what we could read as the filmmaker’s visualization of Malcolm X’s revolutionary dictum, familiar to moviegoers from one of the end-cards of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: “it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” Anthony’s final appearance in the film is as the Candyman that answers Brianna’s summons; however, the final horror has been turned outward, onto the police and away from the scared and scarred protagonists.
Look out look out the Candyman
Here he come and he’s gone again
Pretty lady ain’t got no friend
Till the Candyman come ’round again
– Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia, “Candyman,” 1970)
“Open up your windows ’cause/the Candyman’s in town” go two early verses in the Hunter/Garcia “Candyman,” invoking the boundary crossing of every slummer, and an impossibility for most gentrifiers these days, starting with Helen and Trevor and running through Finley – like many showcase windows in the luxury high-rises taking over previously low-income neighborhoods, their windows do not open (Figs. 11, 13 & 14). Anthony and his gallery-curating girlfriend Brianna are Black gentrifiers, simultaneously insiders and outsiders; the living room windows do not open, but the ones in Anthony’s studio do. Unlike Helen in Candyman ’92, they may be slumming in a class-based sense, but not physically; they live in fact in the upscale building erected atop the ruins of Cabrini-Green, and both participate in but also are in denial about its history. Unlike Helen’s building – separated like so many wealthy areas from low-income districts by postwar highway construction – Brianna and Anthony’s edifice literally stands in what was Cabrini-Green. Helen and Bernie know their history, too; it’s just that for the 2020 pairing, it hits closer to home.
Along with his revisionary backstory about Helen Lyle, Troy also initiates a second discourse in the opening scene: the knowing repetition of history familiar to every gentrifier, rendered site-specific by actual facts about the neighborhood’s former names and infamy: “Smokey Hollow, Little Hell, Combat Avenue.” All three Black Chicagoans in the room have done their homework, and they recite the facts like a round-robin rosary: “It was the projects. It was affordable housing that had a particularly bad reputation.” “Yeah, because they tore it down and gentrified the shit out of it.” “Translation: white people built the ghetto and then erased it, when they realized they built the ghetto.” The subject abruptly changes after white boyfriend Grady calls out the apartment they’re sitting in as part of the gentrification pattern. It’s an astute move by the filmmakers, showing us what’s outside the window and then quickly slamming it shut, staging the pas de deux of awareness and complicity, and making clear that they don’t want to exempt themselves from that dance even if they may not know what to do about it.
The question about repeating the acts is whether, by, say, the fifth time, something happens beyond simply stating what everyone knows but doesn’t bother attending to. Windows that don’t open are nothing but reflecting panes. As Candyman ’92 was already fully aware, gentrification works by not knowing what one knows, and by mirroring that also reflects inequity. As Briefel and Ngai observe, Helen’s research tells her what she already should have known: “Her major discovery in researching the history of Cabrini-Green is that her own building was originally intended as public housing, but was transformed into overpriced condos because no structural barrier separated it from the wealthy Gold Coast.”24 Not only does one space haunt the other – “As the architectural ghost of Helen’s domestic space, Cabrini-Green thus embodies a set of buried economic and social relations underlying the structure of Lincoln Village” – but the mirroring gives the lie to spatial distinction as well – “Her theory about the lower-class origins of her building is undermined by the fact that Chicago’s projects were mostly based on commercial designs for upper middle-class housing.”25
The strongest legacy of ’92 in relation to gentrification is the real-life work of actor Todd as a result of his involvement in the franchise. He voices skepticism about “Cabrini-Green’s demolition to make way for upmarket housing, citing gentrification rather than social progress as one of the reasons behind the redevelopment of the projects.” He argues that “Cabrini-Green was demolished at least partly because it was close to the wealthy Chicago districts . . . weird thing is they coexisted, because it was two different worlds and never the two shall meet, except for the downtown people who had to go to Cabrini-Green to get their fix”26 (Fig. 15). The past of Rose’s movie, like the past of Chicago’s failed public housing initiative, similarly dwells as a spectral presence in their present. Bethea cites Leila Taylor’s book Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul on “the downplayed legacy of racialized economic disinvestment. ‘I think there is a haunting of Black lives that remains in gentrified spaces and I think one of the goals of gentrification – whether people admit it or not – is to replace that history with their own.’”27 That Anthony and Brianna are gentrifiers doesn’t mean they’re not also haunted by gentrification. Adjacent to their luxury living is the material trace of that same initiative, low-level public housing dating back to 1942, as neglected now as Cabrini-Green’s high-rises were thirty years back. And just to overdetermine the revision, Anthony is haunted by his own experience as the kidnapped baby in Candyman ’92. His art simultaneously works through his trauma and feeds off it to boost his career. The film hovers in this ambiguity, never letting us decide if Anthony is a parasitic careerist or a bona fide artist – or if it is really possible or necessary to disentangle those two identities.
Like Helen’s gentrified space in Candyman ’92, Anthony and Brianna’s spectacular apartment is permeable rather than sheltered from the forces around them. However, it’s permeable not because Candyman enters it, as he does Helen’s, but because Anthony incorporates the haunting within himself. Despite, or perhaps because of, their sympathy to the people their presence has displaced – they are self-conscious gentrifiers – they are vulnerable to its chthonic anger. These gentrifiers are as open as their windows. So, too, does DaCosta, who seams the film with the discourses and iconography of gentrification, and, in particular, its specific tensions for the displaced communities, who finally get services and infrastructure for the first time, but only because they are no longer wanted there. As Anthony makes his first excursion into what’s left of the old Cabrini-Green, the camera lingers on billboards for upscale housing. And next door to Burke’s laundromat, perfectly selected and designed by the filmmakers for its pre-1992 street cred, we glimpse the clichés of the neighborhood’s gentrified present as we watch Brianna heading to her confrontation with its spectral past: “The Axe Roastery” on one side and “Pilates Yoga Soul Awakening Cycle” on the other (Fig. 16). Both shots are framed as if found footage of gentrification in action.
The end credits, which are accompanied by yet another shadow puppet show, expand the gestures at gentrification into something more than these facile if visually effective gestures (Fig. 12). At first glance a reprise of the Candyman stories the puppets had enacted throughout the film, the concluding show in fact retells the franchise’s mythology according to a well-informed century-plus of racial violence and injustice. In addition to episodes from the Candyman legends, there is also a thumbnail show trial enacted by white men in suits ending in an execution of a Black man by electric chair. In another rapid succession of vignettes, a Black family moves into a new house, only to be greeted by a stark line of rifle-toting homeowners bent on enforcing the segregation of their neighborhood. The would-be neighbor is beaten down, chained to an automobile bumper with a hook straight out of Candyman’s repertoire, and dragged down the street and out of town. It’s a detail (and a set of historical facts) directly out of the 2020 Peele-produced horror-fantasy series Lovecraft Country, and the 2016 novel on which it was based, in which a Black-owned house in a white Chicago neighborhood centers a slew of carefully documented reckonings with the segregated spaces of the 20th-century US.
That the puppets are established early in the film as rooted in William Burke’s boyhood in Cabrini-Green sets them up as something like a parallel form to Candyman’s more conventional human-acted narrative (Fig. 4). That Burke is destroyed by his art as much as Anthony by his own may perhaps be seen as the filmmakers’ meditation on the risk of knowing too much. But they make clear that knowing too much is really only a risk for gentrifiers; if you live here, you always already knew too much. Like any other story, the one of gentrification can be told in many ways by many people. Finley Stephens, for instance, deploys it as a second hook into Anthony following her attack on his installation piece. “But your kind are the real pioneers of that cycle, you know,” she continues after reducing the piece to gentrification clichés. “Artists. Artists descend on disenfranchised neighborhoods divining cheap rent, so they can dick around in their studios without the crushing burden of a day job.” The Black discourse on gentrification in the film is equally self-serving; however, it gives a far more accurate depiction of the double bind of the process than Stephens’s acid and distancing dismissal. In their second conversation, in Finley’s apartment, Anthony argues back: “Artists gentrify the hood? . . . The city cuts off a community and waits for it to die. Then, they invite developers in and say, ‘Hey, you artists, you young people, you white, preferably or only, please come to the hood, it’s cheap. And if you stick it out for a couple of years, we’ll bring you a Whole Foods.” Fitting, then, that we watch her meet her end through a stylish camera pulling back from a bloody streak across one of dozens of picture windows incapable of opening to the world outside (Fig. 11).
We never learn where Grady or Finley comes from any more than we learn about Clive and Jerrica in the gallery or Trina and her posse beyond that their school is somewhere in Cabrini-Green. But we know about Troy, Brianna, Anthony, and Burke that even if some are gentrifiers, they are not from elsewhere. Rather, their lives “align two moments.” It’s a different relationship to the neighborhood, a different relationship to the matter of Candyman, and a different relationship to horror. It doesn’t shield them from the dynamics of slumming, the opportunisms of gentrification, and the fact that they’re capitalizing on Black pain, but it articulates that tension differently. Blunt truth, in racialized horror in the 2020s, is no less true for being blunt. It’s impossible to watch Brianna Cartwright in the final scene without thinking simultaneously about her near-namesake in Louisville, Kentucky, for whom circumstances worked out very differently in real-life horror than in a horror movie. That’s about as blunt an allegory as one can make, but the wager of horror has always been that bluntness has its role in truth-telling and in entertainment. What Cronenberg once said about the need for body horror to visualize rather than merely hint or imply can be said equally of Black history in this country in relation to white audiences: “I have to show things because I’m showing things people could not imagine. If I had done them off-screen, they would not exist.”28 That Candyman ’20 bifurcates its audience according to what they can imagine is evident from Wallace’s response to it cited above: “Perhaps I thought about this because even as a child I felt like a survivor of my own horrors, the horrors of this country, its history, its disfigurement of my soul and spirit, and of the souls and spirits of my family, my community, the people I loved.”29
By the end of each film, the “pretty lady” indeed has no friend but the Candyman. Both have been betrayed by their partner in gentrification. Granted, Helen’s husband cheats on her, replaces her, and then summons her in despair as the true spirit of their apartment. Brianna’s partner, on the other hand, alienates her with mirror-breaking and the specter of domestic violence, only to answer her summons when she finds that the only form that will afford her survival is to summon Anthony into the patrol car. As Burke reminds Anthony when they first meet, in a truism of gentrification that they equally recognize as stark cliché: before, the police were never around; “Now they can’t seem to stay away.” Candyman ’20 flirts beginning to end with Through the Looking-Glass, although it resists all direct references to Lewis Carroll or Alice. Instead, it steadily shows us a world inverted, from production credits to the Chicago cityscape to Sammy Davis Jr.’s voice winding down into distortion on the old record player spinning “The Candy Man” back in 1972. The glittering surfaces, saturated colors, and sleek design of DaCosta’s poisoned music box of a film show the world as we know it today. The hooks and barbs – both verbal and physical – go straight for the gut. But in the way DaCosta mines that bluntness with mirrors within mirrors and proliferating stories, she is clearly seeking a way out of the fun house even as she admires the reflections in the mirrors she is gleefully breaking. And we cheer when Mr. Benson gets blown straight to hell even as – and because – we know full well it’s only a movie or a song and there’s nothing else left to do but wait with hope and dread “till the Candyman come ’round again.” But maybe that’s no small thing. As Wallace suggests, this film may play that role as well: “[B]y recognizing fully and truthfully what it means to have survived what Black people have had to survive, [DaCosta] has made a work in which, for just a few moments, I feel the rare and life-changing experience of being seen by a film and maybe even loved.”30
* * *
Author’s Note: I’d like to thank Chicago native Jadyn Newman for her insightful conversations about the two films and growing up with Candyman ’92. All images are screenshots from the films.
- David Dodd, Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics (New York: Free Press, 2005), 115. [↩]
- Dani Bethea, “Candyman Is Sweet (and Sour for Black Women),” Medium, Aug. 31, 2021: https://medium.com/@danibethea/candyman-is-sweet-and-sour-for-black-women-b7d9802de6c3 [↩]
- As Jon Towlson remarks of the 1992 Candyman, citing actor Tony Todd, “Candyman is popular with inner city gang members and with redneck horror fans in the South, for example (‘I’ve had full Klan members come up to my table and say, “I love the way you kill people.’” (Candyman [Leighton Buzzard: Auteur, 2018], 48). [↩]
- Robert Daniels, “The New Candyman Was Modernized for the Wrong Audience,” Polygon, Aug. 25, 2021: https://www.polygon.com/reviews/22641277/candyman-review-2020 [↩]
- Carvell Wallace, “Candyman, Horror, and the Cinema of Black Pain,” Atlantic, Aug. 27, 2021: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/10/candyman-horror-movie-black-pain/619825/ [↩]
- “Appendix: An Interview with Bernard Rose,” in Towlson, Candyman, 111-26, at 124. [↩]
- Dodd, Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics, 115. [↩]
- Adam Ochonicky, “‘Something to Be Haunted By’: Adaptive Monsters and Regional Mythologies in ‘The Forbidden’ and Candyman,” Horror Studies 11.1 (2020): 101-22, at 119. [↩]
- Carl Franklin, qtd. Glenn Lovell, “Black Slasher: ‘Candyman’ Draws Fire over ‘Racist’ Depictions,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 29, 1992: C11D; Bethea, “Candyman Is Sweet.” [↩]
- Andrew R. Chow, “How Candyman Reclaims the History of Cabrini-Green,” Time, Aug. 27, 2021: https://time.com/6092375/candyman-cabrini-green-true-story/ [↩]
- Steve Bogira, “They Came In through the Bathroom Mirror: Murder in the Projects,” Chicago Reader, Sept. 3, 1987: https://chicagoreader.com/news-politics/they-came-in-through-the-bathroom-mirror/; Aviva Briefel and Sianne Ngai, “‘How Much Did You Pay for This Place?’ Fear, Entitlement, and Urban Space in Bernard Rose’s Candyman,” Camera Obscura 13.1 (1996): 69-91, at 79. [↩]
- Briefel and Ngai, “How Much Did You Pay,” 79. [↩]
- Seth Koven, Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004). [↩]
- Clive Barker, “The Forbidden,” in Books of Blood Vol. 5 (1985; Crossroad P, 2013), 59-98, at 90. [↩]
- Towlson, Candyman, 52, 53. [↩]
- Towlson, Candyman, 53. [↩]
- Towlson, Candyman, 53-4. [↩]
- Towlson, Candyman, 53. [↩]
- Chow, “How Candyman Reclaims the History of Cabrini-Green.” [↩]
- Wallace, “Candyman, Horror, and the Cinema of Black Pain.” [↩]
- Barker, “The Forbidden,” 86. [↩]
- Bethea, “Candyman, Cabrini, and Conjure: Contextualizing the Modern Zonbi,” Medium, June 24, 2020: https://danibethea.medium.com/candyman-cabrini-and-conjure-827631ea94c7. [↩]
- Elspeth Kydd, “Guess Who Else Is Coming to Dinner: Racial/Sexual Hysteria in Candyman,” CineAction 1995: 63-72, at 72. [↩]
- Briefel and Ngai, “How Much Did You Pay,” 80. [↩]
- Briefel and Ngai, “How Much Did You Pay,” 80-1. [↩]
- Towlson, Candyman, 48, 49. [↩]
- Bethea, “The Optics of Gentrification in Candyman,” Medium Feb. 29, 2020: https://medium.com/@danibethea/the-optics-of-gentrification-in-candyman-4d3a248bf43e [↩]
- Chris Rodley, Cronenberg on Cronenberg (London: Faber, 1992), 41. [↩]
- Wallace, “Candyman, Horror, and the Cinema of Black Pain.” [↩]
- Wallace, “Candyman, Horror, and the Cinema of Black Pain.” [↩]