Candyman – A Contemporary Incarnation Of The Cult Classic

“The stories we tell—and the ones we don’t—shape how we see the world and ourselves. Stories can save, they can empower, they can heal, but they can also kill when truth is distorted,” says Oscar winning screenwriter Jordan Peele, who unleashes a fresh take on the blood-chilling urban legend: Candyman with filmmaker Nia DaCosta.

‘The monster of Candyman is storytelling,’” says producer Ian Cooper. “Thinking of Candyman as the manifestation of collective storytelling felt incredibly poignant to us. It felt inseparable from the cyclical nature of violence against Black people in America. The notion of hearing about something, assuming something, mishearing, misunderstanding, corroborating through misinformation, packaging all of that and then retelling it to a friend. And that friend retells it to their cousin, who retells it to their cousin’s friend. Those are the guts of an urban legend but are also what frequently spur the real-life cycle of violence in America.” 

The screenplay for Candyman was crafted by Peele (who received an Oscar for his screenplay Get Out, and also stars in Candyman) with Producer Win Rosenfeld and filmmaker Nia DaCosta.

"Get Out" director Jordan Peele at first didn't have high hopes that his horror-satire would get made.
Jordan Peele.(Produced by/Screenplay by) is an Oscar® and Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker. His first feature film, Get Out, was released in 2017 to widespread critical praise. The film earned four Academy Award® nominations and won Peele the Oscar® for Best Original Screenplay. In 2019, Peele wrote, produced and directed his second feature, Us, which instantly became a smash hit with audiences and critics alike, posting the largest box-office opening for an original horror movie ever.

Candyman, Peele says, can be seen as almost the patron saint of the urban legend. “He’s the accumulation of all of them—the Bloody Mary mirror, the hook, the razorblades in candy,” Peele says. “All of those things that you’ve heard about but didn’t know if they were true. The beauty of urban legends is they kind of shift over time, but the nuggets, the essentials, the little twists or the details will stay the same. It’s hard to say what role they serve—cautionary tales or expressions of suppressed fears amongst a community—but in the case of the Candyman legend, it’s much more of a dance between the community and what they need to protect themselves from.”

Urban legends can also reveal unexpressed truths about a place and a culture at a given moment. “Urban legends are ways of commiserating and bringing communities together,” Win Rosenfeld says.

“On one level, urban legends are here to freak us out and to enjoy the thrill of being scared with other people. But if you look deeply at almost any of them, there’s always something they’re saying about the time they come from and something resonant about the human condition. I don’t think you have to look very deeply to understand why looking in a mirror and saying the word ‘Candyman’ five times is both scary and poignant. Of course, it’s terrifying that a demon could pop out, but you’re also looking into your own eyes and taking a moment to say, ‘What is the demon inside me?’”           

Legends can also give a community a tool for coping with realities that are too much to bear.  “When legends and stories are passed down, it’s is a way of contending with the horrors that we live with day-to-day,” DaCosta says. “It’s a way of protecting ourselves and our families from the horrors that are within our communities. In all the decisions I made through the process of making this movie, I wanted to be careful with treading the line between horror for entertainment and real-life trauma. The movie speaks to the horrifying things that have happened in real-life and to the way we grieve together. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves in order to get through or to understand these situations.”

Storytelling within the film even shapes the characters in unexpected ways. The central character, Anthony McCoy, sees his art career take flight only when his identity is connected to an event that captures the public’s imagination. “Anthony may start out as a mediocre artist, but when an art dealer is brutally murdered on the opening night of his exhibition, Anthony becomes instantly more intriguing to the art world,” Peele says. “So, there’s something about Anthony that’s an exploration of the surrounding story becoming more important than the art.”

Pictured above are: director Nia DaCosta with Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen Ii; Watchmen, Us) who takes on the role of visual artist Anthony McCoy in Candyman. Anxious to maintain his status in the Chicago art world, and spurred on by his white art dealer, Anthony begins to explore these macabre details in his studio as fresh inspiration for paintings, unknowingly opening a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifying wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with destiny. Photo credit: Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures

The Resurrection of Candyman

Early in the process of resurrecting Candyman for a new generation, Jordan Peele and his fellow Monkeypaw producers Win Rosenfeld and Ian Cooper decided that they would bring in a fresh new voice to direct the film. They found their filmmaker in Nia DaCosta, whose first feature film, Little Woods, had impressed them with its seamless melding of character-driven narrative and complex, real-world issues.

Nia DaCosta is one of the freshest and most in-demand voices in Hollywood, having written and directed projects for stage, film and television.   DaCosta is currently in production on the highly anticipated Captain Marvel sequel, The Marvels. Directing this film makes her the first Black woman to direct a Marvel Studios picture. The superhero film, starring Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris and Iman Vellani, is scheduled to be released November 11, 2022.  

“When we were looking for a director, we wanted to find someone who could really sink into this world that we were building and work with what was ultimately becoming a character piece,” Win Rosenfeld says. “Nia’s work on Little Woods managed to play with the ideas of serious trenchant social issues in a non-didactic way, and at the same time, allowed the audience to get very close to characters who are in desperate situations. She became the perfect choice for Candyman. The amount of life that she breathed into it and how much she shaped the film can’t be overstated.”    

Peele and Rosenfeld had already begun work on the screenplay and knew the film would dive into deep waters, confronting America’s long history of white violence against Black people and exploring themes of gentrification, art, and both the destructive and transformative power of storytelling. “Jordan’s work, and everything we do at Monkeypaw, is based on the idea that audiences are smart,” Rosenfeld says. “Audiences want to be challenged and to engage. They’re okay with having the bar raised and leaving the theater with something to think about and discuss. They can have fun at a movie while also being intellectually stimulated. Hollywood can sometimes lower the bar in a desperate attempt to make more people watch their movies, but Jordan’s philosophy is the opposite. If we keep challenging people with meaningful art that’s also a good time, they’ll keep coming back.”

With DaCosta on board, the script entered a new phase as Peele, Rosenfeld and she began to work together to complete it. “Win, Nia and I developed a real synergy on the film and each of us brought something different to the table,” Peele says. “I wanted to make myself available as a resource for Nia, but it was easy to support her ownership and decisions as a director.”

The ideas behind the film are both timely and timeless.“Candyman is an exciting story to tell at any time period because it’s so perennial,” DaCosta says. “The history of violence repeats itself in cycles, and we collectively process trauma and grieve through stories, so it felt like any time could really be the right time to tell the story of Candyman. But it’s also a film that speaks directly to this moment in Black life and culture. On one level, the character of Candyman is a myth and a monster, but as we know, America creates monsters out of Black men all the time. It isn’t necessarily who they truly are … or why they are. I was interested in telling the truth about the pain at the center of Black life in America but also to shine a light on the hope and power of Black creativity and community, too.”

Photo credit: Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures

White Violence, Black Trauma -The Lived Urgency of Candyman

Candyman is, in essence, an allegory for racism in America,” Jordan Peele says. “With this film, Nia has explored race on so many levels, from the uncomfortable to the downright devastating. When an audience goes to see a horror movie, they enter a sort of contract that says, ‘I’m here to be freaked out. I’m here to be traumatized and challenged.’ What’s important and special about the genre is that it allows you to explore the real-life horrors in the world. And with Candyman, Nia has put together the seminal horror about racial violence in this country.”

In the 1992 film, a baby boy, Anthony McCoy, is kidnapped by Candyman from the Cabrini-Green apartment of his mother, Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Estelle Williams). For this new film, set about 30 years later, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Matten II) is the central character, who has grown up with no memory or knowledge of that incident from his infancy. Unaware of his own history, he moves into the now-gentrified neighborhood where Cabrini-Green once stood. When he meets William Burke (Colman Domingo), a knowledgeable old-timer who tells Anthony about the Candyman legend, Anthony doesn’t yet understand his own biographical connection to it.           

As the filmmakers developed the story, they made a pivotal decision about who Candyman was. No longer just the supernatural embodiment of Daniel Robitaille, he’s something much more painful, powerful and dangerous. “There’s not just one Black man who has been the recipient of unjust violence,” Ian Cooper says. “There’s been an unending cycle of horrifying violent acts against Black men in this neighborhood, and nationwide.” Candyman, in this film, is the embodiment of the pain, rage and wrath of countless Black men who have died at the hands of white violence. Or, as William Burke puts it in the film, “Candyman ain’t a ‘he.’ Candyman’s the whole damn hive.”

That creative decision connects Candyman not just to one man’s story from the past, but to millions of stories, past and present. “Candyman is an eternal figure,” Peele says. “He can’t just be singular. He’s a concept and a story. He’s a bogeyman, and that means that he applies across the boundaries of time. We wanted to take what was done in the original film and apply an even greater sense of urgency and demonstrate that this monster has been swept under the carpet for so long.”           

The film doesn’t just sweep it out, it rips the carpet off the floor. “Candyman is about Black death caused by white violence,” DaCosta says. “When people hear the word ‘lynching,’ it may feel like it’s from another time, from the past. What this film is saying is that it’s actually not a thing of the past. It’s happening now.”

Notably, however, the violence committed against Black bodies in the film is not depicted in live-action, and is instead expressed with haunting shadow puppetry. “I wanted to be careful and specific about how we depicted violence against Black people in the film,” DaCosta says. “The first film killed people left and right. In this film, we don’t do that. Shadow puppetry, which is such an old form of storytelling, ended up being a really useful way to do that because it connected back to the long history of the mythology of Candyman.”

Photo credit: Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures

Urban Legend, American Truth – The History of Candyman 

Releasedin the fall of 1992, Bernard Rose’s Candyman was a pivotal moment in the history of the horror genre. For the first time, a major American horror film cast a Black man as its titular character and main antagonist. He was a movie “monster” unlike any that had existed in Western pop culture before. Jordan Peele was 13 at the time. “I was a horror fan as a kid, but we didn’t have a Black Freddy Krueger or a Black Jason Voorhees,” Jordan Peele says. “So, when Candyman came along, it felt very daring and cathartic. And it was terrifying. Even though there are many examples of Black people in horror movies, this one felt particularly badass for me.”

Based on the short story “The Forbidden” by Clive Barker, the 1992 film follows a white graduate student, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), who is researching her thesis on urban legends. She’s interested in a myth that has endured in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing development.Around Cabrini-Green, people believe, if you say Candyman’s name into a mirror five times, he will appear, armed with a hook for a hand, and kill you. As Helen’s research continues, gruesome deaths follow in her wake and she uncovers the origin story behind the legend: That a Black 19th century artist, Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), fell in love with a young white woman whom he was painting. For this crime, a white mob lynched him. They cut off his hand, smeared him with honey and unleashed a swarm of bees on him before burning him alive. His ashes were spread in what was then the site of the Cabrini-Green development. His specter had terrorized the residents ever since.           

They watched Candyman a lot. “We adored that film,” Cooper says. “In Tony Todd’s portrayal of Candyman, we were witness to a commanding, alluring, complex, romantic, dynamic and terrifying villain gleefully embodied by a performer of color. We would recite lines verbatim, obsess over minor characters, and generally scrutinize every detail. This kind of close-textual analysis became the bedrock of our friendship and it remains the common ground on which we play and create every day we work together.”            

For all its admirable qualities, though, the 1992 film was also problematic, even for its time. Chief among its shortcomings were the unanswered question of why a Black man who had been the victim of white violence was now terrorizing a Black community, and why a white woman was at the center of this story. “The original film explored the legend of Candyman through Helen’s perspective,” Peele says. “But that movie struck me like a Black film. A movie for me. So, I wanted to make a movie that looked at this ghost story from a Black perspective.”

A Universal Release © 2020 Universal Studios and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.