This story contains spoilers for Candyman.
In the 1992 film Candyman, we learned the horrifying origin story of a Black man who becomes a living nightmare armed with a hook and a hive of bees at his command. Almost 30 years later, the harrowing story is playing out once again for a new generation, and its modern retelling unfortunately still hinges on the most frightening phenomenon that many of us will ever face: anti-Blackness. Though imperfect, the new Candyman also uses horror as a vehicle to comment on Black death at the hands of the state and the way that Black victims are so often maligned even after their passing. Like a number of other titles within the horror noir genre, the film positions systemic inequality and anti-Blackness as some of the most pressing terrors plaguing our society at the present moment.
Bernard Rose's Candyman, widely regarded as one of the original Black horror films, based its fright on the systemic racism and violence against Black people that has persisted throughout time. That film's original victim-turned-antagonist was Daniel Robitaille (played by Tony Todd), a Black man in the 1800s who was fatally brutalized by a mob of white people after they learned that he was one half of an interracial relationship. The senseless barbarity led to Robitaille's spirit growing restless and bloodthirsty for revenge, determined to forever haunt the real life public housing projects of Cabrini-Green and whoever else would be
foolish bold enough to summon him.
The sequel builds upon that chilling tale, revealing the painful way in which the dark legacy of Candyman has evolved over time. However, rather than focusing on the sheer horror of Candyman's killing sprees, Nia DaCosta's record-making take on the lore leans deeper into the origins of his successors. Here, racism is the catalyst for chaos, effectively making villains of its perpetrators but also of its victims. Though the execution of this dialogue hasn’t exactly been positively received by critics, it’s clear that the director and writer is trying to start a discourse about the unique circumstances that could lead to the creation of the scariest urban legend in the Black community.
"What was important for me was telling a story that gave the Candyman figure the opportunity to be seen and experienced with an empathetic heart," he continued. "Daniel Robitaille was a human, and before [my character] became a monster, he was a human, too — a young Black man made of flesh and blood who had dreams and goals."
In the recently released film, aspiring artist Anthony McCoy (Abdul-Mateen II) becomes the unwilling successor of the spirit after learning of the terrifying urban legend. Inexplicably drawn to the lore of Candyman, Anthony's passionate artwork unintentionally opens the gateway for the wraith to take the lives of the residents as it has done for decades — and to pass him the proverbial and literal hook.
The spirit of the killer has essentially been passed on from generation to generation, finding new hosts in unfortunate Cabrini-Green residents who, like Robitaille, fall victim to the many active facets of anti-Blackness in the community. One such host of the apparition was a homeless man named Sherman Fields, beaten to death by local police officers who falsely accused him of a crime. Fields would later be posthumously exonerated for the accusations, but it was too late: the vengeful spirit of Candyman had already set out to wreak havoc on the city. Years later, that same duty would be thrust upon Anthony in a strikingly similar way.
Upon learning of the story of Candyman, Anthony begins to undergo a dramatic physical and psychological transformation. The hand that was casually stung by a bee begins to rot from the inside out, resulting in visibly decaying skin all over his body. Mentally, however, the consequences are even more severe. While Anthony's art improves, he's also thrown into a state of perpetual paranoia and fear. This rapid psychological decline is inevitable; after all, he was marked as a child to be the next terror of Cabrini-Green.
Through a too-quick sequence of events, we watch as Anthony's transformation is nearly finalized, aided by the misguided zeal of local William Burke (Zola's Colman Domingo). For William, the return of Candyman is long overdue retribution for the neighborhood that was destroyed by gentrification and violence, a vengeful angel to restore law and order to the city responsible for tearing down his community. Anthony is the logical vessel for these lofty plans, and Williams sets him up to be apprehended (read: killed) by the Chicago police as the crucial final step in the ritual, claiming that the young man is the one responsible for the string of violent murders across the city. Once Anthony is fatally shot by the police, his metamorphosis is complete; swarmed with bees and sporting a bloody hook for a hand, he appears in the final scene in full terrifying glory as the legend that we know as Candyman.
"Say my name," croaks the fully transformed Anthony in the film's last minutes. "Tell my story."
Thirty years after the release of the original Candyman, one would have hoped that the plot's dark themes would be somewhat less relevant and timely, but systemic violence against Black people has unfortunately only continued over time; in recent years, there's even been an observable uptick in police brutality against the Black community leading to a number of tragic deaths throughout the country. As the main vehicle for this discussion of generational anti-Blackness, Abdul-Mateen II's desire is that the new Candyman will provide a new vantage point through which the audience may view the current news cycle. The countless names splashed across viral headlines and breaking news stories belong to real people, and if not for the system working against them as it always has, they would still be here with us living full lives. They aren't just casualties of a flawed world — they deserve to be remembered as far more than that.
"I hope that audiences will walk away from Candyman lending the same kind of empathy that they'd give to the character of Anthony McCoy to Breonna Taylor, to George Floyd — to all of the names that we now know and the names that we say who died and were vilified." said Abdul Mateen II. "My hope is that our film helps give victims a little more dignity in their deaths than they were given in the last moments of their lives."
Candyman is now in theaters.