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This summer, director Nia DeCosta’s much-anticipated take on the blood-chilling urban legend “Candyman” is (still) scheduled to his theaters, bolstered by a script co-written by Jordan Peele, who also produced the project. Peele has called this contemporary incarnation of the cult classic a “spiritual sequel” to the original 1992 film, starring Tony Todd as the title character. No matter how this fresh take on the Candyman saga pans out, it’s essential to revisit the original first.
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Based on Clive Barker’s 1985 short story “The Forbidden,” the setting of “Candyman” in a public housing project separates it from many of its slasher movie brethren. Director Bernard Rose relocates the story from Barker’s native Liverpool to the squalor of the now infamous Cabrini–Green projects in Chicago, where crime and neglect created deplorable living conditions for its residents.
It was an inspired decision that revised the original story’s classist undertones into explicitly racial ones. The unsettling gothic horror legend about the hook-handed terror focuses on a skeptical white doctoral candidate working on a thesis on urban legends, who learns of the Cabrini-Green “Candyman” folklore, and goes to investigate.
Starring Virginia Madsen as an atypical slasher movie heroine, the film boasts one of the horror genre’s most intriguing movie baddies, who comes with a tragic backstory that makes him sympathetic: a famous black artist and son of slaves who pays a steep price for falling in love with a white man’s daughter after she hires him to paint her portrait.
The “Candyman” in question is played by the physically imposing Tony Todd, whose sonorous voice haunts long after the movie ends. The character may not be as broadly popular as fellow icons slasher villains Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, but the Candyman has amassed a cult following of his own.
“Candyman” was followed by two underwhelming sequels, “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh” (1995) and “Candyman: Day of the Dead” (1999). But Peele and DaCosta’s take should be intriguing, given his horror movie bonafides. There are reasons to anticipate the new version. Like the original, it appears that Peele’s “spiritual sequel” will also tackle issues of race and class. Additionally, it hints at a possible direct connection between Anthony McCoy and the title character. Might his “destiny” be that he discovers he’s a descendant of the original Candyman?
Details on the film have been kept mostly under wraps, but during a panel at the 2019 Produced By Conference last summer, Monkeypaw creative director Ian Cooper said the film was engineered to appeal to both fans of the original and newcomers. “This film will stand alone if you’ve never heard of a film called ‘Candyman’, and will dovetail in a pretty complicated and interesting way to the original,” he said.
Candyman might be one of the horror genre’s most terrifying villains, but he’s also a romantic much like Dracula, which makes him all the more compelling. He’s the resurrection of an ugly piece of American history: slavery, and his haunting of the Cabrini-Green projects is kind of a contemporary take on racial segregation.
When it was first released, the film drew criticism for what some said were racist caricatures, given that its villain was black and it was largely set in an infamous housing project. A few high-profile black filmmakers expressed disappointment in the film, alleging that it perpetuated racist stereotypes.
“There’s no question that this film plays on white middle-class fears of black people,” director Carl Franklin said at the time. “It unabashedly uses racial stereotypes and destructive myths to create shock. I found it hokey and unsettling. It didn’t work for me because I don’t share those fears, buy into those myths.”
However, Rose’s adaptation of Barker’s story was meant to upend myths about inner cities, not commemorate them. “The tradition of oral storytelling is very much alive, especially when it’s a scary story,” he told The Independent in 1993, a year after the film’s release. “And the biggest urban legend of all for me was the idea that there are places in cities where you do not go, because if you go in them, something dreadful will happen — not to say that there isn’t danger in ghettos and inner city areas, but the exaggerated fear of them is an urban myth.”
Ironically, the original Cabrini-Green projects no longer exist as it once did. They’ve since been demolished, and many black families were displaced in the process. The trailer and synopsis for the remake suggests that it will touch on the issue of the gentrification of the projects, by way of an artist moving into a luxury condo on its former Near North Side site. The idea of Candyman as a ghost will be reincarnated as a remnant, left behind because of gentrification.
In the meantime, ahead of the 2020 “spiritual sequel,” the original 1992 film demands a second look.
“Candyman” is now streaming on Netflix and available to rent on Amazon.
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