Why ‘Candyman’ continues to captivate audiences nearly 30 years later


You probably wouldn’t go through with it if British filmmaker Bernard Rose, the writer and director of the original “Candyman” movie, had his way in 1992.

“The recording script for ‘Candyman’ was up 13 times,” Rose says. “But we read through for a week or so before starting the cast, and the first time someone tried to say it 13 times, it was like, ‘OK, make five.’”
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Nearly 30 years after “Candyman” was released, people still dare each other to say the title character’s name five times in the mirror to evoke this hook-wielding ghost.

Some urban legends don’t die, they’re just reborn.

This is true of “Candyman,” which floated through New Orleans and Los Angeles in the ’90s in two forgettable sequels, but has recently returned to Chicago, where its legend began.

'Candyman' says the name again, mixing horror with social commentary

A “spiritual sequel” to the original cult horror classic of the same name, the new “Candyman” movie tells the story of Anthony McCoy (Emmy-winning Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a black performer who moves into a now- gentrified Cabrini-Green, a former public housing complex in Chicago. Through his work, Anthony reveals a story that consumes and destroys him.

In this new film, Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele add a new dimension to “Candyman” history. Rather than just one ghost, the legend is actually many innocent black lives violently murdered over time. (would this be a spoiler and should we put a comment at the top?)

“Candyman” holds up a mirror to American racism and challenges us to look. The original film depicts a crime-ridden Cabrini-Green, where mostly black residents are murdered by what they believe to be a ghost with a hooked hand. No one outside the housing complex seems to care what happened except a white college graduate studying urban legends.

Returning to the franchise, DaCosta examines Candyman as a system of inequality and the resulting phenomena of gentrification.

She claims the “Candyman” story by telling the story of the legend through a black lens for the first time.

This time, it’s a coming-of-age story for Anthony, who discovers that he spent the first two years of his life in Cabrini-Green with his mother Anne-Marie, played by Williams, who is reprising her role in the new film. interpreted again.

By centering the story around the Black experience, with a mostly black cast and crew, it provides an opportunity to take control of the story forced upon the black community, where people are turned into monsters by their oppressors, said Abdul- Mateen II.

“Young black men are killed by white violence, often by white police brutality and right after being vilified in the media. You know, what have they done to deserve this?” he said. “We bring up their past and show pictures of their mugshots, and suddenly their character is on trial, as opposed to the actual situation that led to their downfall.”

The Origin Story

The cycle of violence of “Candyman” began in 1992 with Rose’s original film “Candyman,” based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” connecting the dots between America’s racist history and contemporary urban crime and decay.

The film was about Helen Lyle, played by Chicago-born Virginia Madsen, a white college student who researches urban legends. She is attracted to the dilapidated Cabrini-Green when she hears of a monster called the Candyman: a vengeful, hook-armed ghost who appears when you say his name five times in the mirror.

Tony Todd holds Virginia Madsen in a scene from the original "candy man" movie from 1992.

Legend has it that Candyman was a talented painter and the son of a formerly enslaved man named Daniel Robitaille, the titular character played by Tony Todd.

Todd said Candyman had no backstory in the original script. So he helped Rose create one to better understand “why he’s driven to do what he does.”

That backstory: Daniel is hired to paint a portrait of Caroline Sullivan, a wealthy white woman in the late 1800s, and the two fall in love. As news breaks that she’s pregnant with his child, her father unleashes a racist gang that chases Daniel into what would become Cabrini-Green. The mob cuts off his hand and replaces it with a hook, then smothers his body in honey and releases bees that sting him fatally.

Decades after Daniel’s murder, his ghost becomes an urban legend in 20th-century Chicago, where he haunts the inhabitants of the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing projects.

In the 1990s, Cabrini-Green captured white America’s fears of violence and poverty in the nation’s public housing, and it is that fear that led Rose to this sprawling development.

When Rose arrived in Chicago from London, he recalled that he was not sure where to set his film. So he contacted the Illinois Film Commission, who suggested he visit Cabrini-Green — under police escort — because the commission feared something bad might happen to him.

With a security detail in tow, Rose envisioned the grimy, graffiti-streaked social housing complex to herself.

It wasn’t the dark stairwells and deserted floors that surprised him. It was the gap between the way white suburbanites viewed Cabrini-Green and those who lived there.

The Cabrini-Green resident who defied a stereotype

The next time Rose visited the complex, he went alone. Then he met Henrietta Thompson, who lived in Cabrini-Green with her two daughters and a son named Anthony.

Rose said he was told by officers of the Film Commission and the Chicago Police Department, many of whom were not from the Cabrini-Green area, that the residents were violent. They had their own stereotypes and opinions about the residents, and when he spoke to Thompson and others who lived there, his experience was the opposite.

His conversations with Thompson in her apartment would inspire him to write the characters of Anne-Marie McCoy and her son Anthony. DaCosta’s Candyman builds on these connections with characters from the original film.

Thompson said Cabrini-Green wasn’t the kind of place she wanted to raise her kids.

Pictured in 1966, Cabrini-Green was a public housing project of the Chicago Housing Authority on Chicago's Near North Side.

“You had to protect your children,” she said. “I wanted to give them a path to a better life out here.”

The cast and crew of Rose’s “Candyman” were not immune to the area’s own mythology about different versions of boogeymen.

Todd, whose grandmother grew up as a child in a public housing project in Hartford, Connecticut, recalled talking with a Cabrini-Green resident who told him, “If you want to do something safe, get it done before 10 a.m. all got out of hand.”

The Cabrini-Green depicted in Rose’s film blurs the line between reality and imagination.

Yes, Cabrini-Green was the site of numerous violent crime cases. Rose’s film even references one of the real-life crimes that took place there, where a man was able to enter adjacent apartments through connected bathroom mirrors.

At some point during the original film, Helen goes to the bathroom of her own apartment building and discovers that she too can press her mirror and enter the apartment behind hers.

That’s because her building was originally public housing.

This actually happened to Carl Sandburg Village in Chicago, built in the 1960s as affordable housing and converted into apartments over the next decade.

“These are things I found when I went to Chicago, and I think if you’re going to do something weird, fantastic, and supernatural, it’s much better if all the details are true,” Rose said.

And the truth is, Cabrini-Green was more than just the headlines screaming violence and destruction. It was also home to thousands of people and generations of families.

Gentrification cannot erase the past

During the 17 years that Thompson lived in Cabrini-Green, she mourned the murdered neighbors and weathered the storm with other residents.

“The community gathered around each other,” she said. “If there was a need or if there were problems, we all stayed together to help each other.”

Although the towers have now been demolished and the community relocated, the lore of what happened in Cabrini-Green lives on.

“You have to ask yourself: what happened to those families? The stories that existed in that space?” said Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. “That was something that was definitely in the air when making this film and one of the connections I couldn’t ignore to my past.”

The Cabrini-Green row houses are in front of a residential tower in Chicago in 2018.  Cook County, which also includes the county seat of Chicago, is home to the No. 1 and No. 7 fastest-growing concentrations of more than $200,000 households.  Number 1 is the area where the Cabrini-Green social housing projects once stood.

Abdul-Mateen II grew up in the Magnolia housing projects in New Orleans with his similar Cabrini-Green style stories of violent crime and neglect. Later he studied architecture and worked in urban planning.

What the “Candyman” franchise teaches us is that no amount of luxury apartment buildings, luxury restaurants, or purposes (one now exists across the street from what was Cabrini-Green) can erase our past.

The contrast between Cabrini-Green’s past and present is captured in DaCosta’s “Candyman,” which was filmed on location in 2019.

Anthony, the infant son of Anne-Marie who rescued Helen in the original film, returns to his former home, now just a few blocks from boarded up terraced houses.

After his visit, Anthony, like Helen before him, sets out in search of the stories that fuel the urban legend of Candyman, tales of the past trauma for black residents in the area.

And the funny thing about urban legends is that the story changes depending on who is telling it.

What urban legends teach us

“I believe most of history remembers Candyman as a monster,” says Abdul-Mateen II. “The man with the hook and the bees coming out of his mouth. But they can’t remember Candyman being lynched. They can’t remember how Candyman turned into a monster.’

DaCosta’s “Candyman” turns the story around by anthropomorphizing the legendary figure and painting the archetype as a reluctant martyr for a story the character didn’t want to tell.

This story has survived for nearly three decades, as ‘the writing on the wall, the whispering in the classroom’.

That line from the original “Candyman” describes the nature of urban legends, passed down to those blessed or cursed with the responsibility of telling the story.

One of the scariest things about “Candyman” is that the story only gets real when people choose to invoke the legend’s name. The film reminds you to be careful what you send out into the world because it will eventually come back to you.

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