The last few years have seen the meteoric rise of the ‘Social Thriller’, a subgenre of horror that focuses heavily on societal issues, due in no small part to writer-director Jordan Peele and the success of his 2017 directorial debut, Get Out, which was widely praised for its nuanced discussion of race. So, when it was announced that Peele would be co-writing a follow-up to 1992’s Candyman, one of horror’s most well-known depictions of race and inequality, expectations were naturally high. Now that the long-awaited Candyman follow-up has finally arrived, how does it build on its predecessor and bring it into the 21st century? (Spoiler warning for both the original Candyman and its 2021 sequel).
Surprisingly, the 1992 Candyman, directed by Bernard Rose, traces its origins not to Chicago but to Clive Barker’s short story ‘The Forbidden’, which takes place on a Liverpool housing estate. Rose decided to change the setting to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing development to explore race and inequality in America. Rose’s film follows Helen Lyle, a white middle-class graduate student, as she investigates the ‘Candyman’ urban legend of Cabrini-Green. Helen is in effect a poverty tourist who, although sympathising with Cabrini-Green’s impoverished residents, is content to study them without offering them any compensation or material assistance.
What sets the film apart from its contemporaries is the titular Candyman himself. Tony Todd’s subtly sinister performance as the hook-handed killer made its mark on popular culture, and his tragic origin as the victim of a racist mob (Todd himself came up with the backstory) makes clear that the Candyman killings, like the real-life violence affecting black communities in America, are ultimately the product of systemic racism.
Naturally, this social commentary provided fertile ground to further develop the story, something Peele and Nia DaCosta, the 2021 Candyman’s director and co-writer, made sure to do. An undeniable flaw of the original Candyman is that it comments on black communities through a white perspective: Rose frames the story through Helen’s perspective and even has her take on the role of white saviour by having her rescue a black child from the Candyman. DaCosta instead centres her film around the very child Helen saved, the now grown-up Anthony McCoy.
The Cabrini-Green of DaCosta’s film has changed immensely in the time since the original; most of its buildings have been demolished to make way for gentrified housing that has priced many of its black residents out of their community. One of its few remaining black residents, Burke, plots to reintroduce the Candyman legend to a new generation by unleashing Candyman on the police as “a way to deal with the fact that these things [racial violence] happened to us, are still happening!” Burke’s plan would seek to reconfigure the Candyman not solely as a symbol of black pain and suffering, but as an instrument of vengeance.
DaCosta’s film confronts the role of the police in enforcing systemic racism, something Rose’s film largely ignored. As a child, Burke witnessed first-hand the systemic racism of the police when Sherman Fields, a disabled man who often gave children candy, was beaten to death by the police after he was wrongly accused of sneaking razor blades into a white child’s Halloween candy. When Anthony’s girlfriend Brianna kills Burke in self-defence, she finds herself enacting Burke’s plan after the police murder an unarmed Anthony and arrest her. This comes to a gripping conclusion in the final scene when the police intimidate Brianna into complying with their narrative that Anthony provoked them. Rather than continue to suffer police brutality, she looks into the rear-view mirror and summons the Candyman, who makes short work of the policemen and instructs Brianna to “tell everyone.”