Reviving ‘Candyman’: How Jordan Peele and Nia DaCosta made more than a sequel
When Bernard Rose’s “Candyman” hit theaters in 1992, it was the first slasher film to center a Black supernatural killer.
Written and directed by Rose from Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” the film revolves around a white graduate student (played by Virginia Madsen) working on a thesis about urban legends and folklore. Her research leads her to Cabrini-Green, a public housing development in Chicago haunted by Candyman, the ghost of an artist who was brutally murdered in the late 19th century for having a relationship with a white woman.
“Its impact on me was seismic,” said filmmaker Jordan Peele by email. “[It] was a romantic nightmare that scared the s— out of me and Black people everywhere. Though the original has some fascinatingly problematic notes (like everything ever), it changed my perspective of what was possible in film by daring to represent Blackness in what was, for me as a genre fan, the ultimate position of power.”
Shortly after the success of “Get Out,” Peele and his Monkeypaw Productions partners Ian Cooper and Win Rosenfeld signed on to produce a “spiritual sequel” to “Candyman,” which Peele and Rosenfeld would also co-write.
“Jordan and I have been friends for so long that we both watched the film on VHS together,” said Cooper. “The artistry and specificity of the story were so much more nuanced than anything we had seen in the slasher genre. Even just the notion of setting a horror film in graduate school is such a nuanced turn.”
The producers tapped “Little Woods” filmmaker Nia DaCosta to direct and co-write (before she was enlisted for the upcoming “Captain Marvel” sequel “The Marvels”), and Emmy-winning “Watchmen” star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II landed the lead role of Anthony, an artist on the rise with a mysterious connection to Cabrini-Green.
“I was a huge fan when I was a kid because I love scary movies,” said DaCosta of the 1992 film. “And then when I got older, I just fell in love with the artistry of it, how weird it was and how it actually wasn’t the horror movie I thought it was when I was younger.”
The crew of the updated film discusses the elements and themes that were crucial for them to get right for a “Candyman” sequel almost 30 years later.
Things to keep...
Fans of the original movie will remember its opening sequence: a sweeping shot positioned directly above a Chicago highway accompanied by a chilling Philip Glass score. DaCosta pays homage to the opening with a similar panning shot of the city, this time pointed directly at the skyline. “Drone shots are so common now, so I wanted to see if I could create the same effect but with different imagery,” she said.
“I wanted to do something that was as interesting, unique and hopefully as unexpected visually and artistically as the first film,” she added. “[The ‘Candyman’ opening] wasn’t with a drone, but it was with a helicopter rig so it looked like what we see as drone shots now. It’s iconic especially with that Philip Glass score over it.”
“One of the things we had at the forefront of our minds was the artistry of the original and the score was something that was really driving the tone of the original film,” agreed Cooper. “When Nia was in early stages of prep, we spent a lot of time considering how the tone could be bridged not just by rehashing Philip Glass’ brilliant original score but bringing in another avant garde artist to bring that level of nuance, darkness and specificity to the movie.”
They enlisted Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (a.k.a. the artist Lichens) to create an updated score. His melancholy music box rendition hauntingly punctuates an early shadow puppet teaser trailer. “He did a version of a music box but he also made a score that was really unique and weird,” said DaCosta.
...and things to change
“The biggest thing for me was the shift in point of view,” said the director. “The first film is very much from an outsider perspective, from a white point of view, and this movie is from the Black perspective and even more specifically from the perspective of Candyman.”
“I’ve always wanted to see Candyman through the eyes of Black characters,” said Peele. “This resulted in a story about how far we’ll go, and the horror we face in our need to reconcile the trauma of the past.”
“In the original film, Candyman was mostly the villain,” said Abdul-Mateen. “[He] was a ghost that was born out of an act of white violence. We were able to see the repercussions of that violent act but not from a perspective that allowed us to have very much empathy for that character. So one of the things we wanted to expand on in this film was the possibility of Candyman having a soul and a history so that he’s not simply the villain with the hook.”
“One of the major things that we set out to do was disrupt the notion that Candyman was a singularity,” said Cooper. “I think you can see through the shadow puppet trailer that the conceit is about honoring and acknowledging the notion that there isn’t just one story of a Black man in America wronged at the hands of whiteness. And that was a big stepping stone for understanding the semantics of the film and approaching the entire tone.”
“I think it was important to create an opportunity for the audience to look at him from an empathetic standpoint so we can understand the complexity of the stories that we’re telling about unwilling martyrs,” Abdul-Mateen added. “That updated narrative helps us take healthy ownership over our traumatic experiences and take power from that.”
Healing through storytelling
The symbol of Candyman is tragic because, unlike many horror villains, his story is not far-fetched or fantastical. Despite the supernatural nature of his power, his tragic backstory is rooted solidly and tangibly in systemic racism. With instances of Black trauma remaining a fixture in news headlines, Candyman offers an opportunity to reclaim narratives of trauma.
“Because this movie is about racial violence and specifically police violence against Black people, I knew that was something I didn’t want to show because we see so much of it,” said DaCosta. “And because it’s horror and not drama, I think there has to be a very specific line between dealing with real-life things and appealing to the genre. I’m not against it wholesale but I hate when I see it in that context.
“I think one of the most important things about Candyman is [that] he illustrates how we use stories to process trauma,” she added. “And also how to try to transmute trauma into something useful, whether it’s for a movement or to enact the law. I think Candyman is about how we all use stories in different ways to our own ends and how that can also sometimes take away from the humanity of the person whose life was lost.”
“Traditionally when we listen to stories of Black trauma or the Black experience — stories about oppression, brutality, violence and discrimination, whether it be individual or systemic — a lot of times those stories aren’t necessarily believed or they’re met with further interrogation,” said Abdul-Mateen. “We need supplemental evidence in order to be believed. There’s a lot of finger-pointing and blame instead of simply taking our stories and experiences for truth.
“What the horror genre allows us to do is to tell those histories and narratives as horror stories,” he added. “And that allows an audience to come with their guards down and ready to listen and digest our stories. It’s sneaky, crafty, witty, a little bit tongue in cheek. It’s like ‘OK, if you’re not going to listen to it this way, [try it] this way and pay us to listen to our stories.’”
The effect of gentrification is a major theme in both the original and updated films. But while the earlier movie deals with the initial stages of gentrification, the update explores what happens after the neighborhood has almost fully transformed.
“The Cabrini-Green in the ‘90s film was depicted in a way that was very common for the way Hollywood was showing the inner city on film and television at the time,” said Rosenfeld. “And so it was important for us that we show the impact of gentrification on neighborhoods, and how it can change the outer face of them but doesn’t really bury or solve a lot of the issues that continue to plague and exacerbate these situations. There’s no story of Candyman without Cabrini-Green and there’s no story of Cabrini-Green without talking about the dangers of gentrification.”
“In the same way that this story deals with ghosts, gentrification creates ghosts,” said Abdul-Mateen. “That’s a horror story in and of itself. We talk about what it is like to be made other in your own home. To be made the visitor and be policed in your own home.”
While the 1992 movie was shot primarily on stages in L.A., many exterior shots were done in Chicago. DaCosta wanted to use the same towers that provided the backdrop of the original, but they’d been torn down and replaced with new development. So instead, the crew used CG to piece together locations.
“The housing project, which is an essential character of the first film, has since been demolished as that part of Chicago has become more gentrified,” said Peele. “So you can’t go back there and tell the same story because that story doesn’t exist anymore, at least in the same capacity.”
“It’s crazy because it doesn’t look like anything in the original film,” said DaCosta. “Almost none of Cabrini-Green was there. None of the towers were there, and all around where they were was all this development so we just had to talk about what was torn down and what was built back up. There are a bunch of very expensive high-rises and there’s also mixed-income housing.
“It was kind of haunting and disturbing,” she added. “There’s one street still occupied where people live in the row homes. And at night police lights are just blasting into the neighborhood and there’s a police car on each end of the block. It was really alarming. Then you go right outside that block and people are walking their dogs and it feels like such different worlds. It’s sort of like they’re trying to keep them in so they don’t disturb the rest of the development that’s going on around it.”
“It felt really strange and surreal to reenter that Candyman mythology in a virtually unrecognizable landscape,” said Cooper. “It’s very haunting and you feel the layering while you’re there. A lot of the residents have been pushed out and a lot of the buildings remain empty and all of the surrounding terrain has become the cliché of gentrification.”
“Part of what ‘Candyman’ is, for us, is this idea that as much as things change, they always stay the same,” said Rosenfeld. “It’s almost always the right time to ask the questions that Candyman asks. This has been an agonizing and painful few years for America, but I think our film is less a reaction to that and more about the fact that this stuff has always been true, it’s just en vogue to be talking about it right now.”
“The themes are perennial and that’s sort of what the movie is about; the fact that it’s cyclical, generation to generation,” said DaCosta.
“I think collectively we’re at a particular point around the abject wrongness of the violence portrayed in the original film, which obviously we see echoed in and radiating throughout culture, not just in our country but around the world,” said Cooper.
“There’s something happening in the world right now where people are tired of taking less than they deserve,” said Abdul-Mateen. “People are taking their fate into their own hands and taking their stories of their struggles and traumas from other people and telling their own stories and our Candyman attempts to do the same thing — it attempts to take a story of oppression, of white violence enacted against Black bodies and communities in the form of systemic racism, police brutality, gentrification and literal violence like lynchings and murders. We’re taking all of those narratives and not just showing how we’re affected by it, but also taking that pain and trauma and offering up a proactive narrative.”
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