The original 1992 version of Candyman was a minor masterpiece of adaptation. Director and screenwriter Bernard Rose took Clive Barker’s short story the Liverpool-set “The Forbidden,” transposed it to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, worked in a very real local horror story along the way, slathered on racial overtones that were entirely absent from Barker’s story, and ended up making a classic. The new Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta from a script by DaCosta, Win Rosenfeld, and Jordan Peele, is similarly allusive, but it has nearly three decades worth of additional source material to draw from, filtered through the distortions and elaborations that come naturally in a story about urban legends.
For just one example of how this works in practice, “The Forbidden” opens with this sentence:
Like a flawless tragedy, the elegance of which structure is lost upon those suffering in it, the perfect geometry of the Spector Street Estate was visible only from the air.
That passage works its way deep into the original Candyman, starting with its spectacular opening shot:
The helicopter follows the Eisenhower Expressway west out of downtown Chicago, revealing an urban geometry that is so elegant you can forget you’re looking at the remains of the Near West Side, a neighborhood that was 40 percent black before it was bulldozed to make way for the freeway. The passage from the original story shows up again in DaCosta’s Candyman, in a disorienting early shot of Chicago skyscrapers disappearing into cloud cover from street level. It’s an on-the-nose shorthand for the film’s entire project—stay true to the elements of the original Candyman film while retelling it from a different perspective—but if you’re not familiar with the source material, it’s been filtered through so many different lenses that it’s unrecognizable. Here, then, are a few of the sources the new Candyman draws from.
First of all, if you’re interested in Candyman (2021), but haven’t seen Candyman (1992), close this window and go watch it. It’s fun and weird, it has a great performance from Tony Todd, and it can be rented for less than the cost of a ticket to see the new Candyman. (It’s also currently streaming on Peacock.) Also, knowing what happens in it is pretty important when it comes to understanding the new movie. If you’re not up for watching the original film, all is not lost, because DaCosta has Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s character give viewers a brief summary of the events of the first movie. It goes like this:
This is a story about a woman named Helen Lyle. She was a grad student—a white grad student—doing her thesis on the urban legends out of Cabrini-Green. For research, she came down to Cabrini a few times, you know, asking questions, taking pictures of graffiti, people. And then, one day, she just snapped. She beheaded a rottweiler. By the time the police show up, she’s in one of the apartments making snow angels in a pool of blood. … The authorities take her in, but she escapes almost immediately. She goes on a rampage, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, and then, the baby of one of the residents is abducted. The mother is devastated, everyone is looking for him, and: nothing. On the night of the annual bonfire, with all of the residents of Cabrini watching, Helen arrives with a sacrificial offering. Baby in her arms, she runs toward the fire, but they’re on her quick. They say she was in a fugue state, fighting back blindly, but they got the baby free. While everyone is fussing over him, Helen stands up and walks right into the fire. It’s on that spot that she dies, burns to death, right in the middle of Cabrini-Green.
That’s a good story, but it’s not an accurate version of what happens in Candyman—it’s an urban legend, with all the inaccuracies and embellishments one might expect after 29 years. In the actual, original movie, after summoning the Candyman, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) blacks out and wakes up covered in blood in the apartment of Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams), a young resident of Cabrini-Green she had spoken with earlier. Anne-Marie’s dog does get beheaded, but as far as we see, Helen didn’t do it, and Anne-Marie’s baby disappears then, near the beginning of the story, not mid-rampage. As Candyman leaves the trail of bodies eventually attributed to Helen (to be fair, she is at least partly responsible for one of the deaths), she spends much of the rest of the movie trying to find that baby, to the point that she agrees to let Candyman sacrifice her in exchange for the baby’s life. When she realizes Candyman plans for her and the baby to both die in the “annual bonfire”—Guy Fawkes Night, imported from the original short story without explanation—she manages to crawl out of the flames and return the baby to his mother before dying. Reimagining that story as one in which the community of Cabrini-Green came together, fought off an intruder, and saved a baby’s life is exactly what you’d expect to happen over decades of telling and retelling the story, but it’s not much use as exposition. Thematically, though, it’s the same move as the street-level shots of skyscrapers, because it’s the mirror image of an early scene in the original movie, in which a university cleaning woman tells Virginia Madsen a different urban legend:
All I know is there was some lady in a tub and she heard a noise. … I think her name was Ruthie Jean. And she heard this banging and smashing like somebody was trying to make a hole in the wall. So Ruthie called 911, and she said, “There’s somebody coming through the walls.” And they didn’t believe her. … So she called 911 again and they still didn’t believe her. But when they finally got there, she was dead. She was killed with a hook.
Now that sounds like an urban legend, but except for the part about the hook, it isn’t. It’s the story of the 1987 murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy, as told in Steve Bogira’s Chicago Reader article, “They Came In Through the Bathroom Mirror: A Murder in the Projects,” the other source that Rose drew heavily from for his screenplay. McCoy, 52, was shot to death by attackers who entered her apartment in Chicago’s Abbott Homes housing projects by removing the medicine cabinet from the bathroom of an adjacent apartment, then pushing McCoy’s medicine cabinet out of the wall and crawling through into her bathroom. Multiple neighbors and McCoy herself reported the home invasion to the police, but when they arrived, no one answered McCoy’s door and the supervisor’s key to her apartment didn’t work, so they just left. Her body was found two days later. McCoy’s murder is infused throughout the screenplay, down to the names: Ruthie Mae becomes Ruthie Jean, but her neighbor who calls the police—Anne-Marie Latimer in the short story—is now named McCoy. (Knowing the baby in the original Candyman is named Anthony McCoy is a pretty big spoiler for the new film.) All of the mirror-related elements in the movie come from McCoy’s murder, including its version of the “Bloody Mary” urban legend—in Barker’s short story, Candyman is summoned with candy and razor blades. Incidentally, Bogira didn’t sell his article to Hollywood—he thinks John Malkovich passed the idea on to someone involved with Candyman—and he’s not happy that McCoy’s murder ended up in a horror movie. Writing about the film in 2015, he pointed to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s observation that it “depends for much of its shock and suspense on demonizing ghetto life beyond its real-life horrors, which is another way of saying that it exploits white racism to produce some of its kicks.” Bogria’s original article tried to capture the texture of McCoy’s life before the murder, not sensationalize it for scares.
In that spirit, the new Candyman doesn’t fictionalize or re-stage any real life atrocities, but the movie does mention a few incidents of violence in Cabrini-Green that actually happened. William Burke (Colman Domingo), a character who had his own encounter with Candyman in the 1970s, laments that people know the story of Helen Lyle, but not that of Dantrell Davis or Girl X. Davis was a 7-year-old boy who was shot and killed in 1992 while walking to school in Cabrini-Green with his mother. His killer said he had been aiming for a rival gang member, and public outrage over his death led to a gang truce. “Girl X” was the name given to a nine-year-old girl who was raped, choked, poisoned, and left for dead in a stairwell of one of the Cabrini-Green mid-rises in 1997, an attack that left her blind, mute, and wheelchair bound. (In 2002, she came forward publicly as Shatoya Currie.) Outrage over both of these incidents contributed greatly to the demolition of the Cabrini-Green projects.
Later in the movie, William Burke gives Anthony McCoy a brief rundown of other Black victims of violence who have been associated with the Candyman legend: Daniel Robitaille, the fictional Black painter whose lynching is Candyman’s origin story in the 1992 film; “Samuel Evans,” a fictional victim of Chicago’s very real housing riots in the 1950s; and William Bell, who really did exist and really was lynched in Chicago in the 1920s, just as Burke says. In 1924, two young white women, Bertha Deutsch and Sally Greenblatt, screamed that they were being attacked. According to Black witnesses, Bell was nowhere near the women, who had fled to Deutsch’s house after being accosted by white men in a car. Nevertheless, Bell was the first Black person the mob found, and a man named Otto Epstein caved in his skull with a baseball bat. As with Ruthie Mae McCoy’s death, no meat hooks or bees were involved.
The new Candyman, as concerned as it is with white exploitation of Black pain, is much more likely to allude to fictional horrors than real ones, and the movie has nods to everything from Dario Argento’s giallo classic The Bird With the Crystal Plumage to David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. The most on-point piece of local lore worked into DaCosta’s Candyman, though, is one the film barely calls attention to: the church where Anthony McCoy himself becomes Candyman at the end is the Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church, formerly known as San Marcello Mission Church. The drab, monochrome outer wall seen in the movie used to be the site of an important mural by William Walker, All of Mankind: Unity of the Human Race, until it was unceremoniously whitewashed in 2015, when the building was up for sale as part of a Cabrini-Green redevelopment project. (Although Walker painted the inside, too—the building was locally known as the “little Sistine Chapel”—the interior mural seen in the film is not his, and the real interior murals were also destroyed.) A building where a Black artist painted an earnest public plea for racial unity, which was then destroyed in the name of gentrification, speaks to DaCosta’s themes as surely as the story of a killer emerging from a bathroom mirror spoke to Rose’s. But despite leaning towards being didactic elsewhere in the movie, she doesn’t belabor the point. The church’s blank facade, unremarked upon, is a truer echo of the original Candyman’s opening shots of the interstate than the skyscraper footage that explicitly alludes to it. Once again, we’re presented with austere geometries that hide an unmeasurable amount of suffering, the kind of pain that rarely inspires an urban legend. It’s all just under the surface.