Growing up on the Chicago Southside had its ups and downs. The pizza was pretty good, but the Mary Jane was too expensive. I never ran out of things to do, but I had to live in constant fear of being gutted by a man from the mirror. That’s just life in the city.
Where I come from, across town from where both the original “Candyman” and the remake take place, the Candyman is real. He isn’t like Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, the horror villains invented to keep you awake at night. He is an active, working force in the universe, and if I wasn’t careful I’d become one of his victims.
I didn’t see Bernard Rose’s 1992 film until fairly recently. I don’t think I even knew the movie existed until high school. In Chicago, the Candyman doesn’t need a film to tell his story. That’s what recess is for.
“My sister and her friends summoned Candyman,” a friend told me once. This was a pivotal moment for me.
According to him, the girls all gathered in the bathroom, lit a candle and said “Candyman” three times into a mirror, all while spinning in a circle. After a moment, his face appeared in the mirror. They screamed so loud they woke the whole house.
Brushing my teeth that morning would be the last time I looked in the mirror for maybe two months.
Over the years, the stories piled up. It seemed everyone had their own brush with the Candyman. I remember a kid telling me that the Candyman killed his mom’s brother when they were just kids. I never found out if that was true, but I sure as hell believed it then. Others saw him skulking through the alleys when they’d go downtown with their parents. He was always there.
The 1992 film nails this concept. Powerful performances from Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd, combined with perhaps the most haunting horror score to date, bring the Candyman to life. One of the film’s great strengths is that every time someone recounts the story of the Candyman, there are always little differences. It shot me right back to my childhood. It doesn’t matter if you had to say his name three times or five, or if he appeared in an abandoned parking garage or your own bathroom. What was important was that he was out there, and we believed.
Nia DaCosta’s 2021 take on the Chi-Town Boogeyman was much less ambiguous, and to a fault. Whereas the original makes the main character Helen, along with the audience, wonder if the Candyman is real or if she’s literally going insane, the updated version features a very real Candyman, who kills anyone who calls him without much of an agenda. His origins are established and not subject to debate. There is no mystery. Without giving the Candyman the ability to change over time, the idea of a living urban legend is lost.
Of course, I can’t discuss “Candyman” without commenting on its use of racially-charged themes, specifically gentrification. While the 1992 take played its cards much more closely to its chest, the remake moves the calculated destruction of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green to the forefront of the film. The word “gentrification” is explicitly stated more times than I was able to count. Whether or not the change works is up to the viewer, but I personally believe in the power of subtlety.
Regardless, “Candyman” was a triumph in at least one sense. Nia DaCosta has become the first Black woman in history to direct a film that tops the box office. Her victory is well deserved. Despite a script that probably could’ve used a few more drafts, “Candyman” has proven DaCosta a competent director and was an incredible introduction for her into the mainstream film industry.
While the ending of the film is overzealous, the end credits sequence will undoubtedly go down in horror history. The use of shadow puppets is ingenious and had me leaving the theater utterly shaken up, which wouldn’t have happened if they left us with the film’s actual ending.
Despite being a relatively disappointing reboot of an all-time classic, “Candyman” succeeded in reminding me of my roots. I may not have felt it in the theater seats, but as the wind begins to pick up a chill and the leaves begin to fall, I can feel him calling to me. Telling me it’s time to come home.