With so many movie releases pushed back as a result of the ongoing pandemic, 2021 is shaping up to be an incredible year for horror. And one of our most anticipated horror movies has to be Nia DaCosta’s Candyman.
Described as a “spiritual sequel” to the 1992 original of the same name, DaCosta’s Candyman is set in the now-gentrified Cabrini Green neighbourhood of Chicago where, years ago, residents of the housing projects were terrorised by a word-of-mouth ghost story about a supernatural killer with a hook for a hand. A decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) begins to explore the Candyman legend in his paintings—unknowingly opening a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifyingly viral wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with destiny.
At this year’s Nightstream Film Festival, DaCosta joined journalist Hunter Harris for a virtual fireside chat to discuss the making of Candyman and what audiences can look forward to. Here are just a few of the fascinating details we learned from their discussion.
1. DaCosta was inspired by a wide range of horror movies
DaCosta has been a big fan of horror movies for years, though she remembers being terrified by the movie Leprechaun as a child. Coming into Candyman, she had a rich tapestry of horror references to draw from, spanning multiple sub-genres and decades.
“Visually, there were things I wanted to reference or kind of use as inspiration,” she says. “The Fly was one thing. Rosemary’s Baby was another. Evil Dead was another one. It really ran the gamut.”
2. There’s a lot of body horror in the film
From the moment she went into Candyman, DaCosta knew that she wanted to lean heavily into the body horror potential of the film.
“There’s a lot of body horror in the movie,” she reveals. “That was part of my pitch. I was like, listen, we need to have this in it because I want to really track his psychological journey physically as well. Because I love when I see that in films.”
The original Candyman certainly contains elements of body horror—like the grisly moment when Candyman pulls back his coat to reveal that his torso is a hollow shell filled with bees. But we only see the aftermath, rather than how it came to be.
“In this one, we really wanted it to be a slow progression,” DaCosta says. “If someone goes home after this movie and looks at their own rash or bump or mosquito bite and is a little more freaked out, then I’ve done my job. It’s really about getting inside the head of the audience and viscerally disturbing them.”
3. The character of Candyman is explored in the broader context of America’s history of racial violence
Candyman was always a movie about race. But it was also directed by a white man (Bernard Rose) and told the story of a white woman (Helen Lyle, played by Virginia Madsen), making it limited in its viewpoint. For her film, DaCosta wanted to look through a different lens—telling the story of racial violence against black Americans from a black perspective.
“With that shift of point of view, I really wanted to have the story be about Candyman and who Candyman is, and what that title is and what it means,” the director explains. “He is literally a ghost or a vengeful spirit who is born out of racial violence. He is a black man who was lynched by a white lynch mob. That is who he is—and how do we take this individual moment for this character, this person, Daniel Robitaille, in history and see how it might have been repeated or how it might be part of a bigger history that we have in America.”
DaCosta didn’t want to focus solely on the terrible violence that was inflicted against Daniel Robitaille in the 1890s, because to do so would be to ignore the fact that racially motivated violence continues to impact black Americans to this day. Instead, she drew a clear line between the events of 1890 and the experiences of her protagonists in 2019.
“As we know, it’s cyclical,” she says. “It’s something that happens every day, happens all the time. It’s a really painful, dark, traumatic thing that we all wrestle with; that we all collectively grieve, collectively try to make sense of, and collectively create stories around in order to galvanise each other and to push people out onto the streets to protest… So with all that context, we wanted to create a horror film that was entertaining and scary, but also scary for the purpose of putting everyone in the shoes of the people who have been victimised and caught up in this wave of violence—and racial violence in particular.”
4. The fact that the protagonist is an artist is significant
With the main character of her film being an artist, DaCosta was able to create another connection between past and present, since this was also Daniel Robitaille’s profession and the reason he met the woman he fell in love with—sealing his fate. But this wasn’t the only reason that DaCosta set her film in the art world.
“It’s a story about identity,” she says. “[In fine art], it’s really about expression, who you are. And this movie is so much about who he is, his self-actualisation, his sort of coming-of-age.”
By placing her character in the predominantly white space of the art world, DaCosta was also able to explore another side of racial violence and discrimination.
“It was just really important because [the film] is so much about… what violence can look like,” she says. “It’s not just this very graphic lynch mob—it can also be the force of gentrification, or the micro-aggressions inside of trying to negotiate what your next art piece is going to be. It has many forms, and that’s part of what we wanted to talk about in this film.”
5. It’s a spiritual sequel, but it’s very much DaCosta’s movie
While DaCosta’s Candyman is very much in a dialogue with Rose’s 1992 film, make no mistake that this is a spiritual sequel and not a remake. DaCosta wanted to pay tribute to the original, but she had no intention of making a carbon copy.
“For me, it wasn’t necessarily about copying the style of the original film—it was about honouring the uniqueness, the idiosyncrasies,” she says. “That, to me, meant leaning into my own weird visual style, the things I really like to do, and trying to block out all the pressure to make it a more conventional horror film.”
DaCosta’s film is also one that only she could have made. She was very clear about what she wanted to do when she went into the pitch meeting with co-writer and producer Jordan Peele.
“Jordan and I have very different aesthetics—we’re very different filmmakers,” she says. “[I came in] basically saying, this is how I make movies, this is what they tend to look like.”
Bonus: Despite resurrecting Candyman, DaCosta has never said his name five times in front of a mirror
As all horror fans know, Candyman can be summoned in the films’ universe by saying his name five times in front of a mirror. This is a superstition that many of us have carried with us since our childhoods, often before we even saw the film. And though DaCosta doesn’t consider herself a scaredy-cat, she’s never put the superstition to the test.
“I also don’t fuck with Ouija boards,” she laughs.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)