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Art & the Artist in 'Candyman' (1992 & 2021)

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

I’ve often wondered what my favourite horror film is.

I’ve been a horror fan ever since I first read my primary school’s battered copy of R.L. Stine’s 'Stay Out of the Basement', the second in his 'Goosebumps' series, when I was about six or seven years old. Following that, I watched every horror film I could get my hands on. And I found, over the years, that I enjoyed the horror films that leaned more towards ghostly hauntings and creatures like 'Dracula' and 'Frankenstein'. I’m not a huge all-out slasher fan, though I can see their appeal – a good body-count film can be good fun, especially at sleepovers when you’re far too young to be watching naked teenagers get hacked to death by a madman in a hockey mask – but I am definitely drawn to more traditionally Gothic kinds of stories

When people asked me what my favourite horror film is, for a long time I didn’t have an answer. That is, until August 2021. That was when I realised that Bernard Rose’s 1992 'Candyman' is my favourite horror film. When Jordan Peele announced that he was producing a new addition to the 'Candyman' saga a few years back, I was ecstatic. I followed interviews, gossip, teaser videos, anything I could find. I did avoid the trailer, though, because I wanted the story to be fresh and new. I didn’t want to go in with any preconceived notions of what I thought the film ought to be.

When the film was delayed due to Covid, I was genuinely upset. I had been looking forward to it for so long. But finally, in August 2021, it hit cinemas. And I was EXCITED. I joined friends of The Fright Club NI – Jim McClean and Joseph McElroy from BanterFlix – at the Odeon cinema in Belfast for a late showing of the film. Whilst opinions varied between the three of us, I knew I loved it. And that was the moment I knew that 'Candyman' (1992) – the story, the characters, the combination of folklore, slasher, and an emotive haunting, the themes, messages, the score, the aesthetics – was my favourite horror film.

'Candyman' (1992) is an American horror film directed by Bernard Rose. Inspired by the Clive Barker story 'The Forbidden' (originally set in his native Liverpool, the short tale focussed on British classicism rather than racism), the film follows grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) as she investigates the urban legend Candyman for her thesis. After Barker sold the rights to Rose, the director relocated the story to the United States, specifically Chicago, where the predominantly black community of the public housing development Cabrini-Green had gained a lot of negative attention in the media. This move enabled Rose to explore the theme of racism and social class in urban America.

'Candyman' is a horror film like no other. Not only does it have a beautiful, ethereal score of almost religious proportions, but its antagonist (and I would argue anti-hero) is a black man whose story is as heart wrenching as it is powerful. Say what you want about Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees - no slasher film character inspires as much pity and righteous rage as Tony Todd’s Candyman.

'Candyman' was always in the generic, run-of-the-mill “best slashers” results in Google, but it’s so much more. What drew me to 'Candyman' when I first saw it as a teenager was it's focus on urban legends and folklore. I loved that stuff as a kid (I think everyone has tried Bloody Mary in their school toilets at least once). I was not expecting to be particularly impressed by 'Candyman', so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I adored it. Its exploration of institutionalised racism – not without its flaws, I grant you – and how it impacts generations upon generations of black communities, was something I hadn’t been exposed to before, especially not in a horror context.

I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things I am nothing. So now I must shed innocent blood. Come with me.
- Candyman (1992)

Candyman’s origin story – entirely conceived by Tony Todd, the actor who portrayed him – broke my heart and I never forgot it. Before he was the boogeyman of Cabrini-Green, Candyman was Daniel Robitaille, a late 19th-century artist and the son of a slave. He was brutally mutilated and murdered after falling in love with and impregnating the daughter of a wealthy white man. The white lynch mob cut off his dominant hand, the hand he used to paint, and replaced it with a rusty hook, and smothered him with honey, attracting hundreds of bees which in turn stung Robitaille to death. Robitaille returns to Chicago as Candyman, a ghoulish figure driven by the desire to sustain his legacy. He will not be forgotten. His story is heart-breaking, but it was not until I watched Nia DaCosta’s 2021 adaptation I realised something – art and the artist are absolutely central to the 'Candyman' mythos.

Let’s start with the first 'Candyman' in 1992.

The idea of art and the artist isn’t at the forefront of this version – in contrast to Nia DaCosta’s version - but it’s something that stood out to me when I first watched it. Candyman, when he was Daniel Robitaille, would have been victim of the brutal murder regardless of his occupation because he had impregnated the daughter of a wealthy white man. And the lynch mob likely would have still removed his hand, replaced it with a rusty hook, smothered him in honey and let bees sting him to death.

But the fact that Robitaille was an artist makes this so much more powerful.

Robitaille’s father, according to the pretentious academic who explains Candyman’s origins to Helen, amassed a considerable fortune for the time by inventing a device for the mass production of shoes. Because of this, Robitaille grew up in “polite society” and was able to attend “all the best schools”. His talent for art helped him stand out from the crowd, and the wealthy white people of his community soon sought him out to document their wealth in paintings (white people, eh?). This is how he met Caroline Sullivan, whose father wanted her “virginal beauty” captured on the canvas. And, well, we all know how that ended.

Whether intentional or not, I believe the removal of Robitaille’s right hand is more than sheer brutality and cruelty – it’s symbolic. As his dominant hand, Robitaille would’ve used it to paint Caroline and he likely would’ve used it to caress her intimately during their lovemaking. His right hand, even more so than his genitals, represents the transgression he made – a black man defiling, in the view of the lynch mob, a white, virginal woman. Removing it can be interpreted as being akin to castration.

Without his right hand, Robitaille cannot recreate art in the traditional sense, so when he becomes Candyman he creates “art” through his murders. And, crucially, most of Candyman’s victims are those who disbelieve in his legend and or dismiss his legacy – murdering them keeps his memory alive, in the same way an artist's painting keeps the artist alive. One of the biggest issues critics had and continue to have with the character of Candyman is that he murders black people, his kinfolk – surely, they argue, if Candyman is driven by revenge then shouldn’t all his victims be white? No. And once you understand that Candyman, as an artist and a living urban legend, is driven by the desire to not be forgotten, his choice of victims makes sense.

White people who mock or dismiss his legend are murdered for their ignorance, thus exacting symbolical revenge on the white folks who murdered him, and the black people he murders also dismiss his legend, but that means more to Candyman – it hurts him, because he knows his community shouldn’t forget the harsh treatment their ancestors have experienced. If they forget him, they forget their ancestors. They forget the pain, the trauma, and every sacrifice they made so the current victim could exist. To Candyman, for a black person to forget him, is unforgivable.

The main kind of art we see in 'Candyman' (1992) is graffiti. From the Latin root of the word 'graffiari,' graffiti means to scratch or scrawl. Graffiti goes all the way back to the Romans, but our modern understanding of it is usually associated with urban areas and powerful messages. Graffiti is more than spray-painted penises on abandoned buildings – it can express the emotions, beliefs, and values of the community in which it's created.

The African American community has utilised this artform for decades. Their urban murals infer a sense of identity, shared heritage, and a seemingly endless fight for equality. Their works are often informed by folklore and often express the victimisation of their community within white America. And it’s also a reminder to while folks that black people are here and will not be forgotten.

The first image we see of Candyman is graffiti.

Helen is exploring a building full of graffiti, where Candyman is more than a legend – he’s a reality. What prompts her to study Candyman specifically is the murder of Ruthie-Jean, whom the residents of Cabrini-Green know was killed by Candyman. Helen, as a white academic, looks at this from a highly educated and theoretical point-of-view and seeks to address the roots of why this community attributes the struggle of their daily lives to a supernatural being. Although Helen has good intentions, her approach reeks of white saviourism and, whether conscious of it or not, she seems to look down on the black community for being silly enough to believe in Candyman.

Helen makes her way through an abandoned part of the building and takes photographs of the graffiti she sees to support her thesis. In one of the most memorable shots of the film, she steps through a hole in the wall, only to find that the wall’s other side has an enormous depiction of Candyman, the hole serving as his mouth. The size and placement of the graffiti emphasizes the inescapable presence of Candyman – you literally can’t venture into the next room without passing through him.

For Candyman himself, art was a talent and a way to make a living, but for the artists who create depictions of Candyman, art is a way of expressing emotions, showcasing the sociopolitical importance of Candyman and all he means to their community. And it is a direct connection to Candyman’s desire to be remembered when he was alive – as an artist, made immortal through his work – and as a ghoulish, Dracula-like figure when dead, driven by the desire to not be forgotten by anyone – as a murderer, made immortal through his victims and the tales passed down through generations of Cabrini-Green residents.

In the 2021 version, Nia DaCosta brings art and the artist to the absolute centre of her story. Our protagonist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an artist struggling to make a name for himself in the fiercely competitive modern art world. He is also dating Brianna (Teyonah Parris), an intelligent and driven art curator. Like Helen, who used Candyman for her university thesis, Anthony is inspired by the Candyman story and its legacy and uses it as the subject of his paintings.

DaCosta’s exploration of racism is more overt than Bernard Rose’s – understandably given the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement since the inauguration of Trump – and is directly tied to art and the artist. The art critics are white, the gallery owner is white. They are quick to both criticise Anthony’s work because it’s too obviously about racial injustice and trauma and eat it up because its trauma they can never understand. All the while, they are dismissive of black artists as individuals. One of the most powerful lines of dialogue, possibly a nod to producer Jordan Peele and his incredible successful race-horror films 'Get Out' and 'Us', says something along the lines of “they love what we create, not us.” White people are all too keen to lap up the art produced by black people and profit from it, while overtly ignoring the very real daily and wider struggles of the black community itself.

What makes Anthony such an interesting character is his desire to be remembered as an artist, in the same way Candyman wanted and wants to be remembered. When the art gallery owner and his lover are murdered in front of Anthony’s Candyman-inspired artwork (a clever mirror), Anthony is buzzing because the news channels are mentioning his artwork in their coverage of the murders. He’s just happy to be acknowledged. He’s glad his name is becoming known and that his work is being recognised, regardless of the context.

DaCosta expands the urban legend mythos by building on the idea of the hive. As cruel as the death by bee stings are in the original story, they become an important symbol in this version. The first “Candyman” we see in the 2021 version is not the Tony Todd we know and love, it’s a poor man named Sherman. A presumably mentally challenged man with a hook for a hand, Sherman is kind but misunderstood. He is known throughout 1960s Cabrini-Green to give candy to children and when razor-blades begin to appear in candy, Sherman becomes the prime suspect. He is soon beaten to death by white police in a horrifically cruel moment of police brutality. It is discovered after Sherman’s death that more candy has been found with razor-blades in them – it couldn’t have been Sherman. He was innocent and died for nothing. Well, not for nothing; he died because he was black.

As a result, Sherman is initiated into the “whole damn hive”. “Candyman” is not a single individual but can be any innocent black man who has been unjustly murdered. Daniel Robitaille is the first, so symbolically he is the Queen Bee, and the other initiates into the hive are the worker bees, who are all driven by a one unifying goal – to not be forgotten.

The more Anthony learns about Candyman, the deeper he seems to slip into madness. When he first explores Cabrini-Green, he is stung by a bee, tying him to the hive, and his horrific injury gets worse and worse throughout the film. The worse his injury gets, the deeper he slips into madness. The decline of his mental state is also evident in his paintings of Candyman – the madder he gets, the darker they get. By the end of the film, Anthony becomes the latest “Candyman” with the help of Igor-like William Burke, who inadvertently caused the death of Sherman by screaming when Sherman came through a hole in the wall of a Cabrini-Green laundry room wall to offer him some candy. A nice call-back to the scene containing the original graffiti.

Anthony becomes the Candyman of 2020; a martyr, a symbol. William orchestrates a police raid where he knows – sadly pessimistically – that he will be shot and killed by the white officers. Each generation has a different Candyman, but what makes Anthony so special is that he already has a relationship with the legend. It is revealed that he was the baby kidnapped in the original 1992 film, the child whom Helen saves from the burning pyre. It is hinted that rather than becoming another member of the hive, Anthony becomes THE Candyman – his face is interspersed with Tony Todd’s to really ram this point home. Anthony could have gone on to have a normal life, but it’s implied that his talent and drive as an artist link him to the original Candyman in a way previous initiates into the hive can’t understand.

The 1992 'Candyman' may not have given much conscious importance to art and the artist but 2021’s certainly does. Art and the artist are absolutely central to Candyman’s mythos and, for me, that is what makes the story so fascinating. The Candyman story is more than just horror, it’s more than just an exploration of racism or social injustice. It is in a league of it's own.

- Victoria Brown

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