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'Candyman' Has A Lot To Unpack

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Anthony McCoy is an artist who reawakens "Candyman."
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Anthony McCoy is an artist who reawakens "Candyman."

Nia DaCosta's film offers inspired follow up to 1992 film

Candyman began in a story by Clive Barker, was brought to vivid life by Tony Todd in a 1992 film, and is now reimagined by filmmaker Nia Da Costa. The new "Candyman" film opens Friday.

Bonus Episode: Unpacking 'Candyman'
UC Riverside professor peels back the laters of the "Candyman" films with Cinema Junkie host Beth Accomando.
One of the shadow puppets in new "Candyman" film.

Speaker 1: 00:02 Candyman the urban legend is if you say his name five times while looking in the mirror, he appears in the reflection and it kills you. Speaker 2: 00:13 Candyman began life in a Clive Barker story was brought to the screen by Tony Todd in 1992, and now has been re-imagined by Nia de Costa and Jordan Peele. This new Candyman film becomes available VOD starting September 17th. Welcome back to a bonus edition of listener supported KPBS cinema junkie. I'm Beth Mondo. Speaker 2: 00:41 The new Candyman film has so many layers to peel back that I wanted to discuss it with author and professor John Jennings. He's taught classes about black horror and has adapted Octavia Butler's books to graphic novels. He was in San Diego for Afrikan earlier this month. So I asked him to delve into Candyman, many layers with me and consider its place in the growing sub-genre of black horror. This interview contains some spoilers. So if you haven't seen the film, put the podcast on hold and get to a cinema to see Candyman or stream it online and then dive into it with us in this podcast. But if you have seen it, then let's go Clive Barker's. The forbidden was a short story in his books of blood volume five. That story inspired Bernard Rose's 1992 film Candyman Speaker 3: 01:33 The writing on the wall through whisper in the classroom without these things, I haven't am nothing. So now I was shed, as I said with me, Speaker 2: 01:50 The title character was vividly played by Tony Todd in three movies. And his incarnation of the character is referenced in the new Candyman film. The new film is not a reboot of the franchise, but rather a sequel that reimagines the character and builds onto the mythology. John Jennings is professor of media and cultural studies at the university of California at Riverside. He's been a guest on cinema junkie before to talk about what he refers to as scary black folks. Before I get to his interview, I need to take one quick break and then I'll be back to unpack Candyman themes. Welcome back to this bonus episode of cinema junkie all about the new Candyman to begin. I want to John Jennings to remind us about the original Candyman. So here's a clip from that 1992 movie. And then John will discuss the significance of that film and the impact of Tony Todd's performance. Have you ever heard? Speaker 4: 02:48 No, it was right-hand his son off. He has a hook jammed in the bloody stump. And if you look in the mirror and you say his name five times, he'll appear behind you breathing down your neck. You want to try it. Speaker 5: 03:08 The original, uh, Candyman film was the screenplay and director is burnout rose. He took elements from Clive Barker short story. The forbidden is very different, like so far, the forbidden really is a more about class dynamics and all that. It's a very similar setup where you have like a grad student, Helen Lyle, who's doing research on graffiti of this particular area. And what Bernard rose does is he transplants that discourse to America and he decides to have it talk about race, right? And so he creates this amalgam, if you will, of like the hook man, bloody Mary, the game, the bloody Mary game, the original forbidden short story, and an actual murder that happened in Cabrini green, which, uh, of, uh, Ruthie and McCoy, which was in 1987. So he actually took elements of that and put it into this Candyman, uh, film that he made with Tony Todd, the other urban legend of course, that he, he mixes in there is race, right? Speaker 5: 04:05 It's because it's a story, it's a fiction, right? And so he mixes all these things in there as well for good measure. And so I think one of the things that Tony Todd brings to it is like, he's a train, he's a Shakespearian actor. That's one thing it's like, he's, uh, an actor's actor to do this before Candyman. You really only had, like, we had a couple of, uh, really great performances by black actors and in horror films, of course, and I forgetting the actor's name right now from a night of the living dead. Of course, the first time you really see a black protagonist actually taking charge of a film, Speaker 6: 04:37 It's stupid enough to go die in that trap. That's your business. However, I am not stupid enough to follow you. It is tough for the kid that old man is so stupid right now, get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there, I'm boss Speaker 5: 04:51 Up here. And of course, black, yellow, Speaker 7: 04:54 It will be black, black Avenger rising from his tomb to fill the night with Hora black healer Dracula's soul brother, Speaker 5: 05:16 Which is from the exploitation era. So, but we really don't have like a, you didn't really didn't have like a really new iconic black character, like Candyman until that film comes out. And it very much picks up on all of the kind of like really, really powerful graphic overtones to me. I mean, it has it's, I would almost like juxtapose with some like Dracula. It has that kind of feel to it, but he also is talking about problematic issues around about anti-missile origination, you know, in our country too, because Candyman falls in love or Daniel, Robert Titus, his real name falls in love with this beautiful white woman and he's painting. And he's also a fluent himself. It's his father is wealthy. And so he's gone to these wonderful schools and it didn't matter because once the racist people figured out what was going on and that she was pregnant, then he essentially is lynched and in his hand is cut off and tortured with this bee honey and stuff. And so basically what he represents is like the, the constant projection of like the monstrous on to like the male black body. And so it's a really, really complex, uh, interesting story to start with that Bernard rose, I think was trying to, you know, unpack. So Speaker 2: 06:24 Now Jordan Peele and Nia D'Acosta kind of re-imagine Candyman through more of a black lens. So w what did you feel was kind of the most significant change that they made? Speaker 5: 06:36 Well, I think one of the most significant ones was the fact that they took the singular story of Daniel over time, and they actually kind of posited Candyman more as a mantle. And so he becomes more of a system of as, um, cause the Coleman Domingo's character, Billy Burke kind of references. He's a hive. It's almost like you need a systemic, like Avenger to kind of fight against systemic racism. You know what I'm saying? Cause he's, he becomes like more than one person. And so I think that was a really interesting idea because it doesn't like disrupt the original story. It actually adds to more of a mythology, which I thought was really interesting and a very, uh, complex notion about like just how race is kind of played out in our country, but a story Speaker 8: 07:18 Like that. Speaker 9: 07:20 And like that last forever that's candy man. He's real Dallas. Speaker 8: 07:37 It's real Samuel sermon, Daniel Rubin died. They're all real Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happened. This is still happening. Speaker 5: 07:48 The other thing that was really interesting is that in the first film, he's more of a Revenant, which means that he's a dead person that comes back as kind of like a zombie. He becomes he's physical. You know, he seems like, cause people see him before he was about to kill him. He actually appears to them and actually has physicality. But in this one, he actually is more like Ralph Ellison's invisible man, where he's like, he really is apparition and you can only see him in the mirror. And so I thought of it as almost like a reference to the WB. The boys is a veil, you know, like he was talking about the idea of like black people living in the veil. And I always feel like by invoking him, you're breaking through the veil almost. And I just thought that was really, really fascinating. Speaker 5: 08:25 It's very creepy. The other thing I thought was really interesting was they literally shift the white gaze to the black gaze. If you look at the end of the film, uh, the, you know, not to spoil everything, but there's a scene where, um, Brianna who plays, uh, Anthony McCoy's, uh, girlfriend who is living, uh, PNC, who is the new Candyman who's now been killed and she's in the back of the cop car. There's this part where the cop is actually like looking, you can actually just see his eyes in the mirror. He's talking to her, he's giving her options, you know, either become a snitch and right out on your, you know, and we kill your boyfriend and we get away with it or you can go to prison, but she chooses door number three because she realizes that Candyman. And this is what my friend Sean Taylor called. Speaker 5: 09:07 They call it weaponized oral history or weaponized oral culture where you can actually like, no I'll call him. And my intention is to direct it at something else. So very, very powerful a moment in the film, you know, when she kind of like does that, the another thing I thought was interesting was a juxtaposition of institutions, right? And the first film we're really talking about the academy and how the academy kind of like goes to spaces and actually like puts claim on them. And actually it's like theorize is around culture. And the second one, uh, this particular film is about the art space, right? And the commodification of black pain or just pain in general, which I thought was really interesting too. So there's some really interesting complex things that they're doing, uh, with, uh, the second film that I think kind of fills in the gaps in some of the, in some ways with the, for the first one. So, Speaker 2: 09:55 So Candyman this time also seems to really reflect or deal or to raise more issues about kind of intergenerational trauma. And how is that kind of brought up in this and why is that significant in a black horror film? Speaker 5: 10:07 So one of the utilities of horror I think, is to be able to deal with different types of social issues of horror. And I think specular fiction in general gives us a certain amount of distance from a particular subject. And so we can experience something. There's a lot of like societal issues that I think can play out really well in like say scifi movies and stuff like that. Like for instance, after the second world war, you see an uptick in like, oh, these radioactive mutants are about to take over the world. That kind of thing, because we're, we can destroy ourselves within the atomic bomb. And so all of those are the kind of like frenetic Zeit Geist kind of goes into the things that we make. Right. And I think one of the biggest issues right now in our country is about, you know, um, police brutality and about like gentrification and all these different things that are happening in our country right now. Speaker 5: 10:51 So of course it makes sense that, you know, these things would be like really, really prevalent. And I think some in, in horror movies now, I think that Billy Burke, who is the, I was looking at him, look at him as the Renfield character from Dracula. Cause this can cause he's preparing the way. Right. Cause that's what, that's what Redfield was when he was from the Dracula, uh, stories where he's like, I'm preparing for the master, right. And Billie Burke's character at the beginning, he sees, you know, police brutality happened and kill, you know, uh, one aspect of Candyman who comes back in and kills his sister and her, uh, friend in the bathroom. Right. So he's kind of indoctrinated through trauma and he actually starts out like washing clothes. Right. And he was a very painful death because he doesn't have a physical death. He has a spiritual death. Speaker 5: 11:35 He actually like never leaves that laundry room. And so what happens is he then becomes a laundry room owner. Like he actually like, that becomes his job to us and he takes on and he talks about cycles. And so the, the laundromat becomes like a metaphor for the cycles that we go through, but you have to pay for those cycles. Right. Because they're like, it's a laundromat. And he talks about like, oh, well, you know, when a stain isn't in fabric, it of complain that, that whole thing, he's really talking about our country to a certain degree. That's what, it's a metaphor for that for America. And I love the fact that he's reading a copy of Clive Barker's re we've world in the, if you catch it. Cause we were as a book by Clive Barker, that is about a magical tapestry. That is another world inside of it. I was like, oh, that's so cool. Anyway. So he represents, I think intergenerational trauma and how it affects, um, communities. And he takes it upon himself to invoke and create the mythology of oral culture that is Candyman to protect what's left of his neighborhood. Speaker 2: 12:34 And you mentioned, you know, how are like science fiction or films can kind of distance you from certain things and allow you to look at it. And what's interesting in the film too, is that the violence against the black characters is mostly depicted through these shadow puppets, which kind of removes it one step further from normally this would be depicted as live action actors and with, you know, violence being inflicted upon these characters. So it seemed like there was an interesting way to kind of distance you from some of that violence without letting you forget how horrific it is. Speaker 5: 13:11 Yeah. I totally agree. I use the allegory of, um, Perseus killing Medusa cause he remembered like the Greek mythology or the Greek myth, uh, Medusa is like this horrific creature wants a beautiful woman who was cursed by the gods. And now she turns people into stone when you look at it. Right? So the spectacle of her is what kills you to a certain degree, right. And Percy has killed her with a merit shield, right? So he's looking at her reflection and not directly at her. And I think that in some ways the Costa uses a similar method where she kind of, as you're saying, like she kind of like undercuts the spectacle to a certain degree and it removes you to a certain degree. It can be more objective about it. Now a lot of horror fans really didn't like that because they want to see the gore. Speaker 5: 13:51 They want to see this, you know, but if you're in this country now and you're black, you know, you turn on CNN and you see that kind of brutalization, right. So, you know, to a certain ingredient, you don't get to see, you don't get to be black in America and not see yourself as victim sometimes. So I think what she does is by distancing us from it and actually using these beautiful shadow puppets and other ways that she does that by like pulling out even like when, when, when, when white victims are killed, she's using mostly like different types of camera tricks and things, but she doesn't show everything, which I think was really, really, that's really horrific to me. You know, that's the, actually that stuff that makes, because it leaves so much to the imagination. But, but I think that's why she, she did it though. Speaker 2: 14:30 Yeah. I mean, you mentioned that the way she depicts some of the violence, I mean, I thought she displayed a lot of creativity in, you know, normally you go in for a close-up for a kill and she pulls out or there's the one really remarkable one too, where it's all reflected in the mirror of a small company. Speaker 5: 14:48 Yes. That's one of my favorite ones. Oh my God. Okay. Of my favorite kills, first of all, it's like the, um, the art critic, kale where, where Anthony has left her apartment and then she just goes up in the air. And, but I think there was a drone shot, even I, you know, I think that was shot with a drone where you can kind of pull out and you can see what's happening to her and you're like, what is gonna happen? You know? And, but it's also just a beautiful shot. The compact scene is amazing. Right? Cause you it's from the, it's from the, uh, the point of view of this little black girl, who's in the stall using the bathroom. And she was like, what is going on? And it's like, one of the victim's compacts come out and it's got blood on it and you can see him floating a little bit and then you just hear them screaming. And then you see like these bees come out and one hits the screen, walks down and their reflection splits off and flies back into the background. I was like, excuse me. It was just great. I was like, that's a really, really great shot. And you just, a lot of it's up to your imagination. You're like, what does that mean to these women? You know, anyway, Speaker 2: 15:50 And there's some things that she does in the film that are not really directly related to the plotter to Candyman, but that feel like a different perspective in the sense that you get to see this black couple in a very affluent apartment with surrounded by books, surrounded by art, Brianna speaks French in her interactions with her, you know, business dealings. And it just feels like in the subtle way, she's trying to say like, there are different ways to depict black characters that Hollywood has really not been yet. Speaker 5: 16:21 And it's very, uh, organic as well. The, the depiction of like the spectrum of, of blackness and how black people interact. Yes. I think because you see like a different, different class levels and all kinds of things, no one is having any kind of like disputes, you know? Yeah. I think it's really well done. And, and you see a character like I'm going to actually, that's in some ways works against Anthony because he's so forthright with Billy Burke Lee know that she like, he's like, ah, you're the new Candyman by the way that, uh, I want to appeal wrote this line where he's like, Hey, you need a hand when I was like, oh dad joke. You know what I'm saying? And it was actually the first time you see Billy Burke playing with the shadow puppets, he's like hands, hands, hands, which is, of course he's talking about the cops, but he's also, you know, referencing, uh, it's forced, it's a F it's literally a foreshadow anyway, still finding things. But yeah, I mean, I think that that is a really big part of it to show the spectrum of black experience in our case. Speaker 2: 17:18 Well, an Anthony's an interesting character too, because he's an artist and he comes to this urban legend or this character of Candyman. And at first it's kind of a superficial, you know, very like, Ooh, how can I cash in on this? And, you know, there's this sense of kind of making us look at the role of the artist and how that can function before he actually comes to kind of deeper terms with what this whole legend means. Speaker 5: 17:43 Yeah, no, that's true. And that's what I was saying about like how at first in the first film, the academy is the same thing. Like Helen Lyle is like, oh, I need to get my PhD. And this is very interesting, you know, just, she's just looking at the shell of the story, right. And then kind of pontificating about what it could mean, but not really being of the culture. And Anthony is like, I need it. I need something to make, become famous. Right. And that's why I think like Candyman punishers those who don't have the right intent. And he kind of punishes those who don't understand what he really is. And at the end of it, Brianna utilizes them as more of a weapon. He's almost like it's like, you shouldn't play with a gun. Don't play with Candyman. Right. I mean, it's the same thing. Tony is very interesting because he is the, he's the direct link to the first movie because he is the child that was saved by Helen Lauer in the first film, which I thought was a really good way to actually connect the films. You know, Richard Wright really interesting character. Speaker 2: 18:34 So the first film, I thought it was interesting because the tagline for the film is we dare you to say his name and now the tagline says, say it. And then there's a hashtag for tell everyone. And I just wanna know, like, how do you think this is playing off of kind of black lives matters? And this sensibility of say their names, remember who the victims are and kind of transforming this Candyman legend into something that feels very contemporary and of the moment now. Speaker 5: 19:02 Yeah, no, that's a, that's a very good question. Yeah, because the first one really is, I mean, it was, I mean, it does, it's talking about race and representation, but it also still centers Helen, you know, as the main kind of protagonist and she becomes like a really active ally and definitely like, she gives her life to save this little black boy, you know what I'm saying? Which I think, and then of course the black community reflects that they actually come to our grave. They give her this hook, what have you? And then she becomes urban legend. Right. Which I think is very interesting. And then in the second film, they shift this lens, right. And as you're saying, like, this is taking directly from like some of the chants that are from the black lives matter movement about saying the names, uh, repairing a ratio because that's what the character is doing too. Speaker 5: 19:48 Like, do not forget me. This is what happened to us. You know, this is, you know, say my name and actually like, and see what happens, that kind of thing. So it's because he's still an angry spirit, you know, but you know, but it's also like a, a sense of reverence for the people who've been killed in this fashion. And I don't think it's a coincidence that one of the main characters name is Brianna, you know, and she actually ends up, you know, killing cops at the end to, by her speaking candy man's names. Right. Tell everyone, of course it's about really, really tapping into the idea of like oral culture, remembering through speaking, that kind of thing, like passing along these stories because you know, these urban legends where like, you know, they were folktales and this, and this is a morality tale too. Speaker 5: 20:28 That's what the other thing I think is really cool. It's like back in the nineties allow the black films that they were doing were messaged movies. Right. And so I think this actually is like kind of winking at that too. Like, this is a message movie. This is a, this is what this movie's about, which I think is really interesting too. And when you look through that lens, it also even changes something like I am the writing on the wall, right. It's kind of positing that any of us could be like the writing on the wall. We, any of us could have like a mural about our depth. Right. And that's what I think this is referencing. And, and I, and I think that's true because at the beginning of it, the whole audience is in the mirror at first because everything's reversed, everything's reversed and we're on the other side of the mirror. I was like, what is going on? Yeah. So I think, yes, they, they decided to take a stand and, you know, and actually do have an outreach program part as part of the Candyman, uh, film and say, if you go to their website, there's an entire section about community outreach and about, um, getting psychiatric help, you know, community healing and stuff like that too. So it's a very intentional film in that regard. So Speaker 2: 21:29 Now you teach about black horror and you're very invested in kind of studying this and talking about it. So where do you see this film kind of fitting into this sub genre? And is it signaling something new at this point in time? Speaker 5: 21:43 It's a great question. And I, cause I think you're the first person besides myself. Maybe a couple of other people have thought of it as a sub-genre. I think it might be that, you know, I think, I think Jordan Peele called it a social horror. I think it's determined, used, but I think it really is dialing into the utility of like specular fiction and horror to deal with these really heavy subjects. And I think that this particular film, as far as like this new way of looking at like horror with a, you know, this Afro-centric in that space or looking at black trauma is probably, uh, probably the gold standard right now. I mean, it's, it definitely has like some unevenness that I would have liked to see, uh, kind of like built out, but that's just me as a storyteller, but as far as like the significance of it, I think it's pretty high. Speaker 5: 22:24 I mean, I, I would, you know, I think it's in some ways up there with get out, you know, as far as like building off of this legend and then actually being a strong sequel, but also a kind of a reboot and how well it's done, you know, it's like, it seems very intentional about the messaging and she kind of shows what you can do if you can take these social issues and bring them to bear. Some people think is like, oh, it's too heavy handed or whatever, but I'm like, well, so were the horror comics when the 1950s and stuff too, they call them preaches. Right. Some people just don't want it to be preached to. I was like, well, being subtle doesn't seem to be working. Right. So we're still in the same mess. Right. So anyway, but I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a fine film. So, Speaker 2: 23:03 And do you have any like final words or about the film or anything that you would like to encourage people to think about when they go see it or when they exit the theater after having seen it? Speaker 5: 23:15 Um, I think one of the things is that certain Hollywood films are kind of ruined how we look at horror because actually it's funny cause I, my, my, my sister-in-law's a big horror fan and she's like, oh, it wasn't even scary. Wasn't wasn't it though. You know? It's like, it's like think of, I think what, what, what Hollywood has done is like they have these jump scares and stuff and, and you feel like, oh, if you haven't been, if you haven't jumped enough and it's not scary, but if you sit and think about what is actually implying, it makes your skin crawl. You know, like it's certain aspects of that film. Like for instance, there's this one part where Tony is in the bathroom and he's had a nightmare and he, and he has Brianna leave the bathroom. And for a second he's moving in his and his reflection. Speaker 5: 23:53 Isn't terrifying. I was like, what, wait, what does it mean for your reflection to be dead? But it was like, oh my God, I just, I just couldn't stop thinking about that. So it's a very, very visceral weird feminist. So I think like going with an open mind, but also understand that this is not like this isn't Jason, you know, this isn't like the first movie it's very thought provoking. It's a slow burn. It's, it's like, it's an art house, horror film to a certain degree too. It has that, that kind of meatiness to it. And I think it's more effective that way. And it's more creepy. I think that people want to be shown things and not have to fill in the gaps. And you know, sometimes it's best for you to do that, you know, in order to get it. But it definitely bears rewatching as well. So, Speaker 2: 24:31 Well, and also there's a point where, uh, the bird character says, I think it's when he's recounting what he saw in the laundry room. And he says like, I saw the true face of horror than Speaker 8: 24:44 Kelvin right there on the spot. What shows up a couple of weeks later, more razor blades and more candy that's when we knew Sherman happened. And I said, okay. Speaker 2: 25:02 And to me, it's kind of a little bit like Stephen, King's it it's like the really scary thing is the real world violence, you know, the abuse the kids go through and it, and then in this, it's the fact that the police killed this innocent man in front of this little child and the supernatural stuff on a certain level is far less terrible. Speaker 5: 25:23 That's exactly right. And that's what I'm saying is like that's yes, I got, I got chills when you said that, because that's exactly what I thought too. I was like, oh man, when he said the true face of heart, he was talking about the swarm, the police warm. Right. So, yeah. And he's, he's like doubly traumatized because of that. And now he realizes, well, in order for me to really fight this vicious, huge thing, I have to create something even darker, you know, and be a part of it. I was like, what I would have loved to have seen is actually the hives speaking to him, you know, because it is a really quick transition, you know? And I was like, oh, I want to know more about this Billy Burke character. Like, how did he know, like how did he come into this role? Speaker 5: 25:59 You know what I'm saying? So I can, I bet that's on the cutting room floor somewhere. You know what I'm saying? Cause it's only 90 minute movie, you know, short and to get a lot of stuff out. And I wanna know more about Brianna too and how she deals with the death of her father. But you know, I, there's only so much, you know, those, uh, a friend of mine said she interviewed Don Cheeto and he said, um, you know, whenever you make a movie, you're making three different versions and then you just pick which one you wanna make, you know, for that, for the audience, you know? So, Speaker 2: 26:27 All right. Well, I want to thank you very much for talking about the new Candyman. Speaker 5: 26:30 Oh, thank you so much. And this has been fun. I love talking about this movie. So Speaker 2: 26:39 That was author and professor John Jennings. Thanks for listening to this episode of cinema junkie. Please check out this month's episodes about Asians on screen. I have an interview with Sean chief director destined prednisone as well as an interview with Brian, who artistic director of the San Diego Asian film festival. He has some surprising recommendations of films to watch along with Sean cheat, plus check out and give a light to the new geeky gourmet videos on the KPBS YouTube channel. I'll show you how to make things like chocolate, blood Bollywood popcorn, and the Chinese poured Shaun cheats in the film. So till our next film fix I'm Beth like a Mondo, your residence, cinema junkie Speaker 10: 27:28 [inaudible].

Not every horror film offers a lot to unpack but Nia DaCosta’s new "Candyman" has so many layers that it is almost too much to process in 90 minutes. And that’s not a bad thing.

‘Candyman’ Has A Lot To Unpack
Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

Produced and co-written by Jordan Peele and co-written and directed by DaCosta, "Candyman" beautifully builds on the 1992 film to reinvent Candyman through a Black lens.


DaCosta ties this urban legend to issues of racism, gentrification and intergenerational trauma. Then she endows the film with a fresh, bold visual style that includes the use of evocative shadow puppets to depict a history of racial violence.

This is a film that you may need and want to watch more than once.

Cinema Junkie Recommends 'Candyman'