Folklore is a shapeshifter, the stories twisting and contorting to fit different circumstances, different ages. But in most stories, similarities linger through telling and time.
In Candyman’s case, it’s the summons. The hook. The blood.
Rising Chicago artist Anthony McCoy had never heard of Candyman before. But during a small dinner get together, his girlfriend’s brother, Troy, unspools the legend—or rather, a small tendril of it.
Casting around for an idea for a new art piece, Anthony starts digging a little more. Soon he unearths another tendril—a story about a man with a hook who lived in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green projects back in the 1970s. He used to give sweet confections to the local children. The locals believed he was harmless and kind, and naturally, they called him the Candyman. But when a razor turned up in a piece of candy, police assumed the hook-handed man was guilty. And they beat him to death in a Cabrini-Green laundry room.
Anthony uncovered one more tendril, Local legend says that if you stare at your reflection and say Candyman five times, the Man himself will show up—and kill you.
That evening, Anthony comes home to girlfriend Brianna and playfully chants the name—much to Brianna’s feigned horror. Candyman, he says, grinning. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. And then, a laughing pause. Candyman.
Nothing. They’re both still alive and think no more of it.
But … there. There in the window’s reflection. Was that there before?
We know, of course, that it wasn’t. We know, of course, what—who—it is. Because let’s be honest: If it wasn’t Candyman, the movie’s title would be pretty misleading.
While people do try to save themselves and, sometimes, even others, the movie’s structure doesn’t allow for a lot of heroic acts. But Candyman is more concerned with issues than people: It serves as a sort of dark essay on race and society, and its ideas deserve some attention here.
The movie takes place in the neighborhood of Chicago’s old Cabrini-Green project, a mostly Black ghetto that was notorious for decades for its drugs and high crime rate. That version of Cabrini-Green was the setting for the original 1992 Candyman film, which was also deeply concerned with race and society.
This version of Candyman, recalling those earlier days, suggests that Cabrini-Green was deliberately meant to isolate Blacks. “The city cuts off the community and waits for it to die,” Anthony says at one point. The line runs parallel to Anthony’s own withering and rotting hand [more on this in Violent Content], and it echoes Candyman’s missing hand, too—one that was replaced with a hook.
Cabrini-Green here has been largely replaced, too (both in the movie and in real life). Gone are most of the projects, and in their place tower elegant apartments and trendy shops. But the movie suggests that underneath hides Candyman’s hook. The region’s sins and horrors stain the place still, and more stains are being created all the time, gentrification or no.
Racism, of course, is the biggest issue on the movie’s mind, and certainly plenty of folks will have plenty of different opinions on the film’s suppositions and conclusions. But Candyman points to real racist horrors in the past and present and screams, “This isn’t right!” And in that, the movie speaks the truth.
Candyman is, technically, a ghost story. And in context, that comes with two big spiritual issues to mention. One, the soul goes on after the physical body dies; and two, that soul (or souls) can come back from wherever it hangs out if called and really inflict some serious discomfort.
But let’s take a slightly deeper dive here and point out that Candyman, the entity, acts less like a ghost and a little more like a demon. From the Dark Ages on down, practitioners of the dark arts believed you could call a demon to the physical realm if you knew its name and performed certain rituals (like, say, calling its name five times). Moreover, you could get this demon to work for you if you knew the proper protections—and Candyman at least once seems to act on behalf of the person who summoned him. While the titular character is designed to be as much metaphor as monster, this wrinkle is worth consideration.
A critical scene takes place in a church (featuring a mural of a Black Jesus and His disciples), where a character says he was baptized. We hear about a past incident in Cabrini-Green in which a baby was nearly, literally sacrificed in a massive bonfire. (The baby was rescued.) Someone says that some sort of habit is between “her and her god.”
A gallery owner and a much younger woman (we’re told the woman works as an intern) prepare to have sex in an empty gallery. She wants to call Candyman during their interlude, and the owner jokingly encourages her to, telling her that “necrophilia has always been on my bucket list.” We see them engage in sensual foreplay before they’re interrupted. Earlier, someone quips about the gallery owner needing to have a stash of morning-after pills for his interns; the intern whispers to the owner that she’s on birth control, so no need for the abortive pill.
Brianna’s brother, Troy, is dating another man; we see the two guys together frequently. They don’t kiss, but they do cuddle. One comments on, and grabs, the other’s behind. (“I’m just glad Troy’s daging someone normal,” Brianna said later. “I was having a hard time keeping up with all those European fashion designers.”) An apparent lesbian makes a lewd comment regarding the female anatomy.
Anthony and Brianna live together, and they lie down on a bed and cuddle. We see Anthony in his underwear. We hear that in the late 1890s, a Black painter and a white woman fell in love and had an affair, leading to a pregnancy. That, in turn, led to the Black man’s horrific death.
That death (mentioned above) launched the Candyman legend: The man was beaten, had his hand chopped off and his body smeared with honeycombs, leading to the man being nearly stung to death by bees. He’s finally executed by being set on fire, alive.
The closest we get to seeing this atrocity is through a shadow puppet show—a narrative device the film uses to illustrate past horrors. (Other, similarly reenacted scenes include a boy being sent to the electric chair and a man being chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death.) And while these puppet-centric stories are themselves bloodless, the movie itself can be incredibly, wickedly bloody.
Candyman slashes a woman’s throat open, and her blood spurts out in rhythmic jets. Her companion’s Achilles heel is sliced apart, and the victim is lifted by his legs before being messily executed. From a distance, we see a woman skewered by Candyman’s invisible hook (you can only see him in a mirror), and her body is dragged across a series of windows leaving a bloody trail. Several people are bloodily dispatched. And even when they’re killed off-camera, we see their blood drip, pour and sometimes run down in sheets.
Anthony suffers a bee sting early on (with the bee falling to the ground to be attacked by ants). It’s not a big deal at the time, but the small wound gets pretty horrific before the movie’s end. The wound itself festers and grows; Anthony picks at the skin, which seems to come loose in gooey chunks. Later, as the wound progresses, it seems to be devouring his entire hand, arm and eventually much of his body. A fingernail comes loose off a blackened finger, and Anthony painfully pulls at it.
Anthony’s artwork contains elements of violence, too, as noted by an art critic: One of his apparently more famous works depicts a rope around a man’s neck. Another shows a man being beaten to death, with stylized fists surrounding a cartoonish, blood-streaked head. And while his later portraits aren’t as obviously violent, they’re significantly more disturbing.
Elsewhere, a man bleeds from the mouth. Someone gets stabbed repeatedly—once in the neck and then several times off-camera. Someone cuts off another man’s hand with a saw, then sticks a hook into the bloody stump. A man gets beaten to death by police. The camera doesn’t show the blows, but we later hear that the victim was so badly beaten that they couldn’t tell who it was from his face. (We also see crime photos of his battered corpse.) Someone is shot to death. A man jumps out a window, killing himself. We see a candy with a razor attached, and someone cuts himself on the latter. A mirror shard winds up lodged in someone’s palm (which is painfully removed).
We’re told that someone cut the head off a dog and, later, was discovered making “snow angels” in a pool of blood. She later allegedly was consumed by a bonfire, immolating herself.
Characters use the f-word more than 30 times and the s-word nearly a dozen. Other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” “d–k,” “p-ssy” and “n—er,” are heard as well. God’s and Jesus’ names are both misused once.
Troy and Anthony banter over wine, and the two couples (including Troy’s boyfriend and Anthony’s girlfriend) drink it over dinner. Other meals feature wine as well, and a gallery showing offers both wine and beer. (Anthony may drink a little too much of the latter before getting into a confrontation with both a patron and the gallery owner.)
A couple of people appear to smoke a marijuana joint, and someone mentions leaving behind their “vape.”
Police overreach is a huge theme in Candyman—so much so that the opening scene depicts a chase between two shadow puppets. The pursuer is a police officer telling the fleeing puppet to “get on your knees.” The boy putting on this puppet show later leaves to do laundry and purposely gives a police car, and the officers in it, a wide berth—making it obvious that the boy doesn’t trust them.
Later, confrontations between police and Black people become more visceral and violent. A police officer demands that someone raise his hands, then fires several rounds into him before waiting for him to comply. (An officer later asks a witness to lie—threatening her with life in prison otherwise—and exonerate the guilty cop.) Shadow puppet lynch mobs seem to include police officers.
The movie also seems to critique the ties between fame and infamy, and a certain fascination with the disturbing. When Anthony hears the name of one of his works connected to a pair of murders, he seems happy about it. “They said my name,” he says dreamily.
A girl is bullied in the bathroom. A boy threatens to urinate on his sister’s bed.
The original Candyman, released in 1992, was a bloody supernatural slasher, not unlike the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. It drew attention because its killer was Black, and it played with issues of race—something more unusual back then. “What I liked was a horror movie that was scaring me with ideas and gore, instead of simply with gore,” wrote Roger Ebert at the time in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Ambitious, thoughtful horror flicks are nothing new today—and former comedian Jordan Peele maybe one of the genre’s most praised practioners. He directed such race-centric horror films as Get Out (which was nominated for four Oscars) and Us, and he co-wrote the screenplay for this new take on Candyman. It just might be his most obvious, and angriest, take on the issue yet.
Candyman is a credit-to-credit critique on historial race relations, drawing direct lines between the horrors of yesteryear to the problems we struggle with today. And in so doing, the movie’s bogeyman takes a shuffling step away from tragic monster to quasi-hero—a dark angel of death who’s all too eager to eviscerate those who would perpetuate the (very real) crimes of the past. Candyman’s a bad man, to be sure. But as sometimes happens with slashers killing those who “deserve it,” you can picture some in the audience cheering him on, too.
Christian viewers, however they feel about race relations today, have to take a different tack. We know very well that the world is a fallen, cruel and sometimes horrible place. We know that manmade justice is imperfect. But we also know what God says about vengeance: It’s His province, not ours, and certainly not that of a ghost killer summoned by dark ritual.
’Course, even if Candyman was on the theological up-and-up, we’d have to deal with the rivers of blood that spring forth from the script. And the language. And all the movie’s other real problems.
Candyman isn’t sweet. It was never intended to be. But its excesses are enough to choke on.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.