Ciarán Howley examines Nia DaCosta’s Candyman sequel and the ever-changing face of horror.
Director Nia DaCosta has made history with her sophomore directorial effort Candyman, as the first black woman to land a top spot in the US Box Office Chart. The screenwriter and director is a relatively new voice in the realm of film and television, having previously directed the crime-thriller Little Woods, several short films and two episodes of BBC crime-drama Top Boy. She’s also been confirmed to helm the Captain Marvel sequel, The Marvels, becoming the first black female director of a Marvel Studios film and only the second woman of colour after Chloe Zhao’s upcoming The Eternals.
What’s clear about DaCosta’s visual style and storytelling is its subtle innovation. Most of her filmography, especially Candyman, weaves together classic genres like crime or horror with wider social themes. As a horror movie, Candyman does what it says on the tin: the eponymous supernatural killer stalks the Chicago neighbourhood of Cabrini-Green in search of retribution. But it’s also far more than that, fitting into the recent phenomenon and box-office powerhouse of the social thriller.
It’s not a new subgenre by any means. The term recollects politically leaning, bloodcurdling cinema like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, The Silence of the Lambs, Rosemary’s Baby and the first Scream film. However, it’s recent resurgence in the form of Jordan Peele’s Get Out is now offering these darker perspectives through the lens of people of colour. Get Out being the obvious one, along with US, Lee Chang Dong’s Burning, Sorry to Bother You by Boots Riley, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Bacurau and the award-winning Parasite by Bong Joon-ho.
“...the boom in neo-noir thrillers of the period which were known for implementing social tensions and political issues into the central conflict of the film.”
The term ‘social thriller’ first appeared in film criticism during the 1970s. Critics used it to describe the boom in neo-noir thrillers of the period which were known for implementing social tensions and political issues into the central conflict of the film. One of the earliest movies described is El Wahsh, an Egyptian thriller by Salah Abousief. French critic Georges Sadoul characterised the film as such in his 1972 publication 'Dictionary of Films':
“A social thriller based on an authentic police case about police pursuit of a drug addicted gangster. It is filmed in a quasi-documentary style and portrays, in the background, life in the Egyptian countryside.”
The term also floated around during the French New Wave and was mentioned sporadically to describe a handful films from then until the early 2000s. However, the 2010s and early 20s have seen an outpour of social unrest and the advent of hacktivism: Black Lives Matter, MeToo and countless other rebellions against the social hierarchy. As a genre centred around anxiety, social horror works to extrapolate these fears and take them to the extreme, represented symbolically by nightmarish figures; the malevolent ‘Candyman’ being one of them.
DaCosta’s sequel makes use of one of Hollywood franchises good old-fashioned techniques: just a pinch of retcon. In this iteration, there is not just one Candyman but several. In Bernard Rose’s original 1992 film, Candyman was revealed to be Daniel Robitaille, an artist from the 1800s commissioned to paint the portraits of wealthy families. His love affair with a white woman ends in his brutal murder by a lynch mob, smearing honeycomb on him and left at the mercy of the bee swarm.
Candyman’s primary motivation in the original is vengeance, seemingly achieved when he mistakes folklore grad student, Helen Lyle, for his lost love. Their grisly union in the fiery final moments seemingly caps off the story: wed in the rites of bloodshed.
DaCosta however takes a different tack with the character to allow more contemporary themes to resonate. The central question of the film is how does one become a monster? While the original film suggested something similar, there is an element of voyeurism in the way it’s explored (and commented on) through the eyes of its white protagonist. Most, if not all, of the characters in the sequel are black African Americans coming to grips with a history and inheritance that is theirs to re-examine.
Painter Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul Matten II) becomes obsessed with the supernatural goings-on of Cabrini-Green by chance as his girlfriend’s brother recaps the terrifying events of the first film on a double date. Needing inspiration to shrug off his artist’s block, McCoy seeks out Helen’s notes from the university and begins to paint. The consequences of obsession with the traumas of the past are dangerous and by the film’s closing moments, we see how history is bound to repeat itself.
Interestingly, the film uses art by Sherwin Ovid, known for his affecting paintings that mix collage, bricolage, and ornamentation to comment on class aspiration, cultural aspiration and migratory aesthetics. DaCosta’s commitment to fully realising the film’s ideas in every nook and cranny of the visuals comes across and Ovid’s featured works are horrifying in the best possible way.
Politically driven reimaginings of history have always found their way into the horror genre. Invasion of the Body Snatchers recalls the frantic panic of the US during the Cold War and subsequent ‘Red Scare’; Alien examines anxieties around the corporate monster during the economic boom of the late 70s and 1980s; and even Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria references the aftermath of World War II, antisemitism in Europe and the Holocaust.
“There’s been a departure from veiled metaphors and concealed tensions bubbling below the surface to a more direct approach.”
Candyman’s themes of gentrification and the disproportionate effect it has on neglected, long-term residents even have resonance in Ireland. These areas are given a ‘trendier’ makeover, causing general prices and, crucially, rents to heighten. In Dublin, this process of ‘urban renewal’ has taken form in areas like Smithfield, the Liberties, the Dorset Street flats and countless others.
It’s a cycle of slow violence that hurts working class people as the wealthier circle in and tighten the noose. Anthony’s encounter with an art critic appraising his work brings this idea into sharp focus as she accuses his “kind” - artists - of enforcing the process of gentrification.
The use of mirrors in the film aids to visualise these ideas. While also a summoning tool for Candyman, looking in the mirror forces the characters to look at their surroundings and where they stand in this vicious cycle. If you look carefully in the film, where the characters stand in relation to mirrors, and whether they choose to look or not, reveals more about race and class than is on the surface. What is different about the rebirth of social thrillers and horror movies, is just how contemporary the conflict explores is. There’s been a departure from veiled metaphors and concealed tensions bubbling below the surface to a more direct approach. Get Out is about racism in America right now, Sorry to Bother You is about the guilt of climbing the social ladder as it is right now and Candyman is about gentrification and generational trauma right now.
With the countless hordes of revamps and revivals in Western film and television right now, DaCosta has avoided another indulgent sequel fuelled by nostalgia. It’s an intelligent social horror brimming with ideas that will connect with audiences living in the now, something that the film’s cast of characters struggle with. Candyman is a must-watch and future classic, with DaCosta emerging as a talent in Hollywood to be celebrated and get excited about right now.