Candyman Wrings Terror Out of the Horror of Gentrification

At a time of widespread urban gentrification, Candyman suggests that the ghosts of the displaced won’t disappear so easily.

Artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the protagonist of the new Candyman, lives in a pricey high-rise on the site of the public-housing block where he grew up. (Universal Pictures)

The Cabrini-Green Homes, a complex of public-housing units on Chicago’s Near North Side, has often played an outsized role in America’s fear of public housing and all it represents. To some in the mainstream commentariat, it’s the failure of well-intentioned but badly executed liberal attempts to provide the poor with affordable places to live; to others, it’s the savagery of a black underclass they associate with unchecked crime, drugs, and gang activity.

By the late 1980s, Cabrini-Green was already synonymous in many Americans’ minds with the “urban jungle.” Into this milieu stepped the British filmmaker Bernard Rose, who was working on an adaptation of horror author Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” in which a graduate student researching the folkways of a British council estate stumbles upon a series of murders bearing the hallmarks of an urban legend. Rose decided, based on having read of the murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy and the botched police handling of it, to move the story from Liverpool to Chicago — and to the Cabrini-Green Homes, where a number of its most notorious scenes were filmed.

The movie had a distinctly British tone; although chilling and well-crafted, it scanned like the work of someone to whom Cabrini-Green was something exotic, even alien. But it also proved to be quite popular, generating several sequels. Now, in the midst of something of a golden age of black horror films, comes a new Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta, who wrote the script along with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, Peele’s partner in Monkeypaw Productions. The new Candyman is a direct sequel to the first, set thirty years later in a Chicago where the Cabrini-Green Homes no longer exist, but the shadow they cast remains across the entirety of the city.

Far more successful at painting a picture of contemporary Chicago than Rose’s film, the new Candyman is one of the most accurate portrayals of the city in any horror movie. All that remains of Cabrini-Green is a handful of two-story row houses, most of them closed off and scheduled for destruction, a fate only forestalled by the untimely arrival of COVID-19. But DaCosta (a New Yorker who’s done her research) still manages to convey the menace of the place while communicating effectively what its disappearance has done to the community that once called it home — and the wave of gentrification that followed, as more affluent white residents rushed in to buy up the expensive condominiums that developers built after being handed what was once public property.

Candyman’s politics are scattered. Its primary mission, of course, is to deliver scares and thrills, not to lecture us on the history of public housing in the United States. But it handles certain political questions adeptly and others clumsily.

The issue of gentrification gets a lot of lip service; an early scene, where the main characters (an intense, fluid Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as urban artist Anthony McCoy, and the outstanding Teyonah Parris as his partner, art dealer Brianna Cartwright, doing a creditable job with a more thankless role) discuss their own feelings about living in a pricey high-rise that was once a public-housing block where McCoy grew up, sets the stage a bit awkwardly. But it pays off later when McCoy scolds a white art critic (Rebecca Spence) for blaming artists like himself for gentrification rather than the governments that abandon the urban poor and the developers who take advantage of their misery to turn a profit.

The word “capitalism” is never uttered, of course, and the movie isn’t much interested in exploring the tensions of the black bourgeois and working class. This is especially curious given that it’s by an African American director, while the original Candyman, by a white Englishman, took some pains to portray the residents of Cabrini-Green as victims of circumstances beyond their control on multiple levels rather than taking the common shortcuts of painting them as gangbangers, drug addicts, and other hardcases. Still, this is a movie from the pen of Jordan Peele, not Boots Riley, so moderating one’s political expectations before seeing it is a good idea.

The politics that occupy most of the movie’s focus are racial. All the films in the Candyman series (and the various incarnations of the title character, a murderous phantasm who appears whenever his name is said five times in a mirror — itself a variation on the pre-urban legend of “Bloody” Mary Whales) are like a tour through the horrors inflicted on black Americans: the original incarnation of the Candyman was the son of an antebellum slave punished by death for engaging in an affair with a white woman, and the modern version was an innocent man murdered by the police for a crime he didn’t commit. McCoy himself was raised poor and is navigating the class and racial struggles of having attained success in the largely white world of fine art.

The police, too, are an omnipresent threat rather than a means of salvation to most of the characters; the ones who kill Sherman Fields, who would become the Candyman in the 1970s, are referred to as “the swarm,” a dark reversal of the halo of bees that surrounds his head when he comes back to menace the projects. In the era of Black Lives Matter, they aren’t portrayed as a force for hope or salvation or even resolution. The film’s climax refuses to let them off the hook, but it’s still a stumbling and obvious portrayal of police racism when there’s so much real-life material to condemn them.

While Peele and Rosenfeld’s script isn’t bad, the movie works best when it quietly lets its horrors speak for themselves. The most damning indictment of the police is a small, subtle moment when McCoy, hearing a passing police siren, instinctively flattens himself against a wall.

Visually, Candyman is extremely well made. The opening and end credits, as well as some in-story flashbacks, are done with simple but effective paper cutout animation by Chicago’s own Manual Cinema, and DaCosta (abetted by cinematographer John Guleserian) uses an unsettling device where well-known Chicago skyscrapers are filmed from below and the images flipped, giving the entire city a frightening equilibrium. The effects are generally excellent as well, relying on some CGI but using traditional makeup and visuals to convey McCoy’s downward descent, illustrated through an infected bee sting that spreads across his entire body, making his body reflect the chaos and turmoil of his mind and spirit.

All in all, though, Candyman is a horror film, and its success has to be judged against whether or not it horrifies us effectively, which it does until its muddled conclusion. Some of the most effective horror is about the unexpected — of seeing something we don’t expect to see somewhere we don’t expect to see it — and the gimmick of the Candyman appearing in the most private and predictable of all places, a mirror, drives this home powerfully with half-glimpsed movements and shadowy forms, eschewing predictable jump cuts.

One scene, the violent aftermath of McCoy’s visit to the art critic’s Marina Towers apartment, is evidence of the movie’s skill at portraying the unnerving and menacing quality of liminal spaces; everything from a modern-design hallway to the passage to a laundry room at Cabrini-Green is saturated with dread.

But another element of horror is disruption. It is the explosion into our reality of what we want far outside of it. Here the metaphor stumbles, because in the original film, set among the residents of a housing project already suffering from neglect and deprivation, the victims had our sympathy. In the new Candyman, these people have become invisible: the buildings still remain, but the residents have been shunted far away, out of our sight, and replaced by a largely white middle class. One reason Cabrini-Green was especially feared by the white population was that it was on the North Side of Chicago, where they lived, not far away on the South Side, among other blacks. It put the realities of public housing, and the racism that suffused their reaction to it, so close that it could not be ignored.

In the latter days of the actual Cabrini-Green Homes, when most of the residents had been essentially deported to other places and other projects, there was little hope for the few that remained. One said, in the New York Times, that “there are people hiding everywhere, in the hallways, around the corners.” Those people are gone now. All that remains are the wealthy white residents who took over the sites of their former homes after greedy developers snapped them up, and a few poor and working-class blacks lucky enough to have the resources to join them. The new Candyman is meant to be a threat to them, not to the black residents who had already suffered so much. But it is no victory for those residents, either. They’re all gone, and even their misery and fear belongs to someone else now.