Comparative Film Review
“They Will Say That I Have Shed Innocent Blood”: A Comparison of Rose and DaCosta’s Candyman Films
by Morgan Payne
[page 155] Candyman first appeared in Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” (1984), where he reveals himself as a spirit to graduate student Helen during field research in an impoverished neighborhood in Liverpool, England, for her thesis on graffiti. In adapting the story for his 1992 film, Bernard Rose transforms Candyman from a White monster into a Black boogeyman, emphasizing both race and class struggles. In a departure from many previous Black horror villains, Rose’s Candyman (Tony Todd) is neither a witchdoctor nor a gangbanger. Instead, he is educated, well-spoken, and seductive, reminiscent of the similarly sympathetic Mamuwalde (William Marshall) in Blacula (1973). In their 2021 sequel, director Nia DaCosta and her co-authors Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld artfully expand the Candyman mythos to transform the Black slasher-cum-female-revenge-fantasy into a pointed Black revenge fantasy in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd murder by police and also, unlike Rose, centering the story on Black voices.
This difference in perspective is reflected in the contrast between the opening shots: Rose’s film opens with a disorienting bird’s eye view of Chicago while Philip Glass’s haunting score plays; conversely, the sequel “flips” the original opening by showing the city from a worm eye’s view: the opening studio and production company logos appear in reverse in Da Costa’s film, as if seen in a mirror, while Sammy Davis Jr’s “Candyman” plays. Buzzing noises start as the camera dives into a train car, and they become louder than the song as the camera reaches table height and turns to reveal a disembodied, Black, animated hand stirring tea. The screen goes [page 156] black, and Sammy Davis Jr’s voice warbles as if the record is warping. The viewer understands that they won’t be watching a straightforward remake or sequel. When the main title sequence begins, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s score plays to camera movement through images of upside-down skyscrapers and unreversed credits. Lowe’s score reflects Glass’s in its use of organ and strange, inhuman vocal chorus, but Lowe added ambient noises such as humming electrical boxes and manipulated the recordings (Greiving). The overall effect is a discordant melody with a cacophony of strange sounds underneath that the ear can’t quite place. DaCosta’s viewer, unlike Rose’s, is on the ground, unsure of who or what is there with her.
Both Candyman films play with legend and reality. Rose chose to represent the blurring of reality and myth by making it unclear if Candyman is a figment of Helen’s (Virginia Madsen) imagination; one of the movie’s most affecting mise en scénes is of Helen climbing out of a painted Candyman’s mouth, symbolically entering his world. Here Helen discovers candy filled with razorblades, signifying that the urban legend is about to become real: the film incorporates several urban legends into its story in addition to the razorblades in candy, including the child castrated in the bathroom, the hook-handed man, and Bloody Mary. When Helen first meets the titular villain, he hypnotizes her into what appears to be a dream-like state. Candyman usually carries out his killing (possibly by possessing Helen) only when she blacks out, with the exception of his one White victim, Helen’s therapist, although by this point in the film, Helen’s mental state is so unstable that what she sees may be merely an illusion.
Candyman’s power comes from the belief of the populace, and in both movies he spreads fear like a virus through oral tradition. DaCosta tells Candyman’s story through shadow puppets, which represents how Candyman doesn’t fully exist in our world. His first appearance “in the flesh,” so to speak, is when he’s summoned by Brianna (Teyonah Parris) at the end of the film. It’s also the only time we hear him speak any [page 157] lines, a sharp contrast to Tony Todd’s monologues in the original. Anthony McCoy, an artist and DaCosta’s primary protagonist (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), also seemingly descends into madness after hearing the Candyman story.
Racial discrimination is a central theme in both films, although Rose’s treatment of the subject is burdened with racist Hollywood tropes. Rose wrote the dynamic between Candyman and Helen through a problematic White lens. Candyman’s relationship with Helen plays on cultural fears of the “Black Buck,” first popularized in the KKK film The Birth of a Nation (1915). A “Buck” is a “willful” Black man who is sexually aggressive towards White women. Borrowing from this racist cinematic tradition, Rose presents a Black man’s interest in a White woman as dangerous: the murderous Candyman acts towards Helen like he’s wooing a lover, and ultimately, the 1992 film suffers from White Saviorism, with Helen saving the residents of Cabrini-Green from Candyman’s reign of terror by sacrificing herself in a bonfire. In her development as the problematic White Savior, Helen sees firsthand what the residents of Cabrini-Green face every day when she first enters the housing project and is swarmed by gang members questioning what she is doing there. The building is neglected and covered in graffiti. Anne-Marie (Vanessa Estelle Williams), a single Black mother trying to raise her child despite hostile conditions, tells Helen that everyone sees them as criminals because of where they live, and the city and police provide no help. Despite a call to 911, no one comes to save Ruthie Jean, one of Candyman’s early victims, but when Helen is attacked, the police rush to investigate the crime.
This episode was inspired by a real public housing murder case, at the much larger ABLA Homes rather than Cabrini-Green: the murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy, for whom Ruthie Jean and Anne-Marie McCoy are named. McCoy, 52, was unable to hold down a job due to untreated schizophrenia for which she was institutionalized multiple times, forcing her to live in dangerous public housing. Despite multiple challen-[page 158]ges, she was still taking steps to move out. On the night of April 22, 1987, McCoy called 911 to report that someone was trying to break into her apartment through the medicine cabinet (similar to how Helen breaks into an apartment in Rose’s film), but police did not come to her aid until two other 911 calls came in reporting gunshots. The officers knocked on the door of the apartment, but when no one answered, they left. The next day, after another 911 call from a worried neighbor, the police once again visited the apartment and again left without entering. It wasn’t until April 24 that a CHA official finally drilled the lock, allowing police inside the apartment. There they found McCoy dead on her bedroom floor in a pool of her own blood, with four gunshot wounds. Ted Turner, 18, and John Honduras, 21, were arrested for her murder but had the charges dropped due to lack of evidence.
The gross negligence on the part of the police department didn’t merit an investigation or even much media coverage beyond the Black-owned Defender (Bogira). Just as Candyman preys on Black victims, Rose chose to focus on this piece of assumed “Black on Black” crime rather than on the ways that a racist system fails Black victims. Rose makes negative generalizations and depicts the Black community as preying on itself. White film critic Glenn Lovell points out that, in the 1992 film “the black community is made up not of individuals but of amorphous faces that exact in-kind revenge or pay tribute en masse.”
DaCosta’s film is, unsurprisingly, much defter at handling issues of race, primarily because Black people directed, produced, and wrote it, whereas Rose tried to explore racism from a White viewpoint. DaCosta explores the exploitation of Black suffering through art, intergenerational trauma, and the gentrification of Cabrini-Green. In the original film, the latter is referenced when we learn that Helen’s condo was originally affordable housing for low-income people. As Brianna explains in the sequel, “White people built the ghetto, then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto.” This idea is expanded on by writer Lola Landekic in an interview with [page 159] Bernard Rose: “One need only look at a city’s marginalized peoples and its housing projects, the ‘dangerous’ zones, to understand the legacy of colonialism. All so-called ‘bad neighborhoods’ are places haunted by trauma, and word of mouth ensures the patterns are maintained.” While Anthony explores what’s left of Cabrini-Green for his art project in the 2021 film, he photographs the church in which he is later transformed into Candyman. The church is an actual location, what used to be the Northside Strangers Home Baptist Church, once home to a beautiful mural titled All of Mankind by artist William Walker; despite the efforts of the community, the artwork was painted over in December 2015 in an effort to make the building more profitable: Black history was quite literally “whitewashed.”
While researching the area, Anthony learns the legend of Candyman. In the original film, Candyman was Daniel Robitaille (he is unnamed until Candyman II: Farewell to the Flesh ), a portrait artist who was murdered after impregnating a White woman. The White mob sawed off his hand, smeared his body with honey so that bees would sting him to death, and then burned the body. The main Candyman of DaCosta’s film is Sherman Fields, a Black man falsely accused of putting razor blades in a White girl’s Halloween candy and subsequently beaten to death by police. In the first film, police are portrayed as apathetic to the suffering of the residents of Cabrini-Green, but in DaCosta’s version, they’re actively malicious and directly responsible for the deaths of more than one of the Candymen. At various points in Peele’s script, cops are referred to as “the swarm” and “swarming”—equating them with the bees that killed Daniel Robitaille.
Peele and DaCosta introduce the idea to the franchise that there has been more than one Candyman over the years, all Black men brutalized by Whites, in order to explore intergenerational trauma and to represent the fact that Black men continue to be murdered. As William Burke explains in the film, “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happen. That they’re still happening.” Within the [page 160] history of the film, Robitaille’s murder is followed by that of an unnamed Black farmer who is murdered by a White man while arguing over the price of cotton seeds. William Bell, an amalgamation of Emmett Till and George Stinney, is a young boy who, in the 1920s, is falsely accused by White children of an unknown crime and sent to the electric chair. In the 1950s, Samuel Evans moves into a White neighborhood and is dragged behind a truck, a reference to the real-life death of James Byrd, Jr. Finally, protagonist Anthony McCoy is reborn as the latest Candyman after being shot by a cop. Their pain and suffering transform them into avenging spirits who exact the justice that the legal system won’t. We see Candyman slaughter an art dealer who wants Anthony to paint about Black pain for White audiences, several racist cops, a group of White girls who bully a Black girl, and a snobby White art critic. This is a major change from the first film, in which Candyman’s victims were Black residents of Cabrini-Green and Helen’s Black best friend, all of them innocent. Compare Candyman’s line in Rose’s script, “They will say that I have shed innocent blood. What’s blood for, if not for shedding?” to Peele’s “They will say I shed innocent blood. You are far from innocent, but they will say you are.”
In the 2021 film, the use of shadow puppets to tell Candyman’s story allows the viewer to feel the impact of violence against Black men without making their deaths too graphic, something we already see too much of in the real world. Candyman’s only Black victim is also killed off screen, only her blood seen pooling on the floor. Black horror scholar Tananarive Due posits, “What this Candyman does is reclaim [racial] trauma to tell it in a way that is soothing, and healing, and empowering” (“Candyman: The Impact”). This is a departure from the original, in which Black trauma is exploited for a White audience and catharsis is only offered through the experience of an upper-class White woman. Advertising for the second movie used the tagline “Say his name,” changing the title of Anthony’s artwork to the cry real protestors use to honor George Floyd and other Black victims of White [page 161] supremacy and policing.
Both movies present a sympathetic villain exacting revenge and a victim who is haunted by Candyman after hearing his story. The film and its central antagonist were groundbreaking in 1992. Black film critic Mark Harris describes Candyman (1992) as “a revelation in terms of the portrayal of Black characters at that time” (Behind). Candyman (2021) screenwriter Jordan Peele explains, “A Black monster was pretty revolutionary. If there was no Candyman, I don't know that there would be a Get Out" (qtd. in Hewitt 82). In each film, the gaslighting that the victims experience leads to their mental decline until they are ultimately killed and reborn as monsters. But their fates are not the same. At the end of the first film, Candyman is seemingly defeated by Helen in a purifying fire, reminiscent of the one on which his body was burned by the White mob, as if immolation can be a solution. In contrast, in the second Candyman, he is instead reborn. Helen has the power to destroy him, while Brianna is able to restore him. Unlike Helen, Brianna does not passively sacrifice herself. Instead, she fights to live, brutally killing William Burke after he threatens her and summoning Candyman to dispose of the cops who attempt to blackmail her with prison time. Helen becomes a monster while Brianna transforms into an “Enduring Woman,” a term coined by Robin R. Means Coleman to describe Black “final girls” (132).
In the final scene of Rose’s film, Helen’s husband Trevor inadvertently summons his dead wife by mournfully repeating her name five times in the bathroom mirror while the score plays. When Helen appears, beautiful and burned, the scene is lit with blue flashing light, indicating that something supernatural has occurred. Helen’s self-sacrifice has turned her into a version of Candyman. Helen asks, “What’s the matter Trevor, scared of something?” before she gets revenge on her cheating husband by gutting him just off screen. In Andrea Kuhn’s interpretation of this ending, that “Helen is not denigrated to the object of the monster's desire, but instead establishes herself as the subject of the film's [page 162] discourse and of the Candyman myth . . . as the manifestation of a woman's desire for power and subjectivity.” Rose thereby falsely compares a White woman’s fictional sexual betrayal to the historical reality of the murderous rage of White mobs maintaining Jim Crow. When Trevor’s girlfriend enters the bathroom, she discovers his body in the tub, the bathroom soaked in blood. The credits then roll over a mural of Helen rising from the flames as an avenging angel while the camera zooms into her eyes. But her revenge is only for herself, and it replaces Black praxis. She has co-opted the Black revenge fantasy of Candyman.
In DaCosta’s ending, we again see flashing blue lights, this time from police cars, right before Candyman makes his appearance. Anthony’s murder at the hands of the police mirrors Sherman Fields’ murder at the beginning of the film when he is “swarmed.” The violence occurs off screen, again protecting the viewer from the trauma of seeing another Black man murdered. Previous to Anthony’s murder, when Brianna stabs William to death, we are only shown Brianna swinging her weapon and the resulting blood splatter. After Anthony is shot, he is reincarnated as Candyman and summoned by his lover, although this time it’s to get revenge on the cops who killed him rather than on a cheating spouse. At first, Candyman is shot only in the reflective surfaces of the police car windows, like he has been through most of the film, but at the very end he appears “in the flesh” to Brianna, this time as Daniel Robitaille (with Tony Todd reprising his role), symbolizing that Candyman has once again been released into the real world. The movie ends with Candyman looking into the camera and saying, “Hello everyone.” Next to the rolling credits, the shadow puppets enact a series of the stories of historical Black victims of White racism, one Candyman after the next. This coda allows DaCosta to center our focus on what the Black community has endured and continues to endure from systemic racism.
Although the hero of the original, in the sequel Helen is recast as a villain in her attempt to hide the truth about [page 163] Candyman in the hope that people will forget him. But, much like racism, ignoring Candyman will not make him go away. As DaCosta and Peele’s film shows, as long as there is racial injustice in the world, there will always be a Candyman.
Bogira, Steve. “They Came in Through the Bathroom Mirror.” The Chicago Reader, Sept. 1987, chicagoreader.com/news-politics/they-came-in-through-the-bathroom-mirror/.
"Candyman: The Impact of Black Horror" YouTube, uploaded by Universal Pictures, 20 Aug. 2021, www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VKtExlE_Ec&ab_channel=UniversalPictures.
“Candyman.” Behind the Monsters, season 1, episode 2, Shudder, 2021.
Candyman. Directed by Nia DaCosta, written by DacCosta, Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld, Monkeypaw Productions, 2021.
Candyman. Written and directed by Bernard Rose, Propaganda Films, 1992.
Coleman, Robin R. Means. Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, Routledge, 2011.
Greiving, Tim. "Latest 'Candyman' Movie Is Scored By Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe." NPR Morning Edition, 31 Aug. 2021, www.npr.org/2021/08/31/1028444324/latest-candyman-movie-is-scored-by-robert-aiki-aubrey-lowe.
Hewitt, Chris. "The Man in the Mirror." Empire, June 2020, 80-85.
Kuhn, Andrea. "‘What's the Matter, Trevor? Scared of Something?’ Representing the Monstrous-feminine in Candyman." EESE, 2000, webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/edoc/ia/eese/artic20/kuhn/kuhn.html.
Landekic, Lola. “Candyman.” Art of the Title, www.artofthetitle.com/title/candyman/.
Lovell, Glenn. "Black Slasher 'Candyman' Draws Fire Over `Racist` Depictions." Chicago Tribune, 29 Oct. 1992, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1992-10-29-9204080203-story.html.
Towlson, Jon. Candyman. Auteur Publishing (Devil’s Advocates), 2018.
Morgan Payne is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College who currently resides in Massachusetts with their wife and three cats. They run the horror blog Diversity in Horror, where they review horror fiction by, for, and about BIPOC, the LGBTQIA+ community, and people with disabilities. When they’re not consuming horror media they’re either creating art or advocating for transgender healthcare.
MLA citation (print):
Payne, Morgan. "'They Will Say That I Have Shed Innocent Blood': A Comparison of Rose and DaCosta’s Candyman Films." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 7, no. 2, 2022, pp. 155-164.