In the Original Candyman, Curiosity Is Recognized as Transgression (and Dealt with Accordingly)

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In the Original <i>Candyman</i>, Curiosity Is Recognized as Transgression (and Dealt with Accordingly)

In Bernard Rose’s 1992 classic Candyman, protagonist Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a Chicago semiotics grad student, is guilty of several sins. The first is curiosity. While this classic plot-driving character trait might seem a pretty pardonable one, in horror, curiosity is often the key that puts the protagonist in a position to suffer for their other, more egregious sins. While Helen’s second offense—poverty tourism in service to academia—is still more cardinal than mortal, it’s her third that is the worst: Writing off American history as just a story, because when the history is about slavery, no story is “just” a story, even tall tales and urban legends.

Curiosity is an essential ingredient of the 1992 Candyman; it’s also the root from which the rest of Helen Lyle’s transgressions grow. For his part, Rose seems to recognize how interrelated the not-so-separate offenses are, and it’s his tight, unwavering focus on this cluster of trespasses and consequences that has cemented the original Candyman in horror canon. The film takes the idea of a white interloper treading ground they have no business setting foot on and follows it through to its logical end. As befits the genre, the lesson here is harsh: Don’t go poking around in dark places, else what you find might bite you on the ass, or perhaps fillet you with a hook.

Helen spends the first chapter of Rose’s film doggedly researching her thesis about urban legends and specifically the tale of the Candyman, the son of a slave who matured into a gifted painter sought after by the white slaver class for his talents in portraiture. The saga goes downhill from there. He fell in love with a white woman and after fathering her child, a white mob chased him down and murdered him at the behest of the woman’s outraged dad. Now, when anyone says the man’s name five times in a mirror, his ghost appears and splits them “from groin to gullet,” as Candyman (living legend Tony Todd) rumbles in voiceover early on in the film. Helen thinks it’s all hokum. She’s so certain of it, in fact, that her efforts to mine his mythos to report on urban legends in urban spaces provoke his emergence, and inspire a unique punishment for her: Instead of just gutting her, he wreaks havoc on her life by going on a murder bender and framing her for the carnage.

First he kidnaps baby Anthony, son of Anne-Marie (Vanessa Estelle Williams), a resident of the Cabrini-Green housing project, and beheads her Rottweiler to rub salt in the wound. Then he slays Helen’s best friend, Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons). With all her remaining friends and family, including her husband, Trevor (Xander Berkley), convinced she’s off her rocker, Helen ends up in a psychiatric hospital, where Candyman cleans her doctor like a fish, which miraculously changes nobody’s mind about Helen’s culpability.

In a way, the killings are her fault: She didn’t respect the past, and the past does not tolerate disrespect. Helen cares about the past, in her defense, not solely for the sake of career advancement but because she has genuine empathy for how the past has shaped the present of Cabrini-Green’s occupants. But to her peril, she’s too quick to assume that the reason campfire stories like Candyman’s survive is cultural superstition. Her curiosity only runs so deep. That’s true of Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) in Nia DaCosta’s new Candyman sequel, too. Like Helen, he’s compelled by the history of Cabrini-Green more so than with its present. Unlike Helen, he’s motivated by a primary need for inspiration and material. Anthony’s an artist. He needs both of these to create.

So he goes sniffing around Cabrini-Green knowing jack shit about Candyman until one of the project’s longtime tenants, William (Colman Domingo), provides an exposition dump. “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happen,” he barks emphatically to Anthony, equally as bewildered as outraged by the young man’s naivety. “That they’re still happening!” He’s referring to police murders of Black American men first and Candyman second, a ret-con from the account given in the original Candyman. DaCosta’s movie suggests that Candyman could be anyone, an interesting idea in theory—and perhaps even an expected thematic evolution in a sequel—but one that risks defanging the character in practice. A driving presence in the original, the titular character is a ghost in the latest film, scarcely a presence at all. DaCosta and cinematographer John Guleserian diligently withhold his image from the audience and in doing so reconfigure Candyman’s chronicle so that it focuses not on an individual but on the scores of Black American men victimized by state-sanctioned violence.

But it’s not just Candyman himself who is less present—so, too, is the presentation of curiosity as a retribution-worthy flaw. Her vision of what Candyman could mean to a contemporary audience is tantalizing on paper but lacks what makes Rose’s shine: That all-important sense of curiosity. If you’re a white American and an understanding of the white supremacist alchemy that drives gentrification eludes you, DaCosta’s film provides a subtext-free lesson in that quintessential function of racism. (If, on the other hand, you’ve at least read Peter Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City or Suleiman Osman’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, the themes of DaCosta’s movie hold no mystery for you.) The curiosity of the original is subsumed by a dismaying donnishness, even as it maintains a central role in the development of the plot.

In the original, Helen sleuths too hard and too deep into the past, and Candyman retaliates with a macabre form of repayment. “Be my victim,” he whispers to her in a voice oozing with violent intimacy, like he’s Judas asking Jesus to pucker up. It’s a threat, but it’s also an invitation to suffer in ways others who call him don’t. He doesn’t kill Helen. He takes her. He drags her down a path to immortality by way of infamy, and ultimately turns her into a legend like him, the ultimate price of her white incredulity over Black American anguish that dates back centuries. By the time Rose draws Candyman to a close, we’ve all been reminded of an important lesson—not all curiosity is harmless, and curiosity that ignores or even actively seeks to mine the deep, inexpressible grief of others? That deserves punishment.


Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.