Look around, in any direction, and the margins between horror and everyday life are disturbingly thin, if they’re present at all. In 2020, the terrors of a global pandemic, natural disasters, and police brutality are as tangible as the grip of a boogeyman. That doesn’t mean fictional dread no longer has its place. For Nia DaCosta, the director behind the remake of the 1992 horror classic Candyman, it’s as relevant and crucial as ever.
“What’s great about horror is that horror stays with you after you leave the theater. You can say every great film stays with you, but horror really gets in your psyche,” DaCosta said at an event honoring this year's WIRED25 list. Her updated version of Candyman still has the eponymous villain—who, according to urban legend, shows up when people say his name five times in the mirror—but she’s layered modern real-life horrors into the story’s supernatural fears. Like the original, DaCosta’s remake takes place in Chicago’s Cabrini–Green neighborhood—only now, the former housing project has been gentrified, its history paved over with a white, minimalist gloss. It’s here where the movie’s protagonist, a visual artist named Anthony McCoy, rediscovers the tale of the Candyman. The film engages with the all-too-earthly violences of police brutality, the history of lynching in America, and the exploitation of Black art.
Horror, DaCosta notes, offers an ideal template for weaving actual traumas into frightful tropes, but it isn’t the only genre she’s used to explore real-world concerns. Her breakout debut, Little Woods, is a Western thriller that stars Tessa Thompson and Lily James as sisters dealing with poverty and lack of access to reproductive health care in a rural town in the grip of an opioid crisis. Next up? DaCosta is rumored to be directing the sequel to Captain Marvel, which could give her the opportunity to bring her talents to the superhero genre.
When it came to reimagining Candyman for the present, DaCosta wanted to emphasize the expansion of the mythology—particularly in developing its deadly antagonist. “Candyman himself is an iconic villain, so I think what we’re able to do in this film is pull back the curtain on what makes a villain. Who calls a monster a monster? Who decides that? That’s a lot of what our story is about,” she said at today’s event.
Although Candyman’s release has been delayed to 2021, DaCosta remains confident about the film industry’s future once the Covid-19 pandemic is over. “People are always going to go see movies in theaters,” she noted. She’s also hopeful for more Black voices that realize fully-fledged Black characters. She wants her filmmaking to foster empathy and understanding beyond superficial amusement with Black movies and music. In Candyman, that starts with the interplay of fears, spectral and social. “Understanding the horror of a ghost or a serial killer can be tangible for people who don’t understand Black trauma, Black horror, Black pain,” she said. The hope, in the end, is that the audience walks out aware of the real pain that haunts their own communities, and the ghosts on their side of the mirror.
Portrait by Rachel Murray/Getty Images.