With ‘Candyman,’ Director Nia DaCosta Puts a Killer Spin on a Horror Classic

Like so many children of the 1990s, Nia DaCosta remembers being dared to say “Candyman” in the mirror five times. She was hanging out with friends between classes in the bathroom at elementary school. She had been told of the urban legend of the supernatural killer with a hook for a hand — who would appear if his name was repeated while you gazed at your reflection — but didn’t know about its origins. After all, she was only 2 years old when the 1992 horror classic was released (followed by two sequels), and it would be some time before she got her hands on a VHS copy.

“That’s when I realized: Oh, Candyman isn’t just some guy who lives in the projects — he’s actually from a movie!” says DaCosta.

DaCosta didn’t take the dare. But now she’s embracing another “Candyman” challenge, as the co-writer and director of the 2021 “spiritual sequel” produced by Jordan Peele and his Monkeypaw Prods., which is hitting theaters Aug. 27. It’s been more than a year since the film’s original release date was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and DaCosta is thrilled it’s finally time for audiences to see what she’s cooked up on the big screen. “We weren’t sure that was going to be able to happen,” she admits. “But I’m so happy it’s going to be seen in theaters, where it can be a communal experience.”

DaCosta hasn’t used the extra time to make any tweaks to her film — she’s been too busy working on “The Marvels,” the upcoming sequel to “Captain Marvel.” That gig makes her not only the first Black woman to direct a Marvel film but at age 31, the youngest director to take the reins as well. “I finished ‘Candyman,’ I had two weeks of vacation and then I started my next movie,” she notes. “So I had no time to go tinkering. And no desire, really.”

On the surface, DaCosta might not have seemed the obvious choice to head up a horror reboot or a multibillion-dollar franchise. Raised in Brooklyn and Harlem, she was influenced early on by the great filmmakers of the 1970s, like Coppola and Scorsese. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, primarily because it was still shooting on film. In 2015, her script “Little Woods” was selected for the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Lab. Starring Tessa Thompson as a former drug runner who takes a job crossing the Canadian border so her sister (Lily James) can obtain an abortion, the intimate drama premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and was released by Neon in 2019.

Peele saw something in that small indie that piqued his interest. “Nia is so extremely talented,” he says. “I first became familiar with her when I saw her work in ‘Little Woods,’ which was just a beautiful and poetic drama. I loved her style. We all did at Monkeypaw.”

When DaCosta was told about the “Candyman” project, she was intrigued and asked to read the existing script by Peele and co-producer Win Rosenfeld. A longtime horror fan (in high school she made a short film with a big body count called “The Black Girl Dies Last”), she always wanted to make a genre film. Her pitch included homages to several horror classics. “I wanted it to feel really interesting and specific visually, in the way the original film did,” DaCosta reveals. “Some of my references were films like ‘The Fly’ for body horror and ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ which is an amazing portrait of psychological terror that also has really beautiful production design.”

Peele and company were quickly sold. “She had such a great concept for how to tell ‘Candyman’ — a brilliant and inspiring pitch for how to tackle the material,” says Peele. “I feel like she’s pushing boundaries of filmmaking in her visuals, the way she moves from scene to scene, and the way she constructs location and vibe. She has such a great sense of the unsettling. I mean, she’s just a powerhouse, to be honest.”

In the original film, the Candyman is the spirit of Daniel Robitaille, a 19th-century Black man who was caught having an affair with a white woman and tortured and murdered — his hand is cut off and replaced with a hook, and his body is smeared with honey to attract bees. He haunts Cabrini-Green, a notorious public housing project in Chicago plagued by crime and neglect, seeking vengeance on those who would deny his existence.

The protagonist of the new film is Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a visual artist who is inspired by the legend of the Candyman and finds himself drawn into the mythology.

While the new film picks up from the first, it also expands to look at the history of racist violence committed against Black men throughout history. The original teaser trailer, released June 17, 2020, uses paper shadow puppets to depict several heinous events, including a young Black boy being wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to death and a lynch mob dragging a man behind a truck. At the time, DaCosta tweeted from her account: “CANDYMAN, at the intersection of white violence and black pain, is about unwilling martyrs. The people they were, the symbols we turn them into, the monsters we are told they must have been.”

The shadow puppetry features prominently in the  film, including telling the saga of the first “Candyman” movie, which DaCosta says was a suggestion initially from Peele. “Early on, we were talking about how to tell that story without it being trite and silly or flashing back to the original movie, because none of us wanted to do that,” she says. “We talked about not only the look of shadow puppets but the long history of it — how it might be the first form of telling stories in an abstract way. It represents how long this history of brutality is.”

In addition to the puppets being visually stunning, DaCosta notes they serve another purpose: “It’s a great way to show brutality — but not.”

“From the beginning I was very clear about my tolerance for violence against Black people,” she says. “I love gore; I love body horror; I love all that stuff. When it’s about enhancing the psychological terror, go for it. But I didn’t want to depict what we see every day.”

DaCosta says diving into the script was really about figuring out who Candyman is and what he represents. Peele and Rosenfeld had wanted to expand on the mythology of Candyman and, she says, “make him bigger than this one person, this one incident.” She continues: “For me, Candyman has always been about telling stories and how they are important to keep telling because they will hopefully stop us from repeating the past. But it also shows how everlasting this pain and trauma are.”

These are clearly urgent topics, just as they were a year ago, when “Candyman” was set to be released in the midst of Black Lives Matter gaining prominence and nationwide protests against police brutality. But DaCosta points out that these issues have always been timely.

“I think everyone is aware there’s something wrong about the way violence is enacted against Black people in this country,” she says. “It feels like [‘Candyman’] should be prescient, but Black people carry this pain with them all the time and have for a long time.”

It’s the sort of vital conversation DaCosta wants to examine in her films, even in something as seemingly escapist as “The Marvels.”

“I can say it’s a very different beast,” says DaCosta. “But I am obsessed with how we all deal with our pain and trauma, and there’s some of that in the story.”