Candyman and the Horrors of Cabrini-Green: Soulless Sequel Lacks the Original’s Hook

Halloween season is here, and for me, that means horror movies.  Among the bill of fare this year was the new Candyman, which follows in the footsteps of 2018’s Halloween in the sense that it is a sequel that both exists in the same universe and timeline while also sharing the name of the original film.

In this case, that original film was 1992’s Candyman, starring actors Virginia Madsen as the curious folklorist, Helen Lyle, and Tony Todd as the ghostly killer, the Candyman.  Nostalgia undoubtedly fuels much of my affection for that movie, and it was almost enough to carry the 2021 sequel. 

Almost.  And it wasn’t until the movie was over that I realized what the problem was.

It wasn’t the politics of it all, to be clear.  Yes, it overtly messages that gentrification of urban communities is destroying communities of color, and that cops are racist murderers that are hell-bent on murdering innocent minorities, and lots of other blah, blah, blah social commentary that requires much less thought to compose than any common Bazooka Joe comic strip of yesteryear.  The social messaging lacked any subtlety whatsoever, making it more a caricature reflecting a warped vision of reality than any artistic representation of it.  This all prompted more than an occasional eyeroll, but hey, it’s a supernatural slasher flick.  Copious eyerolling at some stupid things you see on screen isn’t something that’s ordered, it just comes with the meal.

There were more important questions.  What made the first movie so scary for me, and what was the new one missing, I began to wonder?

Well, for one, I was a kid in 1992.  That helped.  But even as a child, I knew very well about urban gang culture and government-funded ghettoes like Cabrini-Green, which was depicted in the movie, where life was truly a horror movie. 

Today, this seems a distant past, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, drug and gang violence pervaded every aspect of the American consciousness.  We all knew it, even us kids, and it wasn’t just horror films portraying it.

Here are a few examples in the popular culture of the time. 

Take 1988’s Colors, starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall, in which the Los Angeles gangland was brought to the big screen.  In the 1990 sci-fi sequel Predator 2, Los Angeles was experiencing full-on wars between gangs and police in a dystopian near-future before an alien hunter begins picking off the combatants.  In 1993’s Demolition Man, starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, Los Angeles in the late 90s was imagined as our relying upon renegade cops like Stallone’s John Spartan to defend us against urban drug and gang kingpins like Snipes’ Simon Phoenix.

I was too young to see Candyman in theaters in 1992, but I caught it on VHS a few years later.  And I can honestly say that the “projects” of Cabrini-Green in that movie scared the ever-living hell out of me.

It only now occurs to me that my colloquially referring to government-designed ghetto of Cabrini-Green as “the projects” is archaic, but essentially, such “housing projects” were subsidized housing initiatives.  And these “projects,” created by progressive social engineers, created the worst kind of ghettoes that were the stuff of horror in the wider culture. 

“These projects were heavily discussed and joked about by people that never lived near these horrors and have never even visited,” writes Chicago Gang History, continuing to say that “[h]earing the very name Cabrini Green would send shivers up suburbanites’ spines.”

There are those who argue that those suburbanites and kids were influenced by the movie to believe that the movie made a “monster out of a Chicago housing project.”  Ben Austen writes, generally agreeing with my contention about what made the original Candyman scary:

What’s most terrifying [in the 1992 film] is really the idea of the inner-city location.  Decades before writer-director Bernard Rose’s horror flick arrived in theaters, public housing for many Americans had come to represent the unruliness and otherness of U.S. cities.  And Cabrini-Green stood as the symbol of every troubled housing project -- a boogeyman that conjured fears of violence, poverty, and racial antagonism.

There are too many fallacious assumptions in those sentences to fully address them here.  But suffice it to say, Americans in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century are not alone in deeming cities as unruly places relative to the places outside of cities.  The rural-urban dichotomy preexists America by millennia (see: Aesop’s Town Mouse and Country Mouse).  And it certainly wasn’t racial antagonism that prompted a younger me to fear places like Cabrini-Green.  It was the fear of violence against those innocent people who were living in poverty there and potential victims to the criminals that the setting bred. 

Just as you do while watching any horror film, you do not feel fear because you actually believe that you are in danger while sitting in your seat.  You feel fear on behalf of the characters that we imagine to be there.  What made Cabrini-Green so damned scary is that it was so easy to imagine, and, indeed, to know, that there were actually people living there who were experiencing such danger.

To be clear, I grew up in a place where it was clear to me that poverty and such horrors were not conjoined conditions.  Many of my friends would have been classified as poverty-stricken in our youth, but none lived with the fear of homicide experienced in Democrat-devised ghettoes like Cabrini-Green.

Only the original rowhouses of Cabrini-Green appear in the new Candyman film.  These are the only buildings left after demolition of the projects, and these scenes still manage to steal the show. 

In the 1992 film, however, those towers that once existed loom menacingly.  When Helen ventures alone and upward into the vacant, dilapidated stairwells of the Cabrini-Green projects, she is extraordinarily out of her element as an academic, a woman, and, yes, as a non-minority who may be a targeted for all of those reasons.  It remains very scary.

Tony Todd’s Candyman rightfully, in my opinion, became a household slasher name along with Freddy Krueger and Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees.  But Cabrini-Green, that horrific place that was the product of collectivists’ good intentions that turned out to be horrible ideas, was the inspiration for it all.  And it was Cabrini-Green that was the real star of that horror movie. 

And if we have any sense as a nation, we’ll seek to avoid having such failed political and social experiments inspire any great horror art of the future.

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