Spoiling of the Sweet: The Hives Between Nia DaCosta’s Candyman

In response to a Tweet talking about Candyman, I said:

“What I love is that build up and the false Candyman right before the real one just comes in, and you hear his voice echoing in Helen’s mind, booming, but also quiet. And he is so calm. So collected. And Helen is entranced by him in terror, and awe. He only loses his cool at the end.

“But as Tony Todd recites those delicious lines from “The Forbidden,” you feel that power resonate in a way not unlike, but not like buzzing. And you know, without a doubt, that he is in control here. He is the nightmare. And is bringing her home.”

And these Tweets, and Facebook comments got me some pushback, as some people believed I was spoiling Nia DaCosta’s Candyman film — directed and co-written by her, Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld where, in actuality, I was referring to Tony Todd’s performance as the created urban legend in Bernard Rose’s classic 1992 film. At first, I was annoyed at people not bothering to read, or examine what I was saying more closely, but now in retrospect I can’t particularly blame them.

I mean, they are both called Candyman even though DaCosta’s film is the remade sequel to the events from Rose’s movie: possibly creating a new continuity diverging from its previous sequels. And both films share beats with the original 1986 short story from whence it came: Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden.”

I’m very interested in the creation of myths, and stories. Folklore, and more contemporary urban legends, and even electronic creepypastas have different iterations of themselves, though like a twisted Campbell mono-myth they come from an original narrative, or at least common human themes. Many people have already mentioned how Clive Barker’s Candyman differs from the one transmitted into the films. He is more of an elemental, wilder being, like some kind of Celtic god of sweets and blood: the painted, end continuing result of a class of people so trapped by gentrification and class that they glorify the horror and violence they can’t escape, worshipping it to stay it off, but also feel a sense of importance and perhaps even catharsis with the sacrifice of innocence, and death of an outsider. He also has a hook for a hand, just like “The Hook” or the “Hookman” urban legend, but being situated in the Spector Street Estate in England, and having British almost pagan roots when you consider his almost agrarian characteristics  with the bees inside his body. And, unlike the Candyman played by Tony Todd in Rose’s film, he doesn’t have the Bloody Mary element: in that you don’t need to say his name five times in front of a mirror to summon him.

He will come to you if you search for him, or attempt to dissect his myth. More often than not, he is content to simply be an idea and let others tell stories about his atrocities, his cautionary tales, and occasionally have someone enact murders in his name: unless, of course, an outsider like Helen Buchanan — a cold, detached and rather shallow student of “sociology and aesthetics” in this short story caring only about proving herself right, and even her sense of conscience in exploiting the suffering of a lower-working class neighbourhood — begins investigating too closely. From Butts’ Court, to Ruskin in Spector Street, murders and mutilations are attributed to this figure, but they only become more immediate and real to Helen when Anne-Marie — the single mother she’s been talking with in her flat about the graffiti and the homicides — is caught in her own tragedy as her infant son Kerry has his throat slit by the Candyman himself. In fact, the reader doesn’t even see the Candyman’s name mentioned until later in the story, and he only appears himself far towards its end. We never get an origin story for this boogeyman, as he simply exists in the hearts and minds of the people of Spector Street and — eventually — Helen’s as well.

Helen becomes interested in this figure, past her love to document graffiti as some kind of urban cultural or historical art, mostly to spite her husband Trevor: who she has a jaded, and often adversarial relationship with, as well as her equally shallow and insincere academic peers and friends. Trevor already cheats on her, with several women, and she is just over it. Barker is not flattering to anyone in these depictions: not even Anne-Marie who, for all her grief and then her nervousness over Kerry’s death, becomes almost effulgent during his funeral: as though she is, from Helen’s perspective, the centre of attention for the first time in her whole life, or made illuminated by this ritual sacrifice of a child. The whole neighbourhood is in on placating, and worshipping this Candyman — this immediate specimen of primal and bloody divinity, forged from visceral and personal tragedy — and even Helen, deep down, feeling distant and empty in her own life of background homicide news and papers, wants to be a part of the story. She wants immortality. 

What you fear is what you desire in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood collection at least, where “The Forbidden” is included. Helen ends up trying to find Kerry’s corpse, which is secretly held in the pyre the people are building — to bring his body as evidence to the police to prove there is a conspiracy going on at Spectator Street — only for the Candyman to hold there, and they burn together under the flames of his worshippers. Murderer, victim, and child sacrifice are made archetypes, and Helen — deep down in a horrible place — secretly wants this. The story ends with Helen wanting to haunt Trevor, in a line not unlike that from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and it all has this particular Wicker Man feel to it when you look at how Helen is lured into the story of the neighbourhood: albeit more enticed by a lack in her life, than a stringent sense of duty. 

Then we get to Bernard Rose’s Candyman. Most of you all know this one. Rose moves the Candyman’s location from Liverpool, England and Spectator Street to Chicago, in America and the Cabrini-Green housing project: a Black neighourhood abandoned by white society, and terrorized by violence and crime. It is a film whose themes focus on both gentrification, and race. Helen Lyle is, straight-out, a semiotics student of Chicago and is fascinated with urban legends: wanting to do a publication on it with her friend Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh. Bernadette is in the Clive Barker short story, but she is mostly just someone in a conversation about the murders in Spector Street, and nothing more is really said about her. In Rose’s film, she is a Black graduate student and best friend of Helen’s and — for the most — seems to have more common sense, or at least street-smarts than she does. There is a bit of the stereotypical “sassy Black woman” combined with “the Black best friend” trope.

Helen is more sympathetic, however, and seems genuinely interested in the urban cultural legend of the Candyman, and its implications. Anne-Marie McCoy, a single Black mother, with her son named Anthony, are also more humanized than in the short story. Cabrini-Green doesn’t worship the Candyman. Its residents are terrified of him, and Anne-Marie is absolutely and ferociously protective of her son. We find out that the Candyman was once the son of a slave, who was educated at the finest schools, and became a master painter: an artist that, unfortunately in the 1890, fell in love with a rich man’s white daughter, got her pregnant, and was tortured and murdered by a lynch mob organized by her father. He gets his hook after having his hand cut off with a rusty saw, he’s stung to death by bees, and his ashes are scattered all over the site of what will become Cabrini-Green: a ritual of hatred laying the groundwork of Black generational suffering to come due to gentrification, and his restless spectre.

In a Fangoria column and interview Problematic Films: In Defense of Candyman (1992) Sean Abley and William O. Tyler discuss Tony Todd’s Candyman, in which Tyler notes his “black and white checkered pants that you see line cooks wear” combined with his fur coat symbolizing a working class man or street denizen “elevated to this theatrical, supernatural being”:  a fairly different depiction of him from Barker’s version.

Helen and Bernadette are fairly methodical, in that Helen realizes her apartment is sister to the one in Cabrini-Green where a woman reportedly killed by the Candyman: realizing her mirror is attached to another room. This same mindset works against them as they both utter his name, with Bernadette doing it four times, and Helen completing the fifth. This is where the horror icon develops. We also get a sense of the gentrification and the ghettoization of Cabrini-Green from Helen and Trevor’s more affluent neighbourhood: even though they were both made by the same developers. This similar, but mirror-opposite — if you will pardon the pun — arrangement gave me some major Jordan Peele’s Us vibes, which given what we are talking about makes sense after the fact.  

In Fangoria Volume 2, Issue 12, in his article “Reconsidering Bernard Rose’s Candyman,”  Richard Newey focuses on “the mirror component of the urban legend”: on Candyman being a projection of white guilt and I would add gaslighting: as if all the violence, hatred, and fear white society creates doesn’t exist, and it is all in the minds of its victims. Newey goes on to say that Helen Lyle is “a tourist of the Black American experience who seeks to devour an aspect of Black culture and reduce it into pedagogy [… ] she uses academia as a means to catalog and quantify Black suffering.” It reminds me of the schoolteacher in Toni Morrison’s Beloved who goes out of his way to methodically write down and quantify the characteristics of the slaves in the plantation of Sweet Home: though with less conscious and cruel intentions, but still paternalistic in a lot of ways.

Helen’s society — where she comes from — informs her behaviour, and she doesn’t realize its consequences to her, and those around her, until she interacts with Cabrini-Green. Helen summons the Candyman by trying to find him and calling out his name. She investigates the apartment room, the mirror to the one across from her, and finds his shrine there: except it is not in a maisonette or flat, but another room not far from where Anne-Marie and Anthony are staying. But after “disproving” his existence by being attacked by a gang member with a hook, and betraying the child who trusted her with the secret of the public restroom where the mutilation of a developmentally challenged young man took place — in both the short story and this film some time back — the spectre himself is called upon to intervene directly.

And he makes her face her actions, and the influences that brought her there. He tells her to “be his victim.” And then it occured to me — after reading Newey’s article what that might mean in another context: that in framing Helen, perhaps even possessing her, to kill Anne-Marie’s dog, to steal and hide Anthony away, and to murder Bernadette and the psychriatrist Dr. Burke, holding her in a mental institution — that perhaps she begins to know what it is like to have crimes attributed to her by the system that once benefitted her, and be punished for it: showing her her privilege and what it is like to be scapegoated. If the Candyman functions as a mirror, as a horror created by white racism, he is the oppression made by society now oppressing Helen, a white woman, who dared to summon him for her interests: to let him in.

This especially works if Helen is truly the reincarnation of the woman he loved and died for. It is no coincidence that Rose changed Helen’s last name from Buchanan to Lyle, which according to a quote from Barker’s in Phil and Sarah Stokes’ “Say His Name” was the name of one of the people that made “a golden syrup” in which “The makers of this syrup put on their can a picture of the partially rotted corpse of a lion with bees flying around it, and the Biblical quote…[from Judges 14: 14.] “And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” Not only is this origin for “Sweets to the sweet,” even though Barker quotes it from Hamlet, but one of the makers of this English honey is called Lyle, to which Rose probably made a homage. This links Helen far more directly to the Candyman, and his entire legacy. She is the sweet he died for, and also the sweet made by the society that killed him.

The overall film mythology here is that of Father, Mother, and Child: something of a twisted holy trinity or a thwarted life, though the way this story ends is Helen attempting to save Anthony’s life — and succeeding — at the cost of her own, only to become a cautionary tale and murderous entity in her own right after supposedly destroying the Candyman with fire in the pyre. The people of Cabrini-Green seem to exorcise him, even if some had once worshipped him or tried to keep him at bay with offerings of candies and razor blades, and replace Helen as their saviour-figure: with the problematic elements of that fairly clear in her being white. 

It is interesting to consider that, like William Marshall with the character of Mamuwalde in Blacula before him, that figure also being the result of racist violence turning a Black man against his own people, representing the perpetuation of hate in a cycle, Tony Todd apparently created — or had great influence expanding on — the Candyman’s backstory. And while we are looking at concepts,  according to Phil Nobile Jr. in the Fangoria Terror Teletype of August 27, 2021 in the script that existed before Nia DaCosta was tapped to direct and co-write the 2021 Candyman, it was Helen — who had killed her unfaithful husband that summoned her — that attempts to continue the cycle of resurrecting Candyman: through his chosen host.

Nia DaCosta, however, does something a little different. It is all about a piece of art. It is all about a ritual. It is all about a structure, and a cycle. She tries to show us, to truly illustrate, how the candy, and its rot are made.

DaCosta goes back to the hive, and much farther back than you might think. She follows history, shifting most of the residents of Cabrini-Green out, and leaving it a shadow of what it is in 2019: attempting to “white-wash” it further, but instead of focusing on an apartment building, we focus more on “row-houses” not unlike the flats or maisonettes in “The Forbidden.” She refers to Helen Lyle, but distorts her story from the perspective of the storyteller’s: making the other characters believe she was a white student that went insane, attempted to kill a child, and ended up burning herself alive in a pyre in Cabrini-Green when she failed. Instead of being remembered as a victim, or a saviour, Helen becomes the monster that she changes into at the end of the first film: at least, to those who weren’t there in 1992. DaCosta retains the name of Daniel Robitaille for the Candyman, taking it perhaps from Farewell to the Flesh, but in a way that mirrors — again, that unintentional pun — the foreshadowing of the haunted apartment room with Helen’s from the 1992 film.

But if Helen’s parallel apartment was the setup, the beginning of DaCosta’s film is a dress rehearsal. She takes us back to 1977, before Rose’s film, but long after the events of the 1890: to show us a whole other kind of Candyman. It is startling, at first, but later as the character of Burke — perhaps named after the doctor killed in the previous film — explains to Brianna Cartwright, and her boyfriend Anthony McCoy before her, Sherman Fields — a developmentally challenged, homeless, but kind man with a hook for a hand — was beaten and killed by white police on suspicion of planting razor blades in candy that injured a white girl.

However, it is only after he’s dead that the razors continued to appear, and it was realized that Fields was innocent. But he became the Candyman, and was summoned by Burke’s sister in the bathroom: killing her. Even throughout the film, when he appears to someone, candies are laid on the ground: filled with razors, a bit of a different slant on both Barker’s and Rose’s Candyman characters. This is not contradictory with Daniel Robitaille’s legend, or apparently others after as according to Burke Candyman is “the whole damn hive:” a collective of Black men tormented, destroyed, and distorted by white racism to haunt the area of Cabrini-Green.

It makes sense. Gods themselves, going back to the first elemental Candyman of Barker’s creation, have different appearances, aspects, or facets depending on what roles they are supposed to fulfill, and based on from what areas they originate. A more contemporary example of this is how the television adaptation of American Gods turned William “Froggy” James into a furious ghost haunting Black people in Cairo, Illinois for not preventing his lynching and mutilation in 1909. That pluralistic approach to the urban legend — this myth — and the racist violence and trauma creates a cycle. It is certainly no coincidence that it is told that Fields’ face is beaten so bloody it doesn’t exist anymore: as if he could be any Black man at this point.

And Anthony McCoy fits into this archetype. The 2021 Candyman of DaCosta does match the beats of Rose’s 1992 film. Helen Lyle sought urban legends as a semiotics graduate student, but Anthony McCoy — the child that she saved from the fire and the Candyman — is a visual artist attempting to jog himself out of a creative slump: a painter needing inspiration. It all comes full circle, when you consider that Daniel Robitaille was a portrait painter himself before his murder and destruction, and subsequent transformation into the Candyman. Nia DaCosta, in her interview with Natalie Erika Jones in Fangoria Issue 12, explains that some of her central themes in this film are sibling relationships, absent parents, and the emotional burden and labour of Black women. 

And while she says this specifically towards Brianna Cartwright and her own past with her suicidal father, her emotionally distant mother, her relation with her brother Troy, and dealing with Anthony’s deteriorating mental state, you can easily apply this to Anthony as well. The Candymen — or the Candyman hive — are all brothers. They are all men murdered and remembered as victims turned into monsters by the system and belief that made them. Anne-Marie, Anthony’s mother, lied to him — or omitted — his kidnapping and kept from him his lost history with Cabrini-Green. You can even argue that Helen and the Candyman are  Anthony’s absent surrogate mother and father, the former having attempted to save his life, and the other endeavouring  to take it and make it his own, their spectres always there even if he didn’t remember them personally. Even Burke, the laundromat owner who he goes to for information on the Candyman — who turns out to be his worshiper, a follower who wants to resurrect him — seems to fill a paternal role he never had: as we don’t know what happened to his biological father. 

The loss of Anthony’s history, the gentrification he grew up in, the inherently racist society he struggles against, his stereotypical absentee or dead Black father, and an estranged mother combined with the sensitivity of his artististic sensibilities, all become like the background buzzing — the “white noise” of violence and fear — we hear throughout the entire film.

The Candyman’s bees seem to always be there. And even they, these harbingers of the spectre, are not immune to the cycle of destruction. DaCosta tells Jones that she wanted more emphasis on body horror in this film, and this is fulfilled when a bee stings Anthony’s hand: a sting that injects a venom that slowly infects him over time, and incubates more of the creatures inside of him. But before that, the bee loses its stinger. It does, and Anthony watches a swarm of ants consume the helpless being: a microcosmic version of the puppet dioramas where white police murder helpless Black men who become part of the Candyman. Interestingly enough, that ant swarm is a callback to Barker’s “The Forbidden”: where Anne-Marie is dealing with an ant infestation — the insects supposedly coming and surviving from Egypt — in the pipe system of her flat, and the entire Estate. She tells Helen, in that story, that the whole Estate is “infected” by them, and that no one will fix the problem. It is an interesting metaphor for an intentionally broken system, and a great coincidence or bit of creative synchronicity if nothing else.

Anthony himself tells the less than covertly racist art critic of his show about gentrification and touches on the idea of “white tourism” into Black spaces, talking from personal experiences, while Burke — when ranting to Brianna about the need for a Candyman — mentions the rot that occurs from white society: like an infestation you can’t stop.

Beats and mirrors. As DaCosta states to Jones: “I think it’s the cyclical nature of that story in particular, but also stories and urban legends in general and the place they have in our communities as a way of scaring us, but also searing us to protect us from it happening again. Like a warning, you know? The more horrifying the story is, the more important it is that we keep telling it.” There is definitely a transformation, or a broader understanding of the figure of the Candyman in DaCosta’s film from the rest of the mythos: for while he represents the power of fear and stories in Clive Barker’s work, and a cycle of hatred, and even internalized racism through the agency of Black male violence on Black people in Rose’s work, Burke — and through him DaCosta — wants to reclaim that power: to use it to defend Black people, or redirect it against the white system that created it.

But there is something else that DaCosta said in her Fangoria interview that sticks with me. She says, with regards to the lines she wants to cross with her film — as “a psychological brutal thriller” and a body horror work — that she doesn’t “want to traffic in Black pain to have a career.” It is something that comes up in the film narrative as well. Anthony, arguably, utilizes this to create his exhibit and attempt to get back into the art world from behind Brianna’s shadow, but it turns out that what he’s really looking for is a truth to fill the emptiness and anger in itself that he finds in the worst way possible. The story of Cabrini-Green is Anthony’s story, and Black pain is Anthony’s pain which he uses to create his art until it corrodes him from the inside, and despair takes him at the end. And you realize, that what we are seeing is not only the dissolution of a protagonist in this process, but the creation of the monster: especially as we see Burke cut off Anthony’s rotten arm with a saw, and replace it with a hook right in front of Brianna’s eyes: intending her, a Black woman, to be his first victim. His first sacrifice.

Yet Brianna isn’t going to have that. I wondered, a few days after I watched the film, just what Brianna’s function was in the Candyman mythos DaCosta creates. She has her own backstory, with her tormented artistic father who kills himself in front of her, a mother that leaves her to her own devices, a gay younger brother she feels protective towards, and seeking her own career while feeling like she has to take care of her boyfriend Anthony. She isn’t like Bernadette Walsh. She’s not a sidekick or a victim to be fridged for Anthony’s development into a monster. Brianna is a survivor. She’s had to remain strong, but she doesn’t let herself become the victim of male violence. And she doesn’t want to profit from it either. Brianna is reluctant to engage with a system of white racism that instilled mental-illness and imbalance in Anthony, in the art that she links in her mind to her father’s suicide — a style perhaps reminiscent of Anthony’s more blatant violent imagery in his paintings — and she won’t let Anthony, or Burke kill her.

In the end, she empathizes with Anthony’s agony, and grieves when the white police — summoned by Burke before she kills him — murder Anthony in cold-blood, in her arms. And it’s only when the police capture her, threatening her to testify on their behalf or she will face jail … or worse, that’s when she does it. That is the moment where Brianna embraces the art of violence — of murder — and utilizes Anthony’s torment and death, both of which she vehemently hates, to summon him as the Candyman: to protect herself from the white racist system.

Before this point, whenever we saw the Candyman kill people in DaCosta’s film he was always invisible, or seen as Sherman Fields’ grisly form in a mirror. And all his victims in 2019 are white: who saw his story as a lark. But now, we see Anthony infested fully by the bees, flying with impunity, an avenging golem as he massacres all the police officers in his way. It is a bloody, extra-judicial vengeance, a mirror turned on its perpetrators, and all Brianna had to do was look at herself hard in the front view mirror of a police car, turned to face her by a coercive officer at her own request, and sacrifice her boyfriend’s soul — already taken by Burke and the Candyman’s machinations from the first film, as he knew Anthony was part of his plan, that he needed to change — and her own morality to survive. To compromise. To become complicit. To use the system against itself. To live.

And she gets to live, afterwards, to continue to tell the story of the Candyman, no longer forgotten by the Cabrini-Green residents that left, nor left blissfully ignored by white society, and sent on her way by the man who no longer resembles Anthony McCoy, but rather Daniel Robitaille himself: the Candyman that so many horror fans had been waiting to see again.

And that is how the story ends. Yet we see it is only one story. We see more dioramas. More puppets as Black men are beaten and gunned down. We see them fall, and then rise. They rise with hooks. They rise up, and take vengeance on those that wronged them. Anthony McCoy returned to the row-house from which he first took pictures for his art, coming back to that part of another cell in the hive. It ends where it began, and as it begins again the way it first started, with bees pollinating twisted life in flowers of hatred and leaving their stingers in candied spoils of urban war, I don’t think this is over. 

A Cosmic Joke: Tor Mian and Andy Collier’s Sacrifice

I’ve thought about horror before: about what it is. Sometimes, I’ve considered it to be a throwback, or a continuation, of the old tragedies that invoke pity and fear in their audience. Other times, I looked at the genre as something that creates suspense and spectacle, and creates an adrenaline and endorphin rush in everyone that reads, or watches it. Horror, for me, had been twist endings, gruesome effects, strange creatures, and a love of being scared: of seeing that your life is better compared to those of the sufferings of fictitious people who might — or might not — be like real people.

These days, I think horror is elastic. Plastic. I’d argue that it has the most flexibility out of many of the genres in their different media. And, in this case, I’m reminded of a piece I wrote for Kris Straub’s horror comic Broodhollow where I focused on how horror is often similar to a joke.

Oh, we are all about dissection here with The Horror Doctor, and learning from what we take apart and put together in weird arrangements. But I think both the form of a joke — the idea of wordplay or the pacing of a story brought to a fitting end that makes fun of itself or laughs with, or at, its subject — and the ever-adapting form of a genre works when you look at the shoggoth build-blocks that are H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and its mutations that arise. In this vein, I thought I had some idea as to where Tor Mian and Andy Collier’s Sacrifice would go, and for the most part I wasn’t particularly surprised: even as the Devil — or entity — is in the details, and the punchline.

And in a vast School of Spoilers. Reader and dreamer’s discretions advised. 

For me, the details seemed simple enough. Isaac Pickman (played by Ludovic Hughes) and his wife Emma (Sophie Stevens) return to his family home on an island in Norway that he and his mother escaped from at least two decades before: trying to solve the mystery as to why they left at all. 

There are already a few details here. Isaac’s last name, for instance, is a callback to “Pickman’s Model” and the Salem family that exists in the Cthulhu Mythos in general. As Barbara Crampton, who plays the local police officer and community leader Renate would be familiar in another film that she produced — the remake of Castle Freak — like the Mythos surname Whateley in Romania, Pickman isn’t exactly a Norwegian or a Nordic last name: and what I love is the fact that the townspeople actually call Isaac on that when he attempts to tell them that he came from this place: something I felt needed addressed, or didn’t sit right in the otherwise brilliant and Mythos-loyal Castle Freak

But there seems to be no resonance with Richard Upton Pickman with Isaac, or his mother, save for the tiny little issue of the fact that she murdered her husband before fleeing with her child so many years ago. The name, however, is useful in showing a Lovecraft-familiar audience that this world does, indeed, take place in the Mythos. 

Isaac’s paternal last name is Jorstad. Jorstad has a few Nordic meanings. Mainly, the word refers to, apparently, seven common farmsteads, but is also derived from older Norse words for “battle,” “winner,” or “victor,” and “wild-boar helmet” or “wolf.” There are no Mythos meanings or interpretations, but the name tells you a lot about what Isaac sees himself as, or what he wants to be. He comes to this island, with his pregnant wife Emma, to claim the property of this lost house but you begin to see that he is profoundly unsatisfied with his life: with a middling desk job, and superficial relations of friends and family. There is something … missing inside of Isaac, a part of him that he can’t quite grasp, and he hopes for answers on this island. 

And he gets them. Renate, at first quite inquisitorial, asks him if he knows what happened to his father. And it becomes apparent, if it hadn’t been in the first scene of the film with its opening credits, that not only is Isaac’s father dead but his mother killed him. Later, we realize that Isaac had actually known many people in the community and partook in some of their rituals too. He is profoundly disturbed by this revelation, and it continues to affect everything he does thereafter. 

Emma comes to this island to help her husband find these ties, not knowing what their jurisdiction is here, very pregnant and morning sick, not liking the water — not at all — and wanting to settle the house’s affairs, get some money, and go back to America and their normal life. She is profoundly stubborn and clear about that, while Isaac himself is passionate and gets carried away by his temper even from the beginning of the whole film. Their arguments, in the beginning are playful banter, but this changes as the house and the whole land around them begins to affect them. 

I thought this would be straightforward, as I said before. I’ve written about Dagon, and The Deep Ones — films that adapt the Deep One Hybrids, and their god Dagon, and Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. And what I was anticipating, even hoping, was that what we would get was that Isaac’s family and community were Deep One-Hybrids that existed in Norway instead of America or the Pacific as they had in Lovecraft’s stories. Instead, we find ourselves in a cinematic narrative ruled by a murder house, an insular cult not unlike the one in The Deep Ones but with many families and children, lots of water — water everywhere — sea creatures, and the Slumbering One. 

The townspeople are, well think of them if you’ve seen Ari Aster’s Midsommar, as less friendly versions of the Hårga commune except they don’t seem to use drugs, they live on an island, and the couple have not been invited to their shores until they realize who they are. In fact, as the directors and even Paul Kane — whose short stories “Men of the Cloth” and, arguably also, “Thicker Than Water” inspired the creation of Sacrifice according to the Luna Press Publishing interview Paul Kane: Writing The Colour of Madness — were all, in turn, influenced by the folk horror elements of The Wicker Man. Interestingly enough, the film was moved from its original location from England in “Men of the Cloth” to Norway, not unlike Aster setting his film up in Sweden, to avoid too many comparisons to The Wicker Man according to an interview with the directors and Gig Patta from LRM Online. So you can see how all of these elements play off of one another. 

It is fascinating to see how they combine Cthulhu Mythos elements with Nordic culture. For instance, Renate has a mural that depicts “The Tree of the Shadow on the Shores of the House of the Dead,” which is called in short “The Slumbering One.” They have rites of baptism called Altarisganga, and they even have tentacle-themed curtains, and a whole lot of — let’s call them what they are — Cthulhu plushies. Yes. I chuckled at seeing them, thinking: “so this is where they are going to go with this.” The towns folk also wear white robes and green amulets not unlike aesthetics the Esoteric Order of Dagon in other Mythos films, but you can see that they could be Nordic pagan garb as well: not including the very clear fact that it’s not Dagon they are worshiping. 

They also claim that they “navigate well,” which aside from the Nordic Viking implications that some bar patrons go into quite crassly, also seemed to be a great Green Herring with regards to them being Deep Ones swimming in the water. But more than that, they use a phrase as a greeting and a farewell where they will tell someone to “Dream well.” Uh huh. It took me a moment, because while Neil Gaiman loves to sign his books with that phrase due to his Sandman series, we all know what those words actually mean in this particular context, when you consider who is dead and lies dreaming in his House under the sea. The community citizens think that their deity, or patron, guards their island and that his dreams affect them. Even a child is having a nightmare that is apparently their deity’s nightmare, but their mother passes it off as just commonplace and a matter of fact. 

But Renate is clever. As the town official, and head of their cult — or religion — she actually goes as far as to compare the Slumbering One to folktales of Iceland’s elves, Ireland’s leprechauns, and even mainland Norway’s trolls. It is a well placed series of dialogue that, with Barbara Crampton’s put-on Nordic accent is delivered well. 

But there is another symbol that pops up as well: that of the house. The generations-old Jorstad family home has mythical resonances for me, as well as personal ones. It looks like something the old Nordics would have made, with their sharp angles and almost bone-white insides. The family of one of my late partners of Finnish descent built, and used to own, a house like it a few generations ago in Canada, and I delighted in making horror story ideas about it when I visited once for Christmas and the New Year: with its fairytale, almost folkloric starkness, and austere beauty. It had even been in a mining town near a lake. You could sense the history of family in there, and see the lives lived in it. I could see the Jorstad home as once having been comforting in a similar way before everything came to a head. 

The house, aside from both the strange cramped angles of it reminiscent of the home in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” and the Jungian undertones as a symbol of a person’s psyche going deep into the basement of their collective unconscious, is both a dream house: and a murder house.

It is a dream house in that it symbolizes Isaac’s lost and nostalgic childhood, and a place to properly settle where he feels he can belong, and become a part of something more due to the … lack inside of him. It is also a murder house in that his father was killed by his mother in that very place, tainting it forever even as he wants to reclaim it for himself, and his new family. And, while find out later that this home, like many others, is a part of a land that does engage in human sacrifice: which is quite the extended metaphor for the house as an individual and cultural consciousness. Clearly, Emma has reservations about this. It isn’t just the ghost of the violence that happened here, in this place that can almost be a haunted house, or the fact that there are visions and occasional sounds of Cthulhu Mythos chanting, but it’s also the oppressive weight of its isolation with the island and the increasingly aberrant psychological behaviour of her husband.

I know that in their Convo X Fango interview with Angel Melanson, Barbara Crampton, Sophie Stevens, and Ludovic Hughes do talk about the latter’s character becoming more unhinged, and the strength of Stevens’ Emma as she deals with nightmares, and the other’s actions. But I think one issue with the film’s pacing is while we do see the interplay between husband and wife at the beginning, their transition into a frayed relationship sometimes seems uneven, and how they react and deal with trauma and revelations doesn’t always come across well. For instance, when Renate tells Isaac what happened to his father, for all that Emma was showing him support in remembering his childhood at the beginning, you don’t see her giving him comfort when he realizes his father was murdered his mother when he’s being interrogated for something that happened when he was a child. 

Hell, even the two of them seem to gloss over this when going to dinner with the woman who reveals all of this. This is a Hitchcock Fridge moment where, if I found out my mom killed my dad and took me away from this village, it would genuinely fuck me up. I mean, grief and loss are processed differently, and we see Isaac attempt to do that, but I just … I would imagine just wanting answers, and then really desiring to leave. This is not the only leap in logic that happens here, though in a world of the supernatural that doesn’t say much, but I just like a form of continuity. 

The conflict between Emma and Isaac makes sense to me in that they grow to want different things. It’s no coincidence that the bar patrons refer to Christopher Columbus not even having been born before their ancestors colonized America and then later Emma calling Isaac “as threatening as a gold fish” when he tries to act violent. The man seems to suffer from a kind of trauma even though he didn’t know, or remember what happened to him in that previous life: having been raised by his mother and the Pickman family, I assume. It reminds me of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, where a British architectural historian named Jacques Austerlitz gradually looks into his past as a child having been adopted by a Welsh family from his parents that sent him away before he could be taken, like them, by the Holocaust. Technically, Austerlitz never experienced the Holocaust or the camps, or even remembered his parents that well, but that loss was still there and the trauma remains to a point where it hospitalizes him and he needs to know more about where he came from. 

Isaac has not experienced genocide, even indirectly, but he did feel the loss of his father and his world, and that community: and a sense of belonging. I feel that Emma doesn’t quite understand this, and it is hard to communicate that fact. Sometimes, I even sympathized with Isaac and found Emma’s attitude terribly insensitive with regards to that trauma. At the same time, she has seen the rites and rituals of the community, along with a very disturbingly worded prayer during the Altarisganga along with the microaggression of one townsperson touching her pregnant belly without her permission, and endless nightmares and premonitions of what is to come. 

I think the confusing transitions are inherited in some ways from Paul Kane’s original “Men of the Cloth” story: where an entire family, a mother and father along with their children trying to help their father discover his roots in a small rural English village, go from one situation into a wildly ridiculous early-Clive Barker short story scenario.  I also see “Thicker Than Water” with its nearly submerged houses in the endless moving water puns and motifs, running everywhere, a spiritual medium bringing a slumbering god’s dreams and nightmares through dream and murder houses. 

I also think some of the rather superficial characters with their shallow needs carried through as well, though the cast definitely give them more nuance. I love how Emma calls Cthulhu “the lazy one” to Renate, and I was totally expecting her to pay for it later. And then, there is another cultural element that leads to the ultimate abusive blowup instigated by Isaac on Emma: the Tupilaq. 

The Tupilaq is an effigy, almost a scarecrow figure, of the Slumbering One to show a household mourning one of its family members. Weirdly, after looking to see if it exists in real life on the Internet, I found that a Tupilaq is apparently a Greenlandic Inuit avenging monster made by shamanism or witchcraft. How this crossed over to an actual Norwegian Island, if it came from there or from the First Nations of Greenland in the film is unknown. These are tools made of animal and human parts, even from the corpses of children, to create a monster to attack one’s enemies. Most have not survived, but according to Wikipedia Inuit tribes began to carve them out of bone for European travelers fascinated with the concept. In the case of Sacrifice, these effigies seem to have their roots in Kane’s “Men of the Cloth” and they are made of people too — especially children — though in the film they just depict a death. I imagine there are some issues of cultural appropriation you can get into here. The Jorstad house doesn’t have this version of a Tupilaq, as — supposedly — their family wasn’t there anymore, but Renate and her daughter Astrid have one to commemorate their husband, and father, respectively. I will get back to this later. 

It is Isaac that starts to make a Tupilaq for his murdered father, and representing him wanting to stay on the island. But I also think it’s possible that Renate didn’t tell the couple the entirety of for what those effigies are actually used: along with the rest of their rituals, as it turns out.

I think it’s appropriate that, in looking at this film and to quote Astrid, played by a luminous Johanna Adde Dahl, and also a line used by Kris Straub in Broodhollow that “science tells us how, but not why.” And while she is using this to talk to Isaac about an emerald aurora borealis and the stars, it summarizes that I can conjecture how this film and story is constructed, but I prefer to go into questions of why, and its possibilities. Isaac is mostly focused on how to get what he thinks he wants, but Emma is concerned with why, and wanting to get away from it before that knowledge consumes her, and their child. 

And here is where the joke has its punchline. Astrid refers to the cosmos and one’s place in it. And Isaac’s pedantic cultist buddies, one in particular, likes to talk about the universe as well in a way very reminiscent of cosmicism: of Lovecraft’s idea that humanity is insignificant next to the vastness of the universe, and its infinite apathetic and malignant horrors. It seemed clear to me that Isaac and his people were Deep One Hybrids, but they are not. This isn’t Innsmouth in “Thicker Than Water.” It is more the villagers in “Men of the Cloth” pleased to fix up “lose threads” from their insular place. 
I believed that Emma would kill Isaac, and take their child away in a repeat of the traumatic pattern where his mother killed his father, but that doesn’t happen either. 

Instead Isaac, who believes he will sacrifice his wife, ends up being the sacrifice himself. It’s a little strange how they do it. Why they went to the whole trouble of knocking out Emma and tying her on the coastline altar and letting Isaac carry the sword when they could have just taken him and killed him — as they and his father intended to do to him years ago — is beyond me. I think it is for dramatic effect to have that twist. I mean, come on: his name is Isaac. We know what Isaac means in the Old Testament: a father’s sacrifice to his deity. I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know how … though the why is obvious. The Slumbering One is sending out nightmares. He isn’t pleased that a sacrifice had been foiled, or the community disrupted. Balance must be restored. Also, Renate doesn’t seem too upset killing Isaac, thinking it would have been better to kill him before he became an abusive self-deluded pathetic man. And Emma lives, at least until the child is born. 

But why? Well, I have a theory of my own. The cosmic joke about Isaac might begin with the fact that his mother isn’t from the island. She is an outsider. His father specifically married her and somehow got her to the island. My theory is that every couple of years or so, the island intermarries with an outsider to create a child that will be sacrificed to appease their deity who resembles Cthulhu. Unfortunately, Isaac’s mother killed his father and left with him before this could happen: while not informing him of the truth. But I wonder, and perhaps only Barbara and the directors can confirm this, if there is another, more personal reason Renate kills Isaac: and why Astrid is so utterly fascinated with him. 

Renate is visibly upset over Isaac’s father’s demise even years later. It could be because of the disruption of the metaphysical and communal balance, but I wonder if there is more. Apparently, Isaac’s mother told him that his father had “another family” and that is why they left. Now, it is probably a reference to the cult of the island, but he inferred that his father had an affair and another partner and children. What if the reason — the true reason — a Tupilaq wasn’t built for Isaac’s father is because … it actually was? We never know who Renate’s husband is, for instance. And she is keen on finding the woman that killed him: perhaps more just a police officer’s zeal for a case opened twenty-five years? 

Maybe there is more than one reason why Renate wanted Isaac dead. Perhaps that’s why she wants Emma alive: either to keep that bloodline going … or to eventually make another sacrifice. Wouldn’t that be a great cosmic punchline to a fascinating film so rich with a created mythology combined with pre-existing ones. Perhaps horror isn’t a revelation of knowledge people are not meant to know, or knowing they aren’t important. Perhaps it’s that there are other powers inherent in reality that play with lives, that are amused by such. And, at the end, perhaps the true sacrifice is no only one’s sense of self-importance, or sense of belonging, but one’s own peace of mind. A sleeping mind isn’t always a placid one.

And with that knowledge, I wish you a good night. 

Dream well.