by Andrew Wyatt on Aug 26, 2021

In the nearly three decades since writer-director Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) first slouched into theaters, the reputations of both the film and its titular bogeyman have grown impressively. The feature has undergone a steady maturation from a minor critical and commercial success to a beloved cult-horror work to a legitimate modern classic of the genre. From the vantage of 2021, it’s easy to see why the film has endured: As a socially conscious supernatural slasher boasting excellent performances and a dash of art-film audacity, Candyman is nothing if not distinctive. Loosely adapted from Clive Barker’s 1986 short story “The Forbidden”, Rose’s screenplay cunningly transported the action from a Liverpool council estate to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project, vividly connecting the story to American racial politics and inequalities. As a director, the London-born Rose (Paperhouse, Immortal Beloved) brought the kind of unabashedly cinematic sensibility that was all too uncommon among American horror filmmakers of the era. And then there was that score, a hypnotic, modernist marvel by Philip Glass that is justly regarded as one of the most iconic horror soundtracks of all time.

The Candyman himself also seems to have taken on a life of his own, which is an ironic but perhaps inevitable development, given that the film concerns an urban legend sustained by a community’s fearful belief. Some of Candyman’s durability is simply due to great casting: For the role of the hook-handed specter, the filmmakers had the good sense to tap the imposing, sonorous Tony Todd, then known primarily for Platoon (1986) and Tom Savini’s remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990). Todd’s magnetic performance – regal and yet repulsive, alluring and yet terrifying – practically guaranteed the character’s infamy. However, Candyman’s endurance as a pop-culture icon is also written into the film at the level of both theme and setting. Rose’s script is grounded in the specifics of Chicago’s history, politics, and geography, and it effectively blurs the line between fact and fiction. (The film even alludes to a notorious real-world murder that occurred in the city’s Abbot Homes project.) Almost thirty years later, the average filmgoer could be forgiven for mistakenly believing that Candyman is a real-world urban folktale, rather than the original creation of a British horror author. Heck, even some seasoned horror aficionados are reluctant to say the bogeyman’s name aloud.

There is a lingering sourness to Candyman the film, however, and it stems from the work's interloper viewpoint: Barker and Rose are both White Englishmen, after all, and the story is presented from the perspective of Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a White semiotics grad student who regards Cabrini-Green’s residents primarily as exoticized subjects for her academic ambitions. If there was ever a horror feature that practically pleads for a remake by a Black American filmmaker, Candyman is that feature. Enter writer-director Nia DaCosta’s new film, also titled Candyman, which serves as a direct sequel to Rose’s original. DeCosta’s screenplay – co-written with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld – eagerly expands the original story’s mythology and themes, without the sloppy retconning exhibited in Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999). (The new feature sensibly disregards the events of those dire sequels, although it does allude to them here and there.)

This latest Candyman is also a stickier and more ambitious creature than its predecessor, one unavoidably attuned to the intersectional intricacies of racial politics in the 21st century. Like its forebear, however, DeCosta’s Candyman is a little confounding, rushing through its woolly paranormal plot and juggling so many themes that it resembles an excitable kid over-explaining their latest school project to their stone-faced parent. It’s the rare contemporary horror feature in which another 20 minutes or so might have elevated it from good to truly great, by giving its scenes some space to breathe and its social critiques some time to simmer.

The new film’s protagonist is Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a Chicago-based artist who is struggling to replicate the critical acclaim his politically provocative paintings earned just a few years earlier. His girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) appears to be the breadwinner in their relationship. They live together in her posh apartment in a gentrified neighborhood, and it is strongly implied that her job as a curator at a trendy local gallery is the main factor keeping Anthony’s floundering career afloat. One night, over a few too many glasses of wine, Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stweat-Jarrett) dramatically recounts the story of Helen Lyle, a White academic who allegedly snapped and murdered several people in Cabrini-Green in the early 1990s. Curiously, Troy makes no mention of a certain hook-handed bogeyman, but the grisly tale nonetheless intrigues Anthony, who later sets out to explore the now-abandoned housing project.

There he runs into William (Colman Domingo), a local laundromat owner who is familiar with Helen’s story, and with the deeper legend it conceals. That would be Candyman, who William believes to have originally been a disabled neighborhood eccentric named Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove). In the late 1970s, suspicion fell on Sherman when a panic over razors hidden in children’s candy gripped the community, and he was eventually cornered and murdered by White police officers. Now a vengeful and bloodthirsty spirit, Candyman can be summoned by repeating his name five times while staring into a mirror, or so the story goes. Sherman’s tale and the urban legend surrounding him end up inspiring Anthony, who finds his creativity renewed as he begins working frantically on a new series of paintings.

Anthony is a skeptic at heart, however, and he doesn’t really believe the legend. Indeed, he tweaks Brianna’s visible apprehension about the subject by flippantly saying Candyman’s name five times. Naturally, Anthony soon begins seeing things, in particular a shadowy, hook-handed figure and the swarms of honeybees that attend him. There’s also the matter of the bee sting Anthony suffered on his hand while taking photographs in Cabrini-Green, an injury that quickly escalates to a strange, necrotic infection that spreads to his entire hand and eventually up his arm. Anthony doesn’t have time for trivialities like a gangrenous supernatural disease, however: He’s scheduled to show his new work at Brianna’s gallery, work inspired by Candyman and the larger story of Chicago’s history of racist violence. And nothing bad could possibly come from spreading the legend of an undying spirit of vengeance, right?

This interest in art and its prickly relationship to Black trauma is the most unexpected and fruitful new angle that DeCosta’s Candyman discovers. Anthony is charming – mostly because Abdul-Mateen is incapable of not being charming – but he’s also a little venal and self-interested. It’s unclear whether he has the best interests of the city’s Black community at heart when he hungrily scoops up the Candyman myth and repurposes it for his work. Despite the political nature of his art, he seems less interested in catalyzing change than in advancing his career. Indeed, when a brutal double murder occurs at the gallery, his first reaction is giddy delight that his name and the title of his piece were mentioned on the local news. The film contrasts Anthony’s more mercenary attitude with that of Brianna, who fastidiously maintains a wary distance from her own traumatic family history, even when it might profit her professionally to do otherwise. Not incidentally, Candyman gradually shifts the protagonist’s mantle from Anthony to Brianna in its second half, which unfortunately somewhat blunts the film’s impact. We’re no longer seeing events through the eyes of a man who is losing his hold on reality, but through the eyes of the woman who loves him, which elicits an altogether different kind of horror.

The fuzzy boundary between catharsis and exploitation in Black horror has been at the forefront of cultural discourse in recent years, with shows such as Lovecraft Country (2020) and Them (2021) inviting some criticism for the ways that they engaged with sensitive subjects and often brutal historical realities. Candyman generally equivocates when it comes to such matters. Who gets to decide when, where, and how Black pain can be excavated, scrutinized, and exhibited? Is it possible (or advisable) for a White person to legitimately invoke it? Is it ever ethical for anyone to profit from it any manner? The film does not definitively answer these questions, but it does grapple with them in a way that other mainstream works have not. (And, hey, not every horror film needs a clear-eyed, didactic thesis statement.)

SLIFF alum DaCosta made a splash with her debut feature Little Woods (2018), which did most of the things Hell or High Water (2016) did, only better. Candyman solidifies and clarifies her directorial talents, as the horror genre allows for a stylistically adventurous approach that wasn’t necessarily a good fit for a somber, neo-Western crime drama. DaCosta populates seemingly every shot with mirrors, windows, and other reflective surfaces, and often ingeniously uses them to create visually and spatially complex sequences. In one scene, an offscreen Candyman bloodbath is witnessed almost entirely through the maddeningly narrow viewpoint of a makeup compact’s mirror. In another, Anthony and Candyman have a confrontation that plays like a nightmarish reimagining of Groucho and Harpo Marx’s mirror gag from Duck Soup (1933). It’s not all reflection gimmicky, either: At one point, the camera pulls back for a wide exterior nighttime shot of Chicago’s famous Marina City apartment towers as a gruesome murder unfolds, shockingly and silently. In its best moments, DaCosta’s flair for compelling visual storytelling recalls the work of both horror icon Wes Craven and arthouse luminary Steve McQueen.

If this new Candyman has a nagging flaw that prevents it from achieving the virtuosic heights it otherwise might have, that flaw lies in its feverish, distracted pacing. At just 91 minutes, the feature never quite slows down enough for the viewer to truly steep in its atmosphere of oozing dread, or for the screenplay to do more than cursorily touch on the real-world topics it clearly wants the viewer to contemplate. Public housing, gentrification, police violence, cultural appropriation, racial identity, and other matters are raised directly or indirectly, but the film doesn’t have time to do much more than acknowledge them. (It can’t even squeeze in everything that it arguably should: How do you not even mention redlining in a film that’s at least partly about the history of racist housing practices in Chicago?)

Some of the feature’s subplots feel hurried or neglected – this story surrounding Brianna’s father’s suicide, for example – and the scene-to-scene time jumps can be disorienting. Indeed, the film’s editing often betrays the inelegant removal of scenes that might have smoothed out the story and given it more elbow room. Like Rose’s original film, DeCosta’s sequel also begins to lose some lucidity in its final third, forgoing narrative clarity for a series of plot turns that feel meaningful without necessarily conveying meaning. Which is not to say that Candyman is a hollow or opaque experience. DeCosta’s film is by any measure a worthy successor to its namesake, delivering nail-biting horror fundamentals with uncommon visual flair – in addition to smuggling in some squirming body-horror moments that evoke David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) in all the best/worst ways. Given that audiences have been waiting almost 30 years for a Black-centered reimagining of this iconic story, however, one wishes that Candyman had taken its time to properly savor all the sweet and terrible flavors on offer, rather than just hastily sample them.

Rating: B

Candyman will open in select theaters on Aug. 27, 2021.