If you saw the hypnotic animated teaser trailer for Candyman released last summer — with its stunning shadow puppetry inspired by the silhouette art of Kara Walker, depicting gruesome atrocities committed against Black people — you knew this reboot was going to be distinctive. Director Nia DaCosta, working from a script she wrote with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, uses Bernard Rose’s 1992 film as a jumping-off point for bone-chilling horror that expands provocatively on the urban legend of the first film within the context of Black folklore and history, as well as the distorting white narrative that turns Black victims into monsters.
Like Peele’s films Get Out and Us, this new entry from his Monkeypaw Productions stable uses horror as a powerful lens to reflect Black trauma, encompassing a legacy that dates back more than a century and continues with today’s cycle of violence. “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happened,” explains one character of the enduring myth and its relationship to racial violence. “That they’re still happening.”
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A cult favorite reimagined.
The point of origin remains 19th century Black portraitist Daniel Robitaille (played by Tony Todd in an affectionate nod to the 1992 film). But his barbaric execution is just one of countless such acts of unjust slaughter, continuing over the decades into the present, with the police brutality that ignited the Black Lives Matter movement.
The shadow puppetry that was so effective in the trailer — created by Chicago collective Manual Cinema — is employed as a visual device throughout, stylizing the history of white violence against Black Americans in a storytelling form whose old-fashioned simplicity renders it all the more disturbing. It’s significant that, unlike the original Candyman, those are the only killings of Black people we see.
While DaCosta’s film is billed as a “spiritual sequel,” it connects in fairly linear fashion to the original (the two sequels to that film are disregarded). Rose shifted the location of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” from England to the Cabrini-Green housing development of Chicago’s North Side. Race, gentrification and the role of urban legends as a collective coping mechanism for pain in the Black community were factors. But they were filtered through the gaze of a white outside observer, Virginia Madsen’s grad student Helen Lyle, heard here in an audio recording.
Putting a Black protagonist at the center of the ghost story instantly realigns its perspective, even if his entryway is through a research project, exactly like Helen Lyle’s. Visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who lives with his art curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), in a luxury apartment on what was once the Cabrini-Green site, is in a creative rut until his curiosity is piqued by talk of the Candyman legend.
That story of a vengeful supernatural killer with a hook for a hand seems like pure fiction until Anthony starts investigating, initially on the web and then physically by visiting the last surviving row houses that were part of the former projects. He meets longtime resident William Burke (Colman Domingo), who fills him in on some of the history, including the bonfire that consumed Helen and the return of a baby boy, believed to have been taken by Candyman.
Anthony becomes motivated to make an artwork about the projects, resulting in a mixed-media piece called “Say My Name,” a bathroom mirror that opens to reveal unsettling images within. It gets a lukewarm reception when Brianna includes it in a summer show, but a number of people are sufficiently amused to invoke the name Candyman five times into that and other mirrors, which according to legend will summon his spirit.
As grisly deaths start mounting, Anthony’s stock instantly rises in the art world; the mention of his name in a TV news report on the bloody killings of two associates even brings a tickled smile to his face. He dives into work on a whole Candyman series of paintings, but his invocation of the name opens a door to the past that reveals itself in terrifying manifestations before ultimately coming full circle.
Observing the commercial opportunism of real-life tragedy upping the value of art, the film’s droll cynicism almost ventures into meta territory. This extends to the sudden interest in Brianna and her late father — an artist who committed suicide — from influential movers in the New York art world. The fate of an aloof art critic (Rebecca Spence) who goes from dismissive to intensely curious once Anthony’s name starts making waves is a caustic dig at the contradictions of representation. “They love what we make, but not us,” observes Burke, in a winking acknowledgment of the hunger of white tastemakers for Black art, and how it doesn’t make them immune to cultural insensitivity.
DaCosta revealed a talent for compelling storytelling and incisively drawn characters on a bleak social-realist canvas in her impressive debut feature, Little Woods. She’s no less attuned to the deep fissures in the American Experiment in her move into supernatural genre territory, giving the film an underlying seriousness too seldom found in contemporary horror. It will be fascinating to see how she puts her stamp on next year’s The Marvels.
The attention to race, police brutality, community displacement and related issues doesn’t mean the thrills are any less spine-tingling or the bloodletting less ghastly. Moments of extreme gore induce squirms, but some of the most effective killings are those seen only in fleeting glimpses — in a makeup compact mirror on the floor of a girls’ high school restroom; in a wide shot of a massive apartment block as a life is being snuffed out by an invisible force in one tiny window. A considerable part of the first film’s power was the trance-like seduction of Philip Glass’ original score. Composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s textured music has its own atmospheric hold, mixing synth and strings with ambient drone and choral elements.
The motif of reflections is cleverly signaled by the reverse studio logos that open the film, and DaCosta and DP John Guleserian make creepy use of the fact that Candyman appears primarily in mirrors to create visual tension as his form is seen faintly in glass doors and windows. You might think twice about ever stepping into a mirrored elevator again. When he is seen clearly in his shearling-trimmed overcoat, beckoning with his hook and a leering smile, Candyman remains a shivery symbol of terror — accompanied by bees for reasons woven into the origin story. The nasty reaction to a sting on Anthony’s hand when he first starts sniffing around what’s left of the projects barely hints at the buzzing to come.
After his standout work in Watchmen and The Trial of the Chicago 7, Abdul-Mateen proves here that he has the charisma and imposing physical presence to carry a film, pushing Anthony’s obsession to the brink of madness and beyond, into a kind of rapturous lucidity.
He gets solid support from Parris as Brianna is forced to rethink her rejection of Candyman’s existence; from British actor Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (so terrific as Belize in the recent London and Broadway revival of Angels in America), who brings side-eye skepticism as Brianna’s gay brother, Troy; and from the always reliable Domingo as Burke, whose childhood trauma at Cabrini-Green has marked him in ways not immediately apparent. Vanessa Williams reprises her role from the 1992 film in one intense scene of sorrow and dread.
Whether you call it a spiritual sequel, a reboot or a reinvention, Candyman delivers a fresh take by flipping the perspective of the original, almost showing a mirror image as it continues the tradition of campfire ghost stories that acquire new dimensions and details as they are retold across generations. As Burke says at one point, encapsulating the scope of what DaCosta, Peele and Rosenfeld are aiming for: “Candyman ain’t a ‘he.’ He’s the whole damn hive.”