When the original Candyman was nearing release, producers put together meetings with the NAACP to essentially cover themselves from being seen as racist for depicting a black monster. Rightfully, the NAACP reversed the question, arguing there’s no reason not to have a black equivalent of Freddy Krueger and the like. Indeed, it all worked out. Not only was the film a critical hit that connected with black audiences, but Tony Todd’s portrayal of Daniel Robitaille became a horror icon. Is it any safer now to say “Candyman” in a mirror five times? Director Nia DaCosta has come to expand upon the legend wrapped up in black trauma, continuing to show what a poor position one lands themselves in when choosing to summon the deadly man with a hook for a hand.
Among the things I was looking forward to with the announcement of a new Candyman film was the chance to see another iteration of this story that reflected society. With Jordan Peele attached as a producer, I knew to expect a cinematic reality with human elements as alarming as those within the confines of the horror genre. For the original 1992 film, director-writer Bernard Rose shifted Clive Barker’s original short story, “The Forbidden,” from Liverpool to Chicago, focusing on the notorious Cabrini Green housing project. An interesting departure, and one that meant very deliberately examining the connections between racial tensions and urban legends.
This 2021 update retains the Chicago setting, with even more ideas on its mind and a drive to further push the notion of what Candyman represents. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Anthony McCoy, a visual artist living with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director. To tackle new ground creatively, he begins researching the old Cabrini Green projects, meeting resident William Burke (Colman Domingo) in the process. Burke explains to Anthony the story of Candyman, which both inspires new art and unlocks the power of a vengeful spirit who leaves more than just a sting on those who invoke his name.
There’s a lot to invest in from the outset. DaCosta’s use of the location does plenty to balance the look of modern apartments occupied by higher class individuals with what’s left of the projects. The opening titles do plenty by shooting up with a tilt at the high-rise buildings that fade into the clouds, which is more evocative and effectively creepy than a lot of what I’ve seen recently. The reliance on art culture as a surefire way to provide visual commentary is handled pointedly while never feeling intrusive. Even beyond the bloodiness, Candyman’s visually dazzling nature is very apparent.
Adding performers who understand the film they are in helps plenty. Abdul-Mateen has a specific arc to go through with his character, and I can appreciate seeing how Candyman’s story begins to consume him. Parris feels a bit underserved by comparison, as the journey of this film is mostly pretty specific, though she has moments to shine as well. Domingo is always a welcome presence, and the film has a terrific way of combining the explanation of Candyman he delivers with inventive shadow puppetry to reflect a violent backstory.
Holding off from being too much of a serious affair, the film has enough self-awareness to let the black characters recognize certain dangers. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett provides fun comic relief as Brianna’s brother, Troy, who is clear on what not to do in these situations. Meanwhile, the deaths in the film are handled with a skillful slickness, with DaCosta finding killer ways to show the Candyman in action. The brutal butcheries range from up close and gory to deliberately stylish. Yes, these are payoffs to a buildup in tension, but finding ways to make uncomfortable moments visceral and entertaining in their own way is a fine counterbalance to the harsh realities of what Candyman represents.
If anything, the film wants to do too much within a limited amount of time. At 91 minutes, this is a horror film eager to entertain as well as tackle urban legends, gentrification, police brutality, art culture, sins of the past, and other societal ills. It’s, of course, hard not to admire that level of ambition. When it comes to honoring a 90s horror favorite that centered on adult characters and real issues, I’m glad to see DaCosta attempt to not only scare the audience but challenge them. Providing deeper issues (some of which are scarier than a horror film because they are real) means I have a reason to want to connect with the material.
Were Candyman to have been released on its original June 2020 release date, a few weeks after the death of George Floyd inspired a wave of protests, would it be seen as notably timely? It would be hard not to draw a line between the two. Still, the fact is the ripple effect of that death, along with Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and countless others stretching back to Emmett Till and beyond, was always going to be sewed into the DNA of this film. Wrestling with painful truths about how this force of lethal seduction is rooted in a landscape of inequality means acknowledging that these urban legends come from somewhere.
Candyman is a story in a unique position to continue being relevant and serve as a symbolic understanding of a boogeyman rooted in racially-based hardships. Yes, the thrill of being able to witness another take on this story has the appeal of allowing more audiences to see the trademark elements: terrifying reflections, lots of bees, and the hook that splits you “from your groin to your gullet.” At the same time, 2021’s Candyman, which is a sequel to the original, is here to show how things have changed as much as they’ve stayed the same.
Even before becoming “infected” by him, Anthony tries to inform his audience of the racial injustices that have inspired him, facing his own criticisms in the process. This comes while he finds himself stationed in a luxurious apartment, though he’s not out of harm’s way. With that said, Anthony is not the one in danger compared to those living similar lifestyles, only to be invaded upon by a ghetto threat they invited themselves by thinking it’s not really their problem. So how do you end a danger that you helped create?
I do push back a bit when considering the film’s inability to truly strike out on its own path. While there’s thematic value in depicting Candyman as a hive of social prejudice manifesting itself as a vicious demon, the movie has trouble reconciling multiple backstories, let alone finding a proper perspective to help the different pieces of the film’s climax fall into place. Some aspects feel like an interesting subversion, while others seem unexplored based on either running time requirements or a need to hold off on emphasizing certain elements. I’m being vague as not to spoil anything, but while the film has too much good stuff for me not to recommend it, I wish it had a stronger finale.
Still, with striking visuals, a keen balance of relevant topics and creepy atmosphere, and solid casting choices, Candyman delivers on being a studio horror film with enough going on under the surface. DaCosta has assembled a movie that works quite well in getting its audience to think without taking the iconic nature of the Candyman figure for granted. Given the less-than-inspired directions this film series could have gone, I’m glad there’s a set of filmmakers who took on the rights and kept it hooked into society, past and present, even when it hasn’t been as sweet as can be.