In 1992, Candyman landed in theaters. It came at the tail end of the 80s horror craze, and without the name branding of Freddy Krueger or Jason Vorhees, the film barely broke even at the box office. But as an original horror film with big things to say about the racist underpinnings of America – not to mention a terrifying all-time great performance from Tony Todd – it developed a cult following, and inspired a generation of horror fans to come. Two of those fans were Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele, who have teamed up to bring audiences a new take on the Candyman story – not quite a sequel, not quite a remake. And while the film does try to tackle one weighty subject too many, the general atmosphere of thrills, chills, giggles, and cheers creates a recipe more than deserving of a night out with one of horror’s most intriguing and entertaining characters.
Twenty years ago, Cabrini-Green was the most dilapidated housing project in Chicago. Overpoliced and underfunded, the project was also known for its dark legend: that of the Candyman, a spirit (or spirits) who stalks and kills anyone who repeats his name in the mirror five times. After a horrific incident in 1992, the projects were torn down to make room for a new series of skyrises for a group of young rich up-and-comers. This includes couple Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Anthony is an artist who’s been struggling to make his next series. After hearing the story of the Candyman, first from Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and later from Cabrini-Green lifer Burke (Colman Domingo), Anthony decides to create a series of paintings based on the urban legend. And the crux of the piece? A mirror, daring the viewer to say Candyman five times. However, soon the viewers begin showing up dead, gutted by a hook. And Anthony begins seeing the Candyman wherever he looks – including the mirror. And so begins a terrifying journey for everyone. Because nothing can stop the Candyman.
The Candyman story has always operated on a deeper level, digging through the rot that exists just below the surface and scaring something deep within our subconscious. DaCosta’s version is no different. In the original, director Bernard Rose explored the ways that Chicago tried to hide or ignore its racist past, exemplified by the dilapidated projects. DaCosta and Peele also tackle these subjects, and yet they also branch out to explore newer, deeper topics as well. Sadly, their biggest target also happens to be the weakest: gentrification. Oh, don’t get me wrong, gentrification is a smart topic, and the film’s approach to it is still pretty interesting. However, it’s also the most obvious, and never dives past a surface level. Candyman posits that gentrification is the way that white people try to ignore the racism of the past; they tear down their errors, relocate the underserved and abused population, and then slap a new face on the property. But the pain is still there. And now there’s a new sense of pain, as those suffering were forced out to let the rich white people move in. Candyman tackles all of this, yet only on a surface level. How surface? They utilize a graduate student’s recordings to quite literally explain it all to the viewers. And that’s only the halfway point!
No, the stronger themes on display here are ironically (and unfortunately) the same themes of the original, because this sh*t never changes: that of cyclical violence, and what happens if you ignore the past for too long. The Candyman has always been a metaphor for the crimes of the past that America has never learned to accept or deal with. Originally, he was a Black man killed by a racist mob for an affair with a white woman. In this film, he was a friendly, mentally ill man in the neighborhood who passed out candy until a white girl accused him of sticking a razor blade in the sweet and getting him murdered by the police. DaCosta and Peele rewrite the story so the Candyman takes on the form of the most recent victim of cyclical violence in the community; a young Black man dies, the white people move on, and the Black community is left with the collective scarring of that pain and suffering. No one believes in the Candyman, or tries to stop the Candyman, because you’re not supposed to say his name (racism) out loud. You pretend it doesn’t exist, and that’s how you avoid dealing with it. As Burke declares at one point, “Candyman’s how we deal with the fact that these things happened. That they still happen.”
I’m also fascinated with the way the film tackles art’s relationship to Black suffering – a theme that is presented so satirically it borders on hilarious. When Anthony decides he wants to create a project focused on Candyman and Black suffering, he faces a series of setbacks at the hands of white artists and art dealers, all of whom try to instruct him on the best way to present his heritage. “Don’t focus on the South Side,” they tell him. “South Side is played out.” It all ties into the way white people want to pity and react to Black suffering through art, so long as it doesn’t affect them. It’s the reason the most successful films about racism are the ones that don’t require much self-reflection – Ghosts Of Mississippi, Driving Miss Daisy, Green Book, etc. To quote the sage Burke once again, “They love what we make – not us.” Candyman finds its horror in forcing the white people to confront their guilt – if not through acknowledgment, then through violent death. In exploring this confrontation for white viewers, DaCosta and Peele’s screenplay does take a turn for the worse in the convoluted third act, but man, when it reaches the final scene…it is a stark and brilliant warning that if we don’t find a way to deal with racism, or continue trying to hide it, there will be a reckoning. You know, it’s funny. The reckoning more directly ties into white people’s blindness to reality, and yet somehow also becomes the film’s best descriptor of gentrification in that way. Who knew?
Ok, ok. Enough about the genius of the screenplay. Let’s talk execution. DaCosta’s filmmaking here is, for the most part, completely top-notch. While the film itself isn’t SCARY scary, outside of a few remarkable scenes of mayhem and murder, it does have something far more important for a horror film: atmosphere. So many films think that a horror film just needs jump scares (the laziest form of horror filmmaking) to survive. But you don’t see a horror film for a series of paint-by-numbers jumps and deaths. You go to a horror film to feel it – and feel it to the core. DaCosta creates this atmosphere through little touches here and there, always giving the sensation that something is off. Candyman can be seen in most reflections and backgrounds. There’s a perennial sense that the characters – and occasionally even the viewers – are being watched. And characters and demons move in a slow, determined manner that creates an unsettling emotion that you can’t quite place. DaCosta further creates this atmosphere by playing with different subgenres of horror, often to great effect. There’s the body horror of Anthony’s body, after being stung by a bee, slowly and painfully decomposing. There’s the psychological, seen when Anthony looks in the mirror and sees himself in The Candyman. And there’s the silent thriller, such as a mid-film murder where a victim is murdered inside one frame of a giant skyrise apartment. It’s more terrifying than anything I’ve seen in the last ten slashers I’ve watched. I’m even fascinated by her little touches, like recapping the original film – not to mention several actual stories of Black trauma – through puppet shadows, creating a bedtime story aesthetic for the film.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the sense of humor in the film. It’d be wrong to call this film “self-aware,” an overused term that has damaged many lesser horror films. But DaCosta is well aware of what’s going on here, and includes little touches throughout. I mean, as silly as it is, you can’t help but see the film open with Sammy Davis Jr. singing “The Candy Man” and think anything other than, “Well, of course.” Speaking of that needle drop, I love that DaCosta implements a sense of fun from the very jump, running the production company title cards in reverse, as if shown through a mirror. It is clear that she understands the inherent fun that horror can bring, even when tackling weighty subjects. And there are several send-ups to famous stand-up routines’ take on Black horror. As the old Eddie Murphy routine goes, “The reason it’s always a white family in ghost movies is because the minute a Black family hears a ghost say ‘Get out,’ they’d immediately leave.”
The Black characters throughout the film utter similar thoughts and comments throughout, ranging from Troy sardonically telling his boyfriend that he refuses to play “Candyman” because “Black people don’t need to be summoning sh*t.” And in one of the best edits in the film, we jump from an annoyed Brianna positing, “Who would even try to play that game?” to a white teen girl forcing her friends to look in the mirror and say that infamous name. DaCosta’s storytelling is so good, she even manages to make one of the most obvious twists I’ve ever seen seem inventive and thoughtful. If I had one complaint, it’s that there wasn’t enough of Phillip Glass’ iconic score. But if that’s my one dig, I’d say that’s a pretty good sign of quality.
The film is amplified by the incredibly game cast, each of whom adds something unique to the pot. In the lead role, Abdul-Mateen II has a lot of heavy lifting to do. Thankfully, he’s a truly skilled actor, and he fills Anthony with the terror, obsession, drive, and emotion needed to carry this film. Teyonah Parris doesn’t have much to do outside of playing the terrified girlfriend (more in line with, say, Geena Davis in The Fly than a typical Final Girl), but she does so with gravitas, and has a few excellent moments along the way. I really enjoyed Stewart-Jarrett’s performance as Troy – it’s a character I haven’t seen in a horror film before, and I enjoyed almost every second he was onscreen. Most of the other characters show up to do their part, even if they don’t stand out (my favorites include Kyle Kaminsky, Brian King, Miriam Moss, and Rebecca Spence), but there are a few performances I really want to give a shoutout to. Colman Domingo is always great, no matter where you put him or what you do with him. DaCosta knows exactly how to use him, for wisdom, scares, or beyond. And I love that she knows exactly how to use his voice, whether he’s speaking or singing. Vanessa Williams reprises her role from the original in one key scene, and the film immediately elevates itself in that one sequence. She is f*cking phenomenal, with every look and expression pulling you in and refusing to let go. And as two renditions of the Candyman, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention Michael Hargroveand, in one exceptional scene (and iconic speech), Tony Todd. Really, this is an excellent horror cast all around.
Candyman is a good, solid, fun time at the movies. You know, it’s funny: if you asked me if Candyman was a good horror movie, I’m not sure I’d say yes. Despite a strong sense of atmosphere and some solid thrills and kills, the film doesn’t strike me as your typical horror. Candyman is essentially a superhero film; a dark parable about a coming sense of justice for what lies under the surface. It knows how to spook us, but more importantly, it knows how to entertain. And despite some quibbles here and there, that’s the reason we go to the movies.
Candyman is currently playing exclusively in theaters