Clive Barker’s imagination devised the urban legend Candyman for the short story “The Forbidden” featured in his “Books of Blood” anthologies but it was English writer-director Bernard Rose who crafted the iconic bogeyman into a symbol of racial injustice in America by moving the setting from Liverpool to the projects in Chicago for his 1992 film. Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” co-written by Jordon Peele and his collaborator Win Rosenfeld, expands on the theme by viewing the urban monstrosity from a black perspective, thus turning the horror icon into the personification of prejudice throughout history.
Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a struggling visual artist, which gives his character a 50/50 chance of making it out of this story intact. If he was rich and successful, we would most likely witness some sort of downward spiral. He lives with girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), an independent art gallery director, in a beautiful Chicago loft situated in the now gentrified section of the city on the spot of the former Cabrini-Green public housing project, the epicenter of the ’92 horror film.
One night Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) familiarizes Anthony with the Candyman legend which causes the artist to seek inspiration by visiting the closed-off remnants of Cabrini-Green where the folktale took place — the high rises were demolished but a group of smaller buildings still stand — there among the graffiti-filled ruins (reminiscent of the original film), Anthony runs into a former resident named William (Colman Domingo) who owns a laundromat around the corner.
Domingo, a Tony-winning actor who was recently featured in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Zola” delivers another mesmerizing performance as William recounts his childhood run-in with Candyman. In his version, the urban legend was a local character who walked around handing out candy to the neighborhood kids. When a couple of kids find razor blades in their candy the police track down Candyman. They beat, torture, and kill him in public. A few weeks after his death more of the tampered candy is discovered proving Candyman was innocent.
Anthony becomes obsessed with the legend, and it becomes the basis for his new exhibit at the gallery Brianna manages. One part of the visual art centered on the folklore invites visitors to summon Candyman by saying his name five times while looking into a mirror, at which time he is supposed to appear behind them and kill them with the hook attached to his right arm’s bloody stump.
In the original film, Virginia Madsen played graduate student Helen Lyle who was doing a thesis on Candyman. Legend has it that he was a black artist in the 1800s named Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd) who fell in love with a white woman (who bears a striking resemblance to Helen) he once painted. When her father discovered the affair which led to a child, he sent a lynch mob to find Daniel. They cut off his right hand, stuck a hook in the bloody stump, covered him in honey from a stolen apiary, and watched as he was stung to death by the bees, the Candyman legend was born.
Bees once again play a role in this modern version as a bee sting to Anthony’s hand leads to some serious character development. After two people are killed in front of Anthony’s “Say My Name” art exhibit the Candyman folktale begins to spread like wildfire causing a new generation to take the mirror challenge which is poised to become the biggest thing since Tik Tok’s now-banned Milk Crate Challenge. There is a scene (that’s also featured in the trailer) where a group of teenage girls takes the mirror challenge in a high school restroom. DaCosta brilliantly shoots the sequence which features muted sound thanks to the headphones worn by a girl in one of the stalls.
Outbursts of horror come at intervals in DaCosta’s “Candyman” leading to a supernatural climax in familiar territory. Key players from the ’92 film signify that this is a sequel, not a reboot that requires you to discount the other two sequels “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh” (1995) and “Candyman: Day of the Dead” (1999), and that’s a good thing. Rose originally wanted to do a prequel to his original film which focused on the 19th-century love affair between Daniel Robitaille and the wealthy white woman he fell in love with, but the studio was worried about the interracial romance. Strange because Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” and Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” were well received by moviegoers a year before “Candyman” was released.
From the backward logos that precede the film to the opening sequence which feels like a reverse shot of the Bernard Rose film, “Candyman” is visually striking and cleverly written as a film infused with the real horror perpetrated against black people by the prejudiced. DaCosta — who wrote and directed the excellent crime thriller “Little Woods” with Tessa Thompson — isn’t preaching with her modern-day version of “Candyman”. There is no pulpit but there is a dialogue that subtly gets its point across, an ingenious way to take the iconic horror film and make it relevant to 2021.
Flashbacks to the first film have been replaced by shadow puppets courtesy of Chicago’s Emmy Award-winning collective known as Manual Cinema. The intricate and enchanting technique made me think of Alexander Juhasz’s wonderful illustrations for Jennifer Kent’s 2014 Australian horror film “The Babadook”. The vignettes are a great way to tell Candyman’s story while keeping the film grounded in the present as a self-reliant feature.
“Candyman” takes its time building up steam before that first outburst of horror as DaCosta keeps the audience in the dark about the direction she has chosen to take with Clive Barker’s creation. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II gives us a stirring performance as an obsessed artist driven to the brink of madness much like Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle in 1986’s “The Fly”. Almost three decades later DaCosta’s definitive sequel was worth the wait.
(3 ½ stars)