One needn’t ever have seen the original Candyman to know of its mythology. The basics are the stuff of spooky sleepover lore: Say “Candyman” into a mirror five times, and you will summon him into the real world, where he will dish out carnage with the rusty hook that stands in for his missing hand. I must’ve played this silly game (and its sister game, Bloody Mary) a hundred times before ever seeing the movie, but was scared all the same as I chanted the simple incantation at my reflection hoping for something supernatural to occur. The mythology of Candyman runs a little deeper once you see the film and learn about his origin. Daniel Robitaille was a talented Black artist hired to paint the portrait of a wealthy white woman — a woman with whom he soon fell in love. Soon after, the lovers had a baby on the way. Being a talented Black man in a white society (a society less than a generation removed from slavery) this did not sit well with the powers that be, and soon “polite society” decided to torture and kill Robitaille. They beat him, burned him, cut his hand off, and covered him in honey, leaving the broken man to be stung to death by a swarm of bees.
The specifics of what went down are just a set of interchangeable elements, however, serving to decorate a story as old as America itself, and one which endures to this day. White society loves to absorb the talents of Black people, but the person behind those talents is often viewed as disposable. This de-personing robs the fruits of said talent of any weight, and often leads to violence, enacted to make sure that “proper” parties stay “in their place” so that the exclusive status quo can live on.
Candyman is based on a short story by Clive Barker, and was adapted into film by Bernard Rose, both of whom are white men, and even though I am not always a subscriber to the notion that the demographics of a film director must always match the demographics of the film they make, it only makes sense that a modern Candyman story be told through a Black lens. In the years since the original came out in 1992, it has been embraced as a piece of Horror Noire in a pretty big way, and as such, has been discussed as a piece of racial text for nearly two decades. Enter Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, an excellent sequel-boot to the franchise that exists in conversation with the original film.
This new Candyman exists in a modern day Chicago with modern day sensibilities, invoking the idea that story and legend can keep things alive, both good and bad, through sheer force of societal will. It’s often asked whose stories belong to whom, and Candyman explores this idea with two contrasting ideologies. The story of Daniel Robitaille could be suppressed, preventing the trauma his appearance inevitably causes, but in doing so, the status quo remains the same. Conversely, in telling his story and saying his name (the idea of “say his name” takes new resonance in a world where one of our most powerful tools against racism is making sure that those who fall victim to its evil are seen as human and not just statistics), it might invoke a large response — supernatural violence, in the case of the film — but it also serves as a living reminder that much progress needs to be made. I am excited to revisit this one to see what else it has to say.
DaCosta’s film follows Anthony McCoy (Yahya Adbu-Mateen II), a visual artist struggling to find inspiration for his next piece. His girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) is growing in prominence in the art world, and is doing well enough to be the primary breadwinner in their relationship. She’s taking care of it all, and doing so in a luxurious new apartment. When Anthony gets word of the Candyman legend, he finds it to be the perfect source material for his next piece, or even his next series. This, of course, means that he can’t resist but to try the mirror game himself, and in doing so, he unlocks a window into history, both shared and personal, that cannot be shut.
What follows is a thematically rich, terrifying genre piece that has slasher, body horror, and supernatural elements aplenty, with more than a few deeply haunting images, all calibrated to the extreme. Even robbed of any thematic weight, Candyman would still function as an absolutely killer horror flick.
DaCosta is a force to be reckoned with. Shot for shot, Candyman serves style, and never in a gaudy way. There’s a crisp edge to every surface that dulls as the locations descend. What I mean to say is that there’s a distinct difference in how the settings of the haves look than those of the have-nots (which often corresponds to literal architectural height), yet the people within all look the same. It correctly depicts social status as something completely arbitrary, held into place by nothing but perception. DaCosta’s frame favors the faces of the actors, with them often looking directly into camera the way one would see their own face in a mirror. This highlights a collection of excellent performances, and acts as a clever way at to address the audience directly, even inviting us to look inward. And when it comes to moments of aggressively violent horror, well, DaCosta just upped the game. Candyman is gory and gruesome, but it never revels in the violence the way the later entries of the franchise tended to do. That’s not to say anything is neutered, just that it’s handled with true visual panache. One scene, in which a character is brutally removed from this mortal coil, is shot from a distance and witnessed through the windows of an apartment building. It involves lots of blood as well as some unsettling ragdoll physics, yet the murderous act takes up the tiniest fraction of the shot, which is quite beautifully composed on the whole. Another instance features the extremely violent dismemberment of a group of young women, much of which is seen in the reflection of a fallen pocket mirror. Candyman himself is rarely seen head on, but his presence is just as felt as it was in the original film where he was given life by the iconic visage of Tony Todd.
In the time leading up to the release of the film, fans of the franchise asked who would be playing Candyman if not Tony Todd. I won’t venture to describe exactly how the image of the hook-handed killer is handled here, but I will say that it’s an elegant solution for a problem inherent with horror reboots and late stage sequels, and in the case of this film, it’s quite thematically resonant. I’ll relent to a quote from Cabrini-Green resident William Burke (Colman Domingo): “Candyman ain’t a He. Candyman’s the whole damn hive.”
Shout out to Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based performance group whose silhouette puppetry features heavily into the film (and its stellar closing credits sequence). I caught their take on Frankenstein at Edinburgh Fringe a few years back, and it’s wonderful to see their work showing up in an awesome movie. For those not in the know, Manual Cinema mixes puppetry, performance, and a live band to create a “film” in real time. What we see on their screen looks like a film that has been through post-production, but below the screen is a stage where it’s all happening right in front of our very eyes. If you get a chance to see a show of theirs, don’t pass it up.
I’d also like to shout out composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who had huge shoes to fill in providing a score for Candyman. I’m pleased to report that his music is wholly different than — and just as good as — Phillip Glass’ original. It’s only toward the end of the film that Glass’ iconic melody is brought in at all, and until then the score is a totally new sound. Chilling, hypnotic work.
All in all, Candyman kicks all of the ass. A smart, scary horror movie that updates and responds to a sacred horror text with love, reverence, and an eye toward elevating the genre even further, without losing the blood and guts that define it. My only beef with the film is that I wanted more (it’s very short). But even so, it is packed with pure genre goodness. And if you can watch the original before seeing it, do. This is not required, but it’s an enhancement to the experience for sure.
Directed by Nia DaCosta
Written by Nia DaCosta, Win Rosenfeld, Jordan Peele
Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jerrett, Colman Domingo
Rated R, 91 minutes.