1992’s Candyman has its opening credits looking down on the city of Chicago. It glides over the streets, separate, implying a malevolent force floating over the landscape, looking for its next victim, which it will find in protagonist Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen). Nia DaCosta’s legacyquel of the same name chooses to have its opening credits take a similar route but instead of floating above, it floats below, looking up at the looming landscape, which provides not only a dreamlike quality, but also implies that the malevolent force is already here, among us, and part of these surroundings.
Turning the original Candyman on its head is one of the best things DaCosta’s version does, recognizing the shortcomings and strengths of the original and repositioning them into a story about racial violence and a desire for Black power. As Candyman moves towards its climax, you can see that the film is perhaps so overloaded with ideas that it starts to collapse under their weight, and yet you can’t help but admire the ambition that DaCosta and co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld have brought to this new telling of the supernatural slasher.
After a brief prologue in 1977 where we see the police murder a Black man in the Chicago projects of Cabrini-Green, we fast-forward to 2019 and meet Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a struggling artist who was branded as a wunderkind, but now is seen as washed-up and largely mooching off his curator girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris). When gallery owner Clive (Brian King) pushes Anthony to develop some new pieces, Anthony reluctantly suggests something based off an urban legend he heard surrounding the projects and a figure known as “Candyman”. An excited Clive, looking for work that will profit off Black pain, gives Anthony the greenlight and early in Anthony’s research he meets William (Colman Domingo), who witnessed the 1977 murder as a young boy. As Anthony gets sucked further into the urban legend of Candyman—a specter who comes with a swarm of bees, a hook for a hand, and who will kill you if you say his name in the mirror five times—a series of bizarre killings start springing up and Anthony realizes that Candyman may not only be real, but also his destiny.
For all its strengths (Tony Todd’s performance, Philip Glass’ score, introducing a Black supernatural slasher), 1992’s Candyman can be an uneven film, and nowhere is that clearer in how it wants to paint both Lyle as white savior interloper bringing death and destruction wherever she goes, yet also as innocent object of purity, thus playing into the racist trope that Black men seek to prey on white women. Writer-director Bernard Rose’s adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” seems more concerned with how urban legend can subsume you into them, whereas in DaCosta’s version, that’s only one thread of many that she and her fellow writers are attempting to tie together.
DaCosta’s Candyman is a big bundle of bold ideas ranging from Black artistry to the legacy of lynching to racial justice (or lack thereof) to the nature of legacyquels. It can make for a lot, and some may be a bit irked that Candyman spends a large portion of its runtime with characters explaining mythology to each other and discussing ideas rather than getting to grisly kills. Candyman isn’t particularly scary, but it is unnerving because the horrors it seeks to addresses are far more real than a ghost who is full of bees and has a hook for a hand. And yet there’s also some darkly comic bits here, particularly with how those discussions lead to an inquiry into how Black art is perceived, especially from white audiences.
“They love our work,” William says to Anthony at one point, “but they don’t love us.” It’s hard to see Candyman as just another cash-grab legacyquel when you have Black artists like DaCosta and Peele who have made acclaimed works like Little Woods and Get Out, respectively, and you see them diving headfirst into an artistic debate about how they can tell Black stories to a white audience that, like Clive, is only interested in the Black narrative if it revolves around pain and suffering. That then becomes a problem that Candyman is trying to solve—how do you make this a tale of empowerment when the mythos, a mythos you’re purposefully tying to the 1992 movie, is one of Black pain? How do you make Candyman not a villain, but perhaps an anti-hero, a necessary evil of a world that has committed countless and endless atrocities against the Black community?
Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that DaCosta’s Candyman isn’t entirely successful at solving this riddle by trying to have it both ways where the figure of Candyman is both one of terrible consequence and also avenging power. And yet the richness that DaCosta has brought here makes that only one thread you could pull on with this movie. Candyman works more often than not because it’s a film with a lot on its mind and DaCosta’s direction is so astoundingly confident that it’s able to glide through a wealth of ideas without ever playing as pretentious. For a movie where every discussion feels like it’s about the origins of Candyman, it’s also a film with both a sense of humor and even heart thanks to the strong performances Mateen and Parris.
The biggest problem with Candyman is that every thread seems to come up a little short. You look at the film as a legacyquel, and while it’s neat to see how they find a way to link back to the story of Helen Lyle and even work in the original Candyman, who was so memorably played by Todd, you still get the stumbles of showing how Anthony is related to that story, which feels a bit contrived, pat, and frankly unnecessary beyond the legacyquel’s implicit demands that everything tie together. Or you try to follow what the film is saying about Black pain being exploited for artistic gain, and you have the awkward backstory involving Brianna’s father, which feels far too briefly introduced to really land an impact. Even the art world jibs may strike some as off and more fitting with a film like Velvet Buzzsaw than the examination of white and Black art Candyman attempts.
And yet when the film hits a target, you can feel it in your bones. Candyman is never more on point than when it’s repositioning the Candyman urban legend as one not of urban fears, but of white arrogance. What DaCosta and her co-writers see in Candyman is not a story about white people in 2019 being “afraid” of Black people, but rather that their pain should serve as amusements. As a white critic, I’ll leave it to others to say whether Candyman is engaging in what it seeks to critique, but personally I felt it a fairly effective criticism. The white characters seek to be titillated by Candyman, so they don’t respect it as an entity, and their white privilege is treated as a cloak of immunity that then the Candyman figure gleefully slashes apart along with all their major organs. It’s the most direct criticism the film is making, but it’s also the most fun.
I find it hard to seriously fault a film like Candyman when its greatest sin of one of ambition. It could have been another simple slasher sprinkled with some simplistic social commentary. Instead, DaCosta’s movie reaches for much more than that, and if the commentary is sometimes beyond the film’s grasp, I admire that it at least made the swing rather than settle for the safety of cheap thrills and jump scares. 1992’s Candyman is a film that feels like a good start but lacking a full handle on the themes it’s attempting to explore. The new Candyman is far more clearheaded on its goals, and with DaCosta’s surehanded filmmaking, it makes for an enriching, spooky, and powerful experience. Candyman shows a respect for the character that gives him new life and new possibilities, so maybe it would be wise to take his name out of your mouth if you’re standing in front of a mirror.
Candyman opens in theaters on August 27th.
KEEP READING: ‘Candyman’ Featurette Looks at the Art Created for the Film and the Artists Behind Them