At a posh Chicago gallery, artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stands before his piece, a tribute to the urban legend of Candyman, over-explaining the work’s intent to a critic trying to quietly regard it. His insights are visibly irritating her and hindering her ability to engage with the piece. It’s a faux pas that speaks to the main misstep of this reboot from director Nia DaCosta and her cowriters, Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld: a neo-Candyman overstuffed with numerous relevant springboards for discussion, often at the expense of sustained dread.
The movie is a direct sequel to Bernard Rose’s 1992 film of the same name, which was itself adapted from Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden.” As in the original, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green homes has its own bogeyman, sustained by word of mouth: The Candyman, a towering killer with a hook for a hand and a hive of bees swarming around him, who hacks and slashes through any who dare speak his name five times into a mirror. Anthony, who lives in a highly gentrified condo with his girlfriend, gallery director Brianna (Teyonah Parris), becomes acquainted with the legend while trying to break through his creative block. When a Cabrini local recounts the story of the Candyman to him, the artist is thrown down a rabbit hole of violent histories, which the film inventively illustrates through shadow puppet shows (including one that essentially recaps the events of the first movie).
DaCosta and company have thought on those histories, but they’re far more interested in yours. The script is rich with social and cultural prompts, sometimes stuffed into the narrative, as when Anthony drunkenly outs an art dealer as a sexual predator. (The subject isn’t touched upon again). The main one, concerning the stain of racial torment marking generations of Black citizens, is complex enough to start the intended conversations, and to bestow hefty replay value on Candyman. Indeed, the film’s website offers tandem curriculum resources for educators—this story is more about asking questions than providing tidy answers. It’s an expansive subject, one that filmmakers often oversimplify; when you try to tackle race from the surface without looking at how it intersects with all other elements of society, you get Green Book. To her credit, DaCosta keeps the conversation as messy as the innate violence of the Black experience, opening up intersecting threads on how Black art brushes up against commerce (“They love what we make, but not us,” one character observes) while serving as a testimonial source of power across generations, unpacking the cyclical trauma that parents share with their children. “Candyman,” grunts old-timer William Burke (Colman Domingo), “is how we deal with the fact that this is happening, that it’s still happening.”
With all these ideas buzzing around the narrative like wasps, it’s easy to fall out of step with the film’s energy. When a white dealer responds to Anthony’s pitch on gentrification in a way that betrays his desire to turn Black struggles into consumable product, it sure seems like DaCosta is encouraging engagement and rumination. But only sometimes. Other times, we’re watching a slasher movie, or a cheeky Velvet Buzzsaw commentary on art consumption. Candyman can be each of these things, but its various interests—the sheer volume of injustice to sift through and structures to interrogate—cry out for the extra space of a TV series. At mere feature length, the sweets are too sweet.
When the scares of this slasher variation do arrive, Candyman can be quite effective. DaCosta instinctively keeps both audience and legend at arm’s length, occluding kills by focal length and abstracting them into slivers of light under a door or a red-splattered movement across a window you have to squint to catch. The reflective mood flip-flops with requisite carnage, and while the true nature of Candyman has changed, horror fans who come for blood will get it by the bucket. The jokes are applied with intent and purpose; the funniest smash-cut gag of 2021 comes after a Black character asks who would be foolish enough to do the Candyman prompt for fun, just before a white girl traipses down a hallway to her doom. It’s a throwaway goof until DaCosta sees the concept through to interesting places in the film’s final act. One of the pros of bringing diverse experiences and perspectives behind the lens is that it yields culturally unique takes on common themes. Where Bernard Rose spoke on white anxieties and the image of the scary Black man in 1992, DaCosta expands the conversation, relocating the horror from one man to the many structures that foment brutality upon the Black populace.
“Say his name” isn’t just a clever marketing ploy. The film applies the expression with purpose, and mirrors it through craft. Cinematographer John Guleserian’s disciplined lens holds the players on each stage, presenting them with their own reverent portrait as if to immortalize them on the screen. Names of Black men in Cabrini’s history cut down by white apparatuses get their own brief but insistent eulogies, a more somber version of Spike Lee’s pop activism. As those same apparatuses attempt to write another Black man’s story for him and create yet another bogeyman to fear and revile, testifying on their behalf becomes not just necessary but empowering. That power comes through in the performances, most notably the tremulous resolve of Vanessa Williams, reprising her role from the original, and the gravity Domingo brings to his weary, growling lines. Meanwhile, Abdul-Mateen II tackles his starring role with the right balance of intensity and grace, aiming not to top Tony Todd’s iconic turn as the hook-handed killer but to complement it with the same stoic command of the screen he offered in Netflix’s The Get Down and HBO’s Watchmen, another genre project with big thoughts on the Black experience. The Candyman of 2021 represents more than he did three decades ago—indeed, more than a 91-minute movie can adequately explore. But there are worse crimes for a movie to commit than having too many ideas.