When the original Candyman debuted in 1992, it was a resounding game changer. After years of Black characters in horror cinema treated as either ‘the other’ (think back to the B-movies of the 50s and the absence of POC, and substituted as the ‘monster’ of the story), background figures or the first to die, having a film catering for Black audiences with our own bogeyman gave the necessary impact.
It provided agency for the Black community, where we can be frightened in the same way Freddie Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers have transcended pop culture and been held as pillars of the horror community. And it worked, terrifying me as a child. But the original is not without its complications. If you’ve seen Shudder’s brilliant documentary Horror Noire, it elaborates on the film’s complex dynamics and viewpoints – a white gaze, with a white protagonist, with a strong undercurrent of interracial attraction, in a story intrinsically Black. It doesn’t stop the film from being good. The fear factor still holds up today, but the tropes have such a psychological power, it can be scarily traced right back to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
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There’s something incredibly powerful that Nia DaCosta achieves with this iteration of Candyman. Calling it a ‘sequel’ or a ‘spiritual successor’ (although it is wise you should watch the original to put it into perspective) doesn’t quite do it justice. Nor is it “this year’s Get Out” – as seen on a recent pull quote on its advertisement, which diminishes what DaCosta uniquely brings to the table, all for it to be lazily tossed under the same bracket. What she accomplishes is a re-imagining of the iconic character, a contemporary re-contextualisation that explores the power of the myth. And in doing so, the meaning of Candyman takes on a greater, psychological presence on what it means to take your power back.
The script penned by DaCosta, Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld offers plenty of ‘food for thought’, amplified through some atmospheric (and occasionally otherworldly) direction and a haunting score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. It rallies behind the examination of urban legends through its authorship and how the stories manifest, gravitate, change, amplify and evolve through time. And it is the inherited traumas that speak the loudest and how we cope and heal from such tragedies. The Black community is no stranger to this encapsulation – told on many occasions through relatives before us that we have to work ‘ten times as hard’, or they love what we create, but they don’t want us, which resonates on so many different levels.
The concept of a Black bogeyman almost lessens its impact when the world constantly reveals how Black lives are valued in all walks of society. Even the film’s chilling use of shadow puppetry is based on real events. The cleverness lies behind how it integrates its social themes of gentrification, racial tension, and Black history (including the tragic cycle of violence and trauma) into its DNA. It may be an over-familiarised tale and probably doesn’t offer anything new to the conversation from what we know. It doesn’t offer the desired, cathartic escapism that is longed for. But on the other hand, it matters on who and how that story is navigated. And the fear translates differently for the audience it’s aimed at (including the various cascading opinions that will most likely appear in its eventual discourse).
After establishing its 70s backstory, the transition sees artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his art gallery director girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) having moved into the now opulent surroundings of Cabrini Green. The legend of Candyman hangs over the community like a cloud – perhaps not as strongly as it once did. But it goes on to serve as creative inspiration for Anthony’s stagnated career. The deeper he goes, the more the art begins to imitate life and vice versa.
Following in the footsteps of Tony Todd is by no means an easy feat, but Yahya’s captivating performance is enriched by that slow unravelling towards madness. His character symbolises not only what happens when you lose yourself to the art, but how its meaning (or its message) is viewed in others, often fuelled by prejudices and culture vulture biases, merely understood on a shallow level. It becomes a subtle critique of sorts – a feeling that gnaws away at his psyche.
And it’s through him, as a vessel for the chaos, it brings Candyman’s history full circle, running the gauntlet by how it reminds everyone where the value of art and story lies – with horrifying consequences. It builds a great rapport with the rest of the cast. Teyonah Parris shines, and Colman Domingo’s William Burke (representative of how people live with the legacies of a prevailing history) once again shows off his transformative acting flex.
But perhaps its only limitations with its characters come from how they engage in the mystery. For instance, Brianna’s character briefly taps into the female traumas and the psychological baggage that haunts us. But given the wide-ranging scope, its depiction only goes a certain distance, a sample without the ample time to provide a definitive evaluation in its commentary. It ends up becoming representative of the many metaphorical cyphers towards the film’s ultimate messaging.
But that is always offset by what DaCosta ultimately defines in her vision. It’s a film not interested in jump scares or any cheap thrills that have previously enveloped the genre. DaCosta playfully uses the cinematic canvas where the film is always in a constant state of nervous unease and dread. The film’s clever use of mirrors and reflective surfaces (where its perspective is always off-kilter, away from the rest of the action) wreaks havoc with your mind as it plays into the psychology of Candyman’s lingering presence. The slow, immersive dolly-esque zoom shots that either pull or ‘runs away’ from the terror. And in dialling up the creep factor, it’s the unflinching, Cronenberg use of body horror or the twisted use of Sammy Davis Jr.’s ‘Candy Man’ song in its opening credits. Even the brazen, cavalier use of its titular name as said by its eventual victims are given brutal conclusions – punishment for their ignorance, arrogance, and non-belief. And it culminates into a gut-punch of a third act.
But aside from the depth, there’s enough energy within DaCosta’s film where it works as entertainment. The pocket-sized injection of humour allows it to break up the tension, giving the audience a brief respite before the onslaught continues. The breezy runtime also means that it never outstays its welcome.
Complementing the original but adding substance to its value, Candyman thoughtfully expands on its mythology yet delights for its conscious scares. It’s the type of film that heavily leans into its horror aesthetics to deliver a heart-pumping thrill ride but with room to articulate and ponder. You may not feel safe in saying Candyman’s name in front of a mirror, but if you are to say something five times (and more), let it be Nia DaCosta.
Candyman is out now in Cinemas.