Nia DaCosta’s remake of the 1992 horror film that successfully introduced a new and enduring bogeyman into the horror pantheon stakes out its territory while remaining true to the spirit of original.
A figure of fictional urban folklore, the Candyman (Tony Todd, who originated the role and is as imposing as ever) was born in Cabrini Green, a Chicago housing project so crime- and drug-riddled that it was razed–the 20th-century equivalent of just putting a match to the festering mess and burning it to the ground. The angry spirit of a maimed and murdered black man who dared to believe being educated and artistically gifted would protect him from the simmering rage of 19th-century white people determined to protect their privileged status, was routed three decades ago by two young women–one a graduate student researching urban folklore. But city real estate is valuable, so rather than going full-on scorched earth, developers repurposed the site, turning it into a pricy, pretty condo development full of upwardly mobile owners too educated and level-headed to believe in boogeymen. More fools they, unprotected by superstition, atavistic memory of things that go bump in the night and the understanding that nothing stays buried forever. Fools like gallery owner Brianna (Teyonah Parris) and her partner Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who’s suffering from the visual artist’s equivalent of writer’s block. The largely forgotten story of a more recent Candyman–a former resident of the complex wrongly accused of putting razorblades in Halloween candy (an enduring real-life urban legend)–which he learns from neighbor William (Coleman Domingo), both breaks through Anthony’s creative stasis and, through his obsessive paintings of his toxic muse, to a whole new flock of unsuspecting sheep. After all, sophisticated art lovers aren’t superstitious peasants who, lack of formal education notwithstanding, have better sense than to poke slumbering demons with sharp sticks.
Candyman is beautifully directed and sharply written by DaCosta, Win Rosenfeld, and Jordan Peele; one standout scene places a bloody murder in the background framed by a window like a grotesque painting while a gaggle of art lovers in another building, chattering in the foreground conversation, fail to notice and recalls the art-gallery murder in Dario Argento’s The Bird with the crystal Plumage (1970), another film that wraps its shocks in beautiful imagery. But beyond its success at breathing new life into a decades’ old story, Candyman is a reminder that horror movies don’t have to be formulaic scare machines. Fun though body-count movies can be, more ambitious horror films operate on different levels, delivering the shocks and scares while exploring material that’s disturbing on a different level. And while all the Candyman movies have their roots in Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden, the original story is primarily about class while the Candyman series is explicitly about race. Beneath Candyman’s scenes of suspense and shock (interspersed with some tired digs at pretentious art-world types) is a deep vein of race-related anxiety, an unease that isn’t limited to the poor and ghetto-bound. And its final scene is a pointed reminder (one that recalls the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Junior for breaking into his own home) that race trumps all. Like Peele’s own US, Candyman is both smart and slyly subtle without sacrificing the shocks and scares horror movie lovers expect. And kudos to the Manual Cinema Collective, who created the striking paper cut-out sequences that fill in the original Candyman’s backstory; it’s an elegant solution to the problem of getting viewers up to speed.