The original Candyman never seemed like a film that would inspire a legacy sequel three decades later. Released in 1992, the slasher flick with thoughtful ideas about race, storytelling, and collective trauma was a minor hit and inspired two direct-to-video sequels, but its legacy got lost when White-teenagers-in-peril horror films like Scream gentrified the genre. Director Nia DaCosta and producer Jordan Peele are here to reclaim the narrative with a nifty sequel that reflects more of today’s racial discourse, while still scaring the shit out of audiences with a story about a murderous ghost who has a hook for a hand. Some things never change.
The story within the story of Candyman is an urban legend passed around the block: If you look into a mirror and say his name five times, Candyman will appear and kill you. Anthony McCoy (an excellent Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an emerging artist living in a gentrified Chicago neighborhood with his art curator girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), first hears this story over dinner with friends. He decides it’s an idea he can use. Visiting the abandoned projects where the Candyman was last seen—and the first film was set—he runs into local Candyman expert William Burke (Colman Domingo), who shares a more complex version of the legend: He says the Candyman isn’t real, but each generation still tells their own version of the legend. In the first version, he was an enslaved man who escaped but was killed for impregnating a White woman. In a more recent one, he’s an intellectually disabled homeless man beaten to death by the police. Reading between the lines, it all sounds like a solid justification for a sequel.
To Anthony, Candyman is a way both to connect to his roots and advance his career. He creates an art piece that accidentally summons the spirit back into existence, setting off a series of gruesome, thoughtfully-staged murders. DaCosta, whose only prior film is the taut drama Little Woods, proves adept at manufacturing kills that feel fresh, despite treading over such well-worn ground. Candyman is only visible in mirrors, so some of his murders look just like the work of the Invisible Man (itself fresh in the minds of viewers after its excellent remake last year). Nevertheless, DaCosta enlivens these conventions by opting for ingenuity rather than cheap thrills. Just as one kill is about to commence, she cuts to a wide shot from across the street, so that we see the grisly murder play out through the distant window of an apartment. Most horror directors try to make their murders feel intense and immediate, but DaCosta’s restraint makes it more shocking.
With rich themes and skilled direction, Candyman feels as if it should reach the heights of Peele’s directorial efforts, Get Out and Us, but it only ends up showing what an impressive high-wire act those films are. DaCosta struggles to balance gore with brains, ultimately favoring the film’s ideas over its story, which gets us stuck in a hall of metaphors where nothing quite matters. At a basic level, it’s never quite clear if the film sees Candyman as real (that is, as real as a fictional murderous ghost can be) or an abstraction. It intimates that the monster may be a manifestation of Anthony’s ambivalence over his own role in gentrifying a Black community, but the film doesn’t allow itself the time and space to identify or explore, let alone conclude this idea. It’s confusing. If Candyman is just an idea, he can’t be that scary, and if he’s real, then the film wastes far too much time trying to decipher his meaning.
It’s probably the most thoughtful approach to this material that could be imagined, and it’s hard not to admire its sincerity. Still, Candyman ends up more fun to unpack than to actually experience. It’s a dazzling surface with a soft underbelly, an intellectually rewarding experience that fails to cohere into anything with the power of urban legend. The thinkpieces will be better than the film.
Candyman opens in theaters on Friday, Aug. 27.