‘Candyman’ Drips With Dread, Gore and Biting Social Commentary

The new “Candyman,” a revival and sequel to a concept first made popular in the hit 1992 original of the same name, touches at the root of pop folk tales. It’s a perfect theme for cinema, which is the ultimate myth-generator of our time. More importantly, this “Candyman” is more upfront about its mythology being directly connected to the Black American experience. At its best it’s a “bogeyman” story that uses gore and shocks to connect to issues like police brutality and gentrification. The director is Nia DaCosta, who is working from a screenplay co-written by the supremely busy Jordan Peele, who is also producing. While DaCosta shows off a confident visual eye, the tone is all Peele in how it combines a love for B-movie energy with social commentary.

While not completely necessary, it would help to watch the ‘92 original by Bernard Rose since DaCosta’s film returns to its same place and setting. Nearly 30 years later and we return to Chicago’s Cabrini Green, which, like all major cities of America, is being quickly gentrified. Living in the new, plush high towers that have bulldozed the housing projects, is aspiring artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) with girlfriend and curator, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Already scrutinized by friends and even Brianna’s brother for being the quintessential broke artist, Anthony urgently seeks a new theme and inspiration. He seems to find it in the local story of Candyman, the hooked specter who appears when you say his name five times in front of a mirror. His search leads to the story of a wrongfully-accused Black man killed by the police in a brutal raid in the 1970s. Anthony also learns the added tale of Helen Lyle, played in the Rose film by Virginia Madsen, who came down to the projects to investigate the myth and became one herself, after saving a child and burning to death in a bonfire. Newly inspired, Anthony begins his new exhibition, full of disturbed, unsettling imagery. But in the process he might be summoning Candyman for a new rampage.

Dismiss the forgettable sequels that came before this one, 1995’s “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh” and 1999’s “Candyman: Day of the Dead,” like David Gordon Green’s “Halloween,” this is the worthier follow-up to what has grown into a cult title. It maintains the central strength of the first film, which is its visual impact. Folk tales are never supposed to make literal sense in terms of real-world plausibility. Like La Llorona, we’re not meant to ask how one can even be Candyman, whose arrival tends to be announced by the appearance of bees. These are symbols that come to be because of more recognizable situations. This was also part of the themes in the Clive Barker short story, “The Forbidden,” which Rose adapted into his original script. Anthony meets a laundromat worker, William (Colman Domingo), who serves as the central storyteller, explaining to Anthony the original version of Candyman’s genesis as a Black man in the 19th century wronged by his racist overlords, who lynched and tortured him with honey and amputations before setting him on fire. The victim’s misdeed was loving a white woman. This is told through shadow puppets, a powerful tool that was also used in the film’s trailer. Stay for the end credits, where the same technique is used to dramatize infamous moments of American racist violence. It’s a powerful visual touch, because it mocks our obsession with fantasy and fairy tales in this country, where reality has been anything but for the oppressed.

While the Rose film was dead serious, with a gritty dread that has aged well, Peele and co-writer Win Rosenfeld don’t shy away from easing some of the intensity in this update with bits of satire and humor. The opening studio logos appear backwards with Sammy Davis Jr.’s cover of “The Candy Man” becoming creepy in a way we might not have imagined before. Peele and Rosenfeld then take light aim at the art world and its subtle classism and open pretentiousness. Anthony’s new show opens and a critic practically smirks at its design, dismissing his critiques of gentrification when it’s the hip new artists who move into the high rises replacing the old neighborhoods. The dialogue is peppered with the kind of art school jargon that turns a simple explanation into archaic gibberish. Once Clive (Brian King), the catty gallery owner, is slaughtered in the exhibit space, the critic returns, now truly interested. DaCosta avoids the usual stereotypes in “urban” films. In the first film a white woman was our guide through a Black story and community. DaCosta flips the tables and makes Black characters the center, ranging from William at the laundromat to Brianna’s gay brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who is also a fun representation of the artsy “hipster” class. 

DaCosta confirms she also has skill in filming the gore and jumps the genre demands. It never goes as far as decapitating dogs as in the first movie, but there are still many moments of dreadful atmosphere and gorged body parts. A smart technique is how the scares build up. When Anthony has an encounter in an elevator, or when Brianna senses a presence in her bedroom, DaCosta doesn’t just splash it all on the screen. The editing is precise and sharp. There is also an avoidance of overusing digital spooks. “Candyman” retains a tradition of gritty horror, preferring a bee sting that begins to spread and change Anthony’s skin in gruesome ways, to overdone CGI creatures. A cut open throat is much more disturbing than some demonic force that looks taken from a video game. When the Candyman appears, scarred and merciless, he’s never a movie monster, but an apparition that feels all too real. Although, the film does lack the poetic, romantic language Tony Todd delivered so richly as the original Candyman in1992. There is a high school bathroom bloodbath filmed with great sense of control, where sound and distant violence becomes more rattling than seeing the gore up close.

The visuals, social commentary and excellent performances overcome some of the movie’s more scattered elements. “Candyman” wants to say a lot and sometimes the narrative gets a bit cluttered in the tug-of-war between critiquing the art world and connecting the folk tale to racist terror. The twist revelation at the end almost feels forced in order to have some kind of real link to the first movie. But as a whole it’s a memorable experience, and a scene of police brutality near the end is filmed with such effective, disturbing ambiance that we’re more terrified of the abuse of power than of the specter with a hook. A real value to “Candyman” is that certain audience members might feel it’s too much to treat issues like gentrification and racism with such bloody gusto and upfront spirit. Maybe that’s what it takes. We never start to consider certain truths until they make us lose sleep. Now say his name five times. 

Candyman” releases Aug. 27 in theaters nationwide.