While sequels, reboots, and adaptations overwhelm the modern movie landscape across the board, the current status quo has really been standard procedure in horror for nearing a century. A cycle of Frankenstein films spotlighting the monster made waves in the 1930s only for a new series shifting the spotlight to his creator to turn heads in the 1950s. In the 1980s, a pair of horror greats of that era, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, made two of their most iconic films rebooting 1950s titles, The Thing and The Fly. Remakes and sequels have always been king when it comes to movie horror, and the ongoing trend of revamping classic titles, from The Invisible Man to Black Christmas, could not be more in the vein of “the more things change the more they say the same” if it tried.
Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, the latest entry in the latest glut of horror retakes, is a sequel/soft reboot of the 1992 Bernard Rose film of the same name, itself adapted from the Clive Barker short story “The Forbidden.” Like the original Candyman, the story revolves around the area of Chicago’s Near North Side once home to the ill-fated Cabrini-Green public housing projects. But where the 1992 film spoke to an under-resourced enclave left to rot by local authorities and institutions, the new movie focuses on gentrification, reflecting the reality that the Cabrini-Green Homes have all been demolished since the 1990s, and the area where they once stood become subject to significant gentrification.
The legend of Candyman is still what it was in the first film: say his name five times in the mirror and the hook-handed shadow man will appear to gut you like a fish. His origin story remains the tale of Daniel Robitaille, a talented artist and son of a wealthy Black family in late 19th century Chicago who gets into a relationship with a white woman and pays for it with his life after her wrathful father sends a lynch mob after him. Only now, the events of the original Candyman film—the story of grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, who reprises her role in a voice cameo) who seeks to write a Candyman thesis and becomes possessed by him instead—are also part of the legend itself.
Much like Helen, the protagonist of DaCosta’s Candyman finds himself drawn towards the legend in search of inspiration. But while she sought to write a thesis, visual artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, about five minutes away from officially locking in A-list leading man status because he is truly the full package) is scrambling to avoid a sophomore slump after landing a successful solo show straight out of school. When he learns about the Candyman legend at a dinner party, he finds his interest piqued—and, much like Helen twenty years previously, Anthony grabs a camera and heads out to investigate.
The new Candyman is a deeply entertaining, frequently creepy horror flick featuring some incredibly slick visual storytelling, and a somewhat more hit-or-miss script, which DaCosta co-authored with Jordan Peele and the president of his Monkeypaw Productions banner, Win Rosenfeld. While the social commentary of Candyman isn’t handled with the same sort of deft hand that made Get Out such a home run, the particular “punctuate scares with a punchline” approach to horror that Peele does so well remains very much present here, and is still an incredibly effective way to entertain and horrify at the same time.
The social commentary present in the script’s dialogue, though, is less effective. Its commentary on being Black in America paints in questionably broad strokes with a heavy hand, ditto gentrification. When it comes to these issues, the film repeats certain key phrases (“say his name,” a definite tip of the hat to the Black Lives Matter movement that subtextually doesn’t quite add up), but often doesn’t necessarily have the most nuanced ideas to share. The key takeaways are nothing egregious— the wounds of collective trauma are not scars that simply heal with time and cycles of violence and pain are self-perpetuating—but hardly groundbreaking, either.
It’s the sort of script that often says the most interesting things when it stops talking because Candyman does have some solidly interesting things to say, it’s just much better at showing than it is at telling (cinematographer John Guleserian does some stellar work here). The opening, for instance, presents a masterclass in generating unease, with a camera that slowly but steadily spins viewers in circles, upside down and then right-side-up, narratively making its way through two “false starts” of a sort with characters who ultimately prove to be supporting players before introducing finally Anthony.
Candyman is at its best as a story about stories—how they themselves are living things that evolve, the degree to which they are shaped by interpretation, how they can be manipulated. There are times when the film’s own narrative of Candyman seems to contradict itself, but that, too, feels like something that could well be intentional.
It’s deeply ironic that this Candyman centers on a visual artist and not a semiotics grad student like the original, because between the two, there’s a lot more here to dig into when it comes to semiotics. DaCosta’s film sees the titular legend not as a singular story so much as an Aarne-Thompson-Uther index tale type; an evolving collection of variants descended from a common ancestor best understood as a collective. Its most daring innovation is a shift in emphasis from individual to collective identities. It’s here where the film’s most intriguing food for thought lies, in how it interacts with both the original Candyman and horror narrative tropes more generally.
It’s worth noting here that DaCosta’s approach to telling this story is starkly different from Rose’s, including in ways that might disappoint some fans of the earlier film. The particular textured specificity very much present in the original, which highly values the Chicago of it all in terms of building up a narrative very specific and organic to the city in which it’s set, is decidedly absent here. The new film takes place in Chicago because the specific ways in which this film links back to its predecessor mandate the continuity, but the film itself feels so nonspecific in its setting that I, someone raised in Chicago, quite regularly forgot while watching this film that it is set in the city of my birth.
If there’s one film from which the new Candyman is taking its cues, it feels like that film is actually David Cronenberg’s 1986 take on The Fly. While Helen Lyle is abruptly overtaken by the Candyman in a jarring midpoint twist, Anthony transforms in a slow decay, a solid take on the Seth Brundle playbook of tragic monstrosity. (It’s also worth noting that DaCosta’s approach to the setting of the film is similarly far more akin to The Fly, which never even names the city in which it is set.)
Candyman’s saving grace in its stickier moments is its appeal to levity and unabashed efforts to entertain. A flawed attempt at Saying Something Important plays off much better in a film that leans into beats of camp and comedy than one that doubles down by taking itself way too damn seriously (yes, Antebellum, I’m talking about you). Candyman plays with viewer expectations not just to generate unease but also laughter, like in a beat where one character faces the age-old option of exploring a dark basement alone—only to slam the door shut and back away immediately, too genre-savvy to fall into that trap. While hardly the most sophisticated gag, through strong execution it’s highly effective nonetheless. Overall, Candyman plays out like a sample platter of the horror genre, from the strong vein of horror-comedy to psychological suspense, Cronenbergian body horror, an interlude of a ’90s teen slasher bloodbath complete with unabashedly syrupy blood, and even a sequence that does Velvet Buzzsaw arguably better than Velvet Buzzsaw.
Candyman’s best moments are both provocative and entertaining—prime studio horror fare—but its stumbles also are also decidedly interesting. While most of the movie’s dialogue with the original film is deeply intriguing, for instance, one particular step the new Candyman takes to position itself as a direct sequel to the original throws in a “chosen one” aspect to the story that feels disappointingly at odds with the emphasis on collective over individual identity on display throughout the rest of the film.
Love it or hate it, it’s hard to imagine anyone leaving this film feeling indifferent. For both its strengths and weaknesses, Candyman is a film that is intended to spark conversation, and on that front, it solidly succeeds.
Candyman is in theaters as of August 27, 2021.
Header Image Source: Universal Pictures