Bernard Rose’s Candyman opens with a bird’s-eye view of Chicago, the camera gliding along in time to Philip Glass’s eerie, insinuating piano score, the city unfolding below as a labyrinth. Long before the term “elevated horror” came to signify the vertiginous pretensions of genre filmmakers with their eyes trained on transcendence, Candyman’s floating overture nodded dutifully to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, another ghost story set in a sprawling, haunted compound.
Nia DaCosta inaugurates her new, millennial revision of Candyman by looking at the same buildings from a low angle. It’s a pointed inversion of perspective that suggests a more grounded, street-level immersion in the themes of racialized trauma and vengeance. As stylistic maneuvers go, this one is confrontational and complex, a dropping of the directorial gauntlet by an African American filmmaker seeking to put her own stamp on a modern genre-cinema brand name.
“When I was in elementary school, I thought the Candyman was a real thing that was happening to everyone, especially because it took place in the projects,” DaCosta told Taika Waititi last year in Interview, playing up the urban-legend pull of the story as well as the double-dog-dare-you gimmick that made Rose’s movie an early ’90s slumber-party staple. (“I never have— and never will—say his name five times in the mirror.”) The film’s popularity on home video created a franchise whose increasing cheesiness couldn’t obscure its inherent fetishism around violence done to (and by) Black men. Rose’s Candyman is wise about the politics of appropriation and how history gets rewritten by the winners, but it doesn’t necessarily escape its own implications. By foregrounding a white female protagonist in a story set in a historically Black Chicago neighborhood (the now-vanished North Side housing project Cabrini-Green) and having her repeatedly victimized by a hook-handed Black bogeyman—a slave’s son whose tragic backstory inspires but doesn’t necessarily justify the savagery of his predations—the film indulges in its own form of exploitation.
On every level, from conception to execution to marketing, DaCosta’s version of Candyman operates from an understanding of these flaws. In fact, it’s been specifically calibrated to comment on them. This is not a remake so much as a reimagining—a movie made, we might say, for the discourse. So it’s both predictable and frustrating that what’s most fascinating about Candyman 2.0 is how it tries and fails to have it every which way with its predecessor, to serve simultaneously as a critique, a corrective, and a cash-in on a film whose pop-culture shadow is long enough to swallow it whole.
Viewed in 2021, Candyman absolutely holds up: The much-circulated behind-the-scenes anecdote that Rose directed Virginia Madsen in a literal hypnotic trance in several of her scenes draws a bead on the film’s uniquely seductive, voluptuous sense of menace. Few ’90s horror movies pulsate with a comparable sense of dread, and the tension emanates from our understanding that Madsen’s smart-ass grad student Helen Lyle—a hard worker constantly condescended to by the men in her university department—is perpetually in over her head, firstly as a white interloper in the tight-knit community of Cabrini-Green and then as the reincarnated inamorata of the vengeful, undead phantom who’s been using the projects as his stalking grounds. When Helen confronts a gangbanger using the Candyman moniker to intimidate his rivals, she simply gets knocked out cold; when the genuine article manifests in an underground parking lot in an attempt to salvage and reclaim his good (bad) name, it’s the first step in an extended mind-fuck. Candyman came out the same year as Francis Ford Coppola’s expressionistic adaptation of Dracula, and there’s more juice—and terror—in Tony Todd’s honey-voiced come-ons to Madsen than Gary Oldman’s prince-of-darkness pick-up-artist shtick with Winona Ryder. Working with a fraction of the budget and in a much junkier, shamelessly B-movie register, Rose effortlessly accessed the tragic, romantic grandeur that Dracula strove for in every frame.
There’s almost none of that passion in the script DaCosta wrote for her update with Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peele, and none of the romance or eroticism either. In lieu of Madsen’s exquisite vulnerability (which yields its own form of catharsis in the original’s outrageously satisfying, wittily intersectional ending when Helen eviscerates her fuckboi lover while adopting the Candyman mantle), the protagonist is defined by a mixture of brilliance and hubris. Long since tired of being pigeon-holed as a capital-B Black artist in a gallery culture whose gatekeepers are inclined to fetishize anybody with even a trace of outsider appeal, painter Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wryly decides to lean into the stereotype. Intrigued by the urban legend of Candyman—which, we’re asked to believe, has laid dormant since the events of the earlier movie—he devises a series of violent new pieces attracting high-rolling curators and clientele. His girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris)—an ascendant culture vulture similarly aware of her own tokenization—is cool with the paintings, until Anthony begins acting like he’s possessed by their blood-red aesthetics (which, of course, he is).
The idea of an artist getting lost in his work to the point of becoming it is potent stuff that also fits with the motif of Candyman as a creature seen mostly in mirrors. DaCosta is at home in the stylish, anodyne confines of designer art galleries swarming with rubberneckers looking for a bit of gory escapism. A moment when a white teenager smugly Instagrams Anthony’s centerpiece exhibit—a mirror that opens up into a reproduction of Cabrini-Green’s cavernous interiors—not only allegorizes the dynamics of contemporary art-world exhibition and consumption, but also Candyman’s status as a bespoke multiplex object. It’s in accordance with the Candyman myth that Anthony calls his reflective creation “Say My Name,” but the idea of white patrons projecting their identities onto a Black artist’s mirrored canvas—all while using the instantly recognizable, post–Breonna Taylor language of social-justice protest—is deviously clever, especially since that same narcissism invokes a figure of racial vengeance. It’s also telling that Candyman’s first victims here are a cynical hipster and his Joy Division–loving girlfriend, killed in ways that meld their mutilated bodies with their own must-see, It exhibit.
Actually, almost all of the kills in the new Candyman are visually striking and carefully choreographed, as is the film as a whole. Every major setting contains a multiplicity of mirrors or other reflective surfaces, and the title character keeps making coy cameos that we catch only out of the corner of our eye. DaCosta’s direction is clever and even artful. But it isn’t scary, and the lack of genuine blunt-force jolts is a significant problem. On a conceptual plane, Candyman is considerably more cogent than David Bruckner’s new supernatural thriller The Night House, which stars Rebecca Hall as a widow grieving her husband’s death by suicide even as she suspects he’s still posthumously hanging around their lakefront property. But it isn’t even fractionally as freaky. Where Bruckner understands the power and necessity of juxtaposing metaphor with shameless jump scares, DaCosta operates at a curious remove, often quite literally: one meticulously composed long shot effectively miniaturizes a brutal murder so that the gore is barely even visible. A sympathetic way to evaluate this particular strategy would be to say that the film’s violence gives off an antiseptic vibe in line with its art-world milieu; a skeptic might say that CGI continues to be enemy of horror cinema, resulting in movies that somehow feel bloody and bloodless at the same time.
Any time somebody tries to renovate a classic, the response is bound to be polarizing. Writing in Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastien calls DaCosta’s film a “soulless, didactic reimagining,” which is harsh but gets directly at the way the film’s airbrushed pulpiness mirrors its carefully packaged social relevance. It’s interesting that Peele would be interested in developing a Candyman project in that both Get Out and Us feature trace elements of Rose’s film—the former in its channelling of old-school anxieties about interracial romance and the use of hypnosis, the latter through the symbolic use of mirrors and the suggestion of a subterranean, hidden reality being peeled away in front of the protagonists’ eyes. But while both of those hits were deliberately conceived by Peele as “social thrillers,” they still hit their marks as horror movies. Where Peele leads with his sketch comedian’s sense of humor—a valuable weapon in any good horror director’s arsenal—DaCosta’s Candyman comes off as humorless, as if writing its own doctoral thesis in real time. Our interpretation of its ideas and imagery keeps getting narrowed to a set of fine, unambiguous talking points. At one point, Brianna offers up a working definition of gentrification and its causes so that the audience can’t possibly miss its significance in the context of a story about community erasure and endurance. The irony that the film around her feels very much like an act of glossy, upscale genre-gentrification is the only thing that remains unspoken.
The act of storytelling—of passing on fantastic, cautionary narratives, and having them received by a willing listener—is central to the Candyman mythos. “I am the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom,” Todd purred the first time out, drawing a line between his character and the Freddy Krueger of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, who was similarly dependent on word of mouth for his existence. The primary disappointment of DaCosta’s Candyman is that its own storytelling is ultimately poor. The last 20 minutes in particular are choppy in a way that hints at dropped subplots or hasty rewriting, and while the final twist is undeniably provocative—politicizing the Candyman character as a vessel of ethical retribution rather than revenge—it’s also weirdly cheap. The same goes for a mean-spirited sequence that shows a bunch of white girls butchered in a high school bathroom in front of a Black girl whose backpack features a BLM logo; if her bearing witness to their slaughter is meant to be a satirical reversal of the traditional expendability of Black characters in American horror movies, the commentary is canceled out by the scene’s overall throwaway goofiness.
The last close-up, which features DaCosta’s most brazen use of CGI, is inevitable, but it’s also nothing more than fan service, not the sort of thing you’d expect from a movie so self-consciously determined to recenter the narrative, or turn it upside down. As much as DaCosta and Peele deserve credit for trying to make Candyman in their own image, the money shot suggests that even they don’t really believe it’s possible.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.