I had never seen the 1992 horror film Candyman, and I’m so glad I watched it before I saw the new movie of the same name. This is being promoted as a “spiritual sequel” to the ’92 film, but it’s very much a direct follow-on from the original story (which is itself loosely based on a story by frightster Clive Barker called “The Forbidden”). Would the new movie be incomprehensible without the background of the first one? Not at all. But if there is anything you find even the least bit appealing about this new Candyman, you would do very well indeed to watch, or rewatch, the ’92 film.
The older Candyman holds up extremely well 30 years later, and would today be considered “elevated horror,” an ugly phrase that has become necessary only because the genre has gotten so clogged with meaningless ultraviolent slasher flicks and gratuitous torture porn (another ugly phrase, but an oh-so appropriate one). Both Candymans, the 1992 film and the new one, use horror to delve deeper into humanity’s dark side. No spoilers: The original movie is the tale of grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen [Joy, The Haunting in Connecticut], who ends up redefining the idea of the “final girl”), who is cowriting a thesis with a friend (Kasi Lemmons, who’d later direct Harriet and Talk to Me) about Chicago’s urban legends. And she becomes a tad obsessed with one about Candyman, a bogeyman figure with a hook for a hand who appears if you say his name in a mirror five times, at which point he kills you. So why on earth would anyone summon Candyman? Ah, well, this is one of the things Helen is studying: what hold urban legends have on those who revel in them, and what they say about our collective cultural fears, both conscious and unconscious.
Here’s the thing, though: Helen is white, and she is investigating a manifestation of the Candyman legend among the residents of the unfortunately — and unfairly — notorious Cabrini-Green housing project, which is home to poor Black people. Candyman is Black, too (he’s played by the mesmerizing Tony Todd: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Final Destination 3), and the tragic roots of his story — again, I won’t spoil — are fixed in America’s horrific racist past, just as its impact at Cabrini-Green springs from America’s racist present. The film avoids becoming a white-savior narrative for lots of reasons, but as powerfully as it explores the legacy of American racism, its tale is nevertheless told from the perspective of a white person.
But with this sequel, coscreenwriter and director Nia DaCosta, a Black woman, fully centers Black stories and Black experience. (Get Out’s Jordan Peele is a producer and one of DaCosta’s cowriters, and this is inevitably — and way too simplistically — being likened to Get Out. I’m tempted to say that calling Candyman “this year’s Get Out” is like saying, “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could have.” There is a character in this movie who is an arts critic, and a white woman. She’s not nice, and she’s not an undeserved warning to my fellow film journos to really think before we write about this movie.) We are back in Chicago in the vicinity of Cabrini-Green, though it is much changed. The neighborhood has undergone massive gentrification; in reality, most of Cabrini-Green was demolished just a few years after the first film was released. The Black people at the center of the story now are very well off: artist’s agent Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris: WandaVision, If Beale Street Could Talk, who deserves to be a huge star), and her partner, painter Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II: Us, Aquaman).
Today, Anthony is the one obsessed with Candyman: he’s only just heard about this urban legend, and it speaks to him for reasons he doesn’t initially understand. (Abdul-Mateen will later turn a bit of associated body horror into something quite poignant.) Researching the story leads him to Helen Lyle’s tale, which has itself become mythologized and misinterpreted, her name deployed by some for purposes that suit their preconceptions, not reality.
Some of that comes via a former Cabrini-Green resident Anthony encounters, Burke (Colman Domingo: Zola, Selma), who claims to have been visited by Candyman as a child, and who is a thwarted artist himself. Some of Helen’s story and other aspects of the rich, messy cultural canvas Anthony uncovers unfurl onscreen as a shadowplay of paper puppets; this was a medium Burke experimented with as a child. It’s a clever, beautiful, and sneakily profound way for DaCosta — already an accomplished filmmaker with only her second feature — to toy with plausibility, the unreliable narrator that culture can be, and the power of storytelling that endures regardless of that sometimes unreliability; this conceit is just one of the strikingly original and unexpectedly moving things about this movie. The film will put Anthony right about Helen’s story eventually, but if you come into this new Candyman aware of what “really” happened with her, via a recent viewing of the 1992 movie, you can see the subtle warp and weft of DaCosta’s story as it unfolds rather than in retrospect.
Inextricably woven together here are inescapable legacies of violence, the debatable boundary between unacceptable cultural appropriation and genuine artistic inspiration (which we might see as a commentary on the first movie), the pernicious influence of historical racism into today, and how wealth and influence cannot protect the people in racism’s sights. They come together in a tapestry the big picture of which is this: We absolute must not bury even the worst, most terrible stories. We must remember them and spread their lessons far and wide. As with the 1992 film, there is plenty of gore here — though probably less than the slasher flicks and the torture pornos have trained us to expect — but what’s scary in Candyman is not blood and guts, not monsters jumping out at us. It is the very real horror of the hatred that is baked into our society, a hatred that is always lurking in the shadows and all too often rears its hideous face.
This is not a movie about white people, and yet we might hear Candyman’s ultimate insistence to “Tell everyone” directed squarely to that quarter. Perhaps a juicy genre flick like this one is one way to get that heard.
viewed as part of S.O.U.L Fest 2021 at the BFI