Few writers can claim creative rights to even a single iconic horror character, but Clive Barker is the wonderfully twisted mind behind two (three if you count Rawhead Rex, which I know you don’t, as I’m the only one who loves that big bastard) in Hellraiser‘s Pinhead and the title “monster” of 1992’s Candyman. The latter film was followed by two forgettable sequels (Farewell to the Flesh in 1995 and Day of the Dead in 1999), which failed to approach the original’s horror bonafides and weighty social commentary. That’s not the case with Nia DaCosta‘s 2021 Candyman film.
A direct sequel to the first installment of the franchise, the 2021 Candyman is a stylish, beautifully acted horror movie blending American tragedy and mythology in thought-provoking ways. It needs a bit more room to breathe. But what we get is enough to inject fresh life into the franchise. And establish DaCosta as a filmmaker to watch.
After a brief opening set in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project in the early 1970s, we jump to the present day and a young man named Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He’s struggling to live up to his early promise as an “important” artist, and while his gallery agent girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) helps where she can, the pressure is mounting. He finds that missing inspiration, though, after hearing about the boogeyman who once roamed the streets below their expensive high-rise condo: a Black man with a hook and a habit of handing out candy to kids was falsely accused of a crime and brutally murdered by police.
A past Cabrini-Green resident named William (Colman Domingo) expands on the story with mention of a white woman who went mad back in the 90s after researching the area’s most infamous urban legend, and soon Anthony finds his own sanity tested. While his mind and body shift in uncontrollable and ugly ways, the body count rises around him.
The 2021 Candyman should erase any memory of the two previous and inferior sequels as it’s the first follow-up to both honor what came before and build on its themes in memorable ways. DaCosta knows that mythology can shift over time depending on who’s doing the telling, and its impact can grow or weaken alongside it. To grow, though, a mythology needs to be shared — there’s a reason Candyman reportedly comes calling when his name is spoken five times, there’s a reason different communities have different tales to keep them up late at night, and there’s a reason fresh blood must sometimes be spilled.
As with Bernard Rose’s original 1992 Candyman film, the 2021 film explores these ideas through the American lens of Black experience. Unlike Rose’s film, it’s being told this time by Black filmmakers and protagonists, and the difference is at times profound.
This being a horror film, particularly one about a killer wielding a razor-sharp hook, it’s a guarantee that bloody murders will rear their head. Happily, DaCosta and cinematographer John Guleserian deliver on that promise with kills both graphic and restrained. While gorehounds may wish for more of the red stuff, there’s no arguing the dark beauty of the murder set-pieces here. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces come into play as Candyman strikes with both a gallery killing and a bathroom slaughter finding tension at times even in what we don’t see.
Another kill unfolds brilliantly behind a condo’s large windows as the camera pulls farther and farther away — like a nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the screen fills with windows, buildings, and lives in progress, but only one features a crimson spray.
DaCosta doesn’t reserve her artist’s eye for the genre beats, though, as the entire film is an attractively shot watch. From the visual contrasts between the couple’s posh life and the shuttered remnants of Cabrini-Green beneath them to the transformation undertaken by Anthony as both Candyman and his legend infect his brain, what we see is almost as important as what we hear. (Related, while Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man” opens the film, Robert A.A. Lowe‘s score becomes a hauntingly evocative reminder of the uncertain darkness just around the corner.)
Elements of the mythology, both dating back to Daniel Robitaille’s original demise and to the events of the 1992 film, are brought to life with paper shadow-puppets, and they’re as effective as they are eerie. Their use also calls into play how easily fact becomes fiction and back again.
The 2021 film’s issues can be blamed mostly on its running time — just ninety-one minutes, making it the shortest of all four Candyman installments — leading to a somewhat rushed third act. Certain revelations lack the time to unspool with real clarity, and there are some missed opportunities when it comes to themes and questions that go unexplored. DaCosta and her co-writers (Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld) clearly have a lot on their minds. But while an overarching condemnation of this country’s treatment towards Black Americans is clear, the film’s more specific points are often lost despite some on-the-nose hammer blows throughout a hurried back half.
Gentrification, police brutality, white society building then razing communities of color, white artists “lowering” themselves to live in the projects until inspiration strikes… Peele’s influence on a story already oozing racial commentary is evident but packed far too tightly at times. “They love what we make, but not us,” is a powerful observation by a Black artist deserving of more than a passing exhalation.
The script for the 2021 Candyman is generally on point and instead only feels gutted and/or rushed due to possible editing or poor choices along the way, but some beats feel off altogether. A handful of characters talk like stereotypes rather than people — a gallery owner, art elites, some teens — and one character’s dialogue to himself while under attack is woefully out of place. “Is this real? Must go faster!” It’s unclear if we’re supposed to laugh as these people are being slaughtered, but if so, it’s a tonal misfire.
The lead performances have no such issues and are instead captured in all their pained, emotional glory. Abdul-Mateen finds the tragedy in Anthony’s shift from optimistic artist to a tool in a much larger paint box, while Parris is challenged first as an outsider to his suffering and then as a witness to terror. Her character feels the most short-changed by the film’s brevity and choppy back half, but even as it stands she’s unforgettable. Domingo too feels as if he left some scenes on the cutting room floor, but his brief turn here is a powerful one.
Candyman himself is a minimal physical presence here due to the specific nature of the story and visual approach, and while it works for the film, it does leave a void of sorts that Tony Todd filled in the original. Todd is the soul of that film — damaged, angry, and unforgivable, but the soul all the same — and we don’t quite get an equivalent here.
While the 2021 Candyman suffers some for what’s not on the screen, what we do get is a dramatic and thrilling glimpse into a cycle of violence in America. It’s lighter on direct scares than some viewers may be expecting, but its atmosphere and painfully true observations are often frightening enough. It’s a horror film about the boogeyman that explores both where he came from and why he’ll never truly leave, and it’s a terrifying realization that will live on long after the movie ends.