1992’s Candyman is remembered less for its mastery than its oddity. Existing in a genre with strict codes, ones that largely excluded people of color and their stressors, its white, female protagonist dug into the titular legend of a Chicago housing project and unearthed a mess of horrors stemming from historical and current racism, with its integration of these weighty topics into a slasher being less profound than unique.
Revisiting the franchise in 2021 allows one to examine these ideas more clearly, to take advantage of a moment when Black horror is mainstream and desirable enough to make a robustly funded redo with Black people as its rightful center. One could argue that’s putting too many expectations on a movie, but to see Nia DaCosta’s 2021 sequel is to admit that’s precisely what she was trying to do: to refocus the movie on the true horrors at its core.
And so instead of grad student Helen you get struggling artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) diving deep into the old legend and unearthing the hook-handed killer. Unfortunately, that’s about the only adjustment this ramshackle reboot gets right, because as soon as the story takes off it’s like a kid in a candy store, grabbing at the innumerable horrors that come with being Black in America without giving any of them the weight or consideration they deserve.
While the horror genre may be new to DaCosta, delving into and struggling with cultural criticism is not. Her debut feature, Little Woods, was a low-key family drama about the perils of class inequality, and while its point couldn’t be more true, its delivery was muddled. A similar feeling takes hold in her Candyman; yes, please dear god get rid of the obnoxious white critic of Anthony’s work (I’m aware of the parallel I exist in), the cruel teenage girls, and the numerous other white people who hold Anthony and his gallery director girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) in boxes. But also, maybe don’t try to handle so many injustices in 90 minutes, and maybe be more careful about the loaded imagery of a Black man slashing people to bits.
The latter is, of course, a fundamental part of any Candyman movie. The lore is that a Black man with a hook for a hand, terrible scarring, and constantly buzzing bee companions stalks the housing project of Cabrini-Green, coming out to kill anyone who dares speak his name five times in a mirror. DaCosta and fellow co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld go even further than the original film in tying him to the looming threats that come with being a Black man in America, but they also lean even further into the folklore element, to its function in culture, and it’s hard to divorce this theme from the real life function of tall tales about Black men being aggressive and murderous as a way of reinforcing white supremacy.
DaCosta and her team seem to be aware of this minefield, but the precision they need to navigate it is missing from the scattershot product. Instead, their attempts to weave Anthony’s story into the original only furthers the messiness of the messaging and the series’ looming discomfort, and one wonders whether this reboot would’ve been better served by taking looser inspiration from its source.
Even with the ongoing problems DaCosta has with firmly grasping her themes, Candyman still shows off why myself and many others pegged her as a filmmaker to watch. Her compositions, particularly the frequent depth of them, makes for striking, satisfying imagery (the final time we see the aforementioned insufferable critic is cathartic). And the way she visualizes folklore, with cutout figures moved by strings, is so effective that it’s welcome no matter how many times she turns to it, especially since its use in the end credits provides a more haunting sendoff than the narrative proper.
As far as handling the good old genre mechanics, DaCosta proves capable but not noteworthy in staging gruesome moments. For all its heady undertones this is a horror movie, after all, so she needs to provide a steady stream of kills and thrills. While her renditions prove a bit sporadic and nondescript, at least they are fairly numerous. The only true standout is a nasty bee sting that slowly spreads rot through Anthony’s arm, a nice bit of creeping body horror that is rarely the focal point of a scene but provides a jolt when you notice it.
These mild ups and downs leave us with a lackluster entry in a franchise saddled with ambitious but thorny ideas. It’s far from a disaster, but the taste it leaves in your mouth isn’t sickening so much as it is bitter. Horror with these sorts of themes shouldn’t leave you feeling good, but the discomfort should come from it rattling uncomfortable truths, not mishandling them.
Release: available in theaters on August 27th, 2021
Director: Nia DaCosta
Writers: Nia DaCosta, Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Rebecca Spence