Candyman hits theaters on Aug. 27.
Speak his name five times in a mirror and he’ll split you from groin to gullet. It’s the kind of spooky story often passed down in whispers, though in the Candyman series — which began nearly 30 years ago — it takes terrifying physical form. The fourth and latest film, directed by Nia DaCosta, revisits the urban legend and more than earns its place as a decades-later sequel. It’s a modern update (and in many ways, a remix) of a Black horror landmark, and while it certainly pays homage to the existing saga, it also digs deeper into the mythos, unearthing volatile ideas that had always lurked just beneath the series surface. The result is inventive, introspective, and above all, unsettling.
Baby Anthony, who was kidnapped by the hook-handed Candyman in the 1992 original, is all grown up. Played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, he’s now a modern artist who lives with his art gallery director girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), in a gentrified Chicago neighborhood, not far from the Cabrini-Green housing project where the first film was set. He has never heard of the Candyman, or about what happened to him as an infant, but when he first learns of the legend — a story the film dramatizes through gorgeous, folkloric shadow puppetry — he’s undoubtedly intrigued. Anthony has been searching for new material for his canvas, so he decides to visit the largely condemned Cabrini-Green, camera in hand, the way grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) did in the first film when she interviewed Anthony’s mother, Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams), all those years ago.
The movie, co-written by DaCosta, Win Rosenfeld, and Jordan Peele, is about the way the past ripples through time, so it takes many of its story cues from prior entries. However, its echoes aren’t limited to characters and events previously shown on-screen. When Helen first theorized that the Candyman was a collective coping mechanism in poor Black communities, she was eventually proven wrong, but the 2021 film makes the fascinating decision to lean into this idea, while still treating the Candyman himself as a supernatural entity summoned by ritual. It explores the multitude of ways this myth was kept alive by the residents of Cabrini-Green, in ways that both mirror the first film — in which an impersonator briefly adopts the Candyman persona — and in ways that skillfully subvert it.
During his search, Anthony meets a local laundromat owner, Burke (Colman Domingo), one of the neighborhood’s last remaining residents, who acts as a keeper of forgotten myths. He regales Anthony with enrapturing details, not only about the original Candyman — Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), a Black painter who was lynched for loving a white woman in the 19th century — but about other Black men who either adopted or were saddled with the Candyman mantle over the years, and who met similar fates at the hands of white supremacy. Some characters’ connections to the Candyman are more literal and explicit. Others’ connections are more abstract, told through subtleties in the costume and production design.
In the original three films from the 1990s, Robitaille was a vengeful, honeybee-infested spirit who represented unconfronted sins from a century prior, but the new movie makes the case that those sins never truly ended. It finally approaches the Candyman as something more complex than a vicious (albeit sympathetic) monster, whose narrative purpose is, ironically, to be slain once more. Brianna, for instance, is haunted by her own personal, metaphorical Candyman, a lingering trauma from her childhood, which we see play out in flashbacks. She grew up wealthier than Anthony, but violent, negligent, racist systems have hurt her family too.
The past can only stay hidden for so long, and once the mirror ritual makes its way back out into the world, the resurgence is a treat. Candyman is by no means a mystery to the audience — DaCosta, rightfully, treats the mere presence of honeybees as ominous — but the film’s violence is deliciously mysterious. It can be shocking and stark, and it can also be tongue-in-cheek (depending on who’s at the other end of the meat hook), but what separates it from prior entries is that its kills are rarely shown from the perspective of the people who summon Candyman, to whom he usually appears in person. Initially, the violence is presented from an outsider’s POV, with victims left at the mercy of an unseen force visible only in shadows and reflections, as we watch helplessly from a distance. The Candyman feels even more otherworldly than he did before, and his emergence from pieces of art and architecture speak to the ways in which violence can infest the walls and stories of a community.
The film withholds its slasher moments for about as long as the original did. In the meantime, it bides its time with a creeping, slow-burn exploration of spaces, and the way people and their stories are shaped by their environments. DaCosta, cinematographer John Guleserian and editor Catrin Hedström always ensure the audience has an understanding of how each character moves about the frame and how they exist within each setting, before the film cuts to close ups. Composer Robert A. A. Lowe focuses similarly on extracting emotions from physical structures; his music evokes the atmospheric sounds of Philip Glass, who scored the first two entries, but he also injects the many shots of Chicago’s architecture with hard-hitting, propulsive compositions, as if something were waiting to burst forth from the city’s very fabric.
Smart production design choices emphasize the theme of gentrification, a logical next step in the series. The modern finish of Anthony and Brianna’s apartment, and their expensive art decor, are a far cry from the graffiti on the dilapidated walls of Cabrini-Green, located just a stone’s throw away. As Anthony begins to rediscover the Candyman tale that he was purposely cut off from, he inadvertently falls into the same cycle as the series’ other protagonists, whose investigations were often from an outsider’s perspective, and were removed from the real violence at the heart of the saga. Abdul-Mateen’s portrayal is no doubt sympathetic — there’s a sense of desperation to Anthony’s search, because it’s as much about discovering a horror story as it is about discovering himself — but he also crafts a character who reeks of a familiar outsider arrogance, since his art is paramount to him, and may even come at the cost of his humanity. At first, the Candyman story and its painful legacy are simply source material for him to exploit.
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The film, in key moments, critiques this approach to art and turns the camera on itself, as if to question the purpose of telling stories of Black pain in the first place. DaCosta and Peele are the first Black storytellers to put their stamp on Candyman, and they bring a thoughtfulness to the material which previous entries lacked, both narratively and visually. You only need one hand to count the film’s traditional scares — the jumpy, startling kind, accompanied by jagged sounds — because DaCosta’s approach is far from traditional, turning many of the historic trends of Hollywood horror on their head (some of which date back to The Birth of a Nation from 1915).
DaCosta, rather than only approaching Candyman as an unknown terror waiting to pounce — on vulnerable white women, as in all three prior films — also takes an inside-out approach, and frames the series’ mythos as a distinctly known quantity to many of its Black characters. What they know about the world and its violent power structures scares them far more than what they don’t know. In the new film, horror and bloodshed don’t feel sudden, but rather, they feel inevitable and unstoppable, as has long been the reality in Black communities that are over-policed.
Before long, Anthony’s investigations into the Candyman story begin to consume him — in more ways than one — leading to an unexpected conclusion that feels both satisfying and uniquely bone-chilling. Without erasing what came before it, the film pushes the character and his mythology in a fascinating new direction, which not only has the potential to reestablish him as a fixture of pop culture, but which acts as a vital course correction, reclaiming who gets to tell the story of Blackness in American cinema.