Candyman, in its first incarnation, stepped daintily out of the mirror in 1992, in writer-director Bernard Rose’s US-set version of the Clive Barker novella The Forbidden, a parable of English class shame set in a Liverpool housing estate. Rose shifted the locale to Chicago’s deprived Cabrini-Green projects, switched the racial identity of the demon from white to black and gave filmgoers that inspired premise of exactly how he is summoned by rash unbelievers and giggling teens. Since then, Candyman has spawned sequels, references, memes and gags: such as Handyman – say his name five times in the mirror and he shows up three hours later and does a horrific job on your boiler.
Now, director Nia DaCosta, working with co-writer and producer Jordan Peele, has created a slick, macabre and very sophisticated sequel-reboot for the Candyman myth. Over the credits DaCosta cheekily, if inevitably, uses The Candy Man song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – and as this is based on a novel by Roald Dahl who also apparently created the sweet-brandishing childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I think there could be an MA thesis for someone here.
DaCosta cleverly refines and develops Candyman as the expression of rage against racism in the era of Black Lives Matter, a supernaturally weaponised scream against Jim Crow and its aftermath; her film investigates Candyman as a symptom of inequality and bad housing (symbolically emerging from a broken interior wall) and the consequent phenomenon of gentrification. In some ways, Candyman is the descendant of Laurence Fishburne’s character Furious Styles from Boyz n the Hood, railing against local people getting priced out of their own neighbourhoods. And the film sports with ideas of how Candyman’s identity is shaped not by an individual creator but, like Godzilla after the nuclear strike, as a therapeutic and cathartic fiction dredged up by the collective unconscious. And as it happens, this new film also hints very obliquely at that key question silently agonised over for decades by Candyman enthusiasts: how long a pause do you have to leave it between saying it for the fourth and final time, before Candyman considers that a reset and makes the fifth “Candyman” the first one?
The scene is now modern-day Chicago, and modish young artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is living with his stylish partner Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) who is a curator and gallerist. They are living in a glitzy upmarket apartment built on the site of the old Cabrini-Green neighbourhood, which has been mostly torn down, leaving only derelict and creepy of rows of low buildings. Brianna’s brother Troy (a typically stylish performance from Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, for whom a starring role is surely overdue) tells them about the Candyman legend, and for Anthony it is an artistic inspiration. He wanders around the remains of Cabrini-Green (a very creepy daylit scene) and creates a piece called Say My Name, a painting behind a mirror before which gallery visitors are invited to repeat the Candyman invocation five times. And when a sneery white teen and a smug white critic show up to look at it … well, they have the life-expectancy of red-shirted crew-members from the USS Enterprise.
There are some startling and brilliant moments: Anthony is fatally egotistic and shallow, unable to suppress a grin of triumph at the grim TV news story about a Candyman-related horror at his gallery show, which mentioned him (“They said my name!”). And DaCosta contrives a tremendously bizarre death scene, a murder that we see at a distance, in longshot, as her camera pulls serenely away. This film is a very tasty confection of satire and scorn.