As surely as the sun keeps rising in the east, Hollywood will keep remaking horror classics to inconsistent returns, but there’s a better argument to be made for exhuming and reanimating 1992’s canonized Candyman than most.
The adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden was so forward-thinking for its time that in many respects, we’ve only caught up to it now; its resentment of gentrification has only grown more commonplace in the mainstream, and same goes for its canny insight into how black people’s suffering gets codified into urban legend. Rather than reiterating the major bullet points, Nia DaCosta’s new film takes the original as a jumping-off point, first and foremost by trading protagonist perspectives.
Where the first film focused on a white semiotics grad student investigating the “Candyman” myth, a painter played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II takes the lead this time around, the switch in racial demographic ushering in a slew of fresh implications. Here’s the lowdown on the film’s key departures, complete with spoilers, best read far away from any and all mirrors:
At the heart of Bernard Rose’s initial take on the material, there’s a culture clash between academic-minded Helen Lyles and the subjects that she’s researching in Chicago’s historically mistreated Cabrini-Green housing projects. All her big talk about socioeconomic disparities and institutional iniquities mostly falls on uninterested ears, everyone being more focused on actually living their lives than translating them into a thesis. DaCosta’s treatment of the Chicago arts scene harkens back to this playful pretentiousness, highfalutin language now exchanged between Abdul-Mateen’s “Basquiat-ass” hipster Anthony and a haughty (white, it should be mentioned) critic.
They talk circles around one another in post-collegiate jargon, their gasbag discussion of paradigms and frameworks completely out of joint with the urgency of the trauma Anthony’s set out to depict. Anyone who’s sat through a snoozer art appreciation course will get at least a chuckle from the merciless accuracy of the strained casual tone adopted when using a word like “reified”.
Smaller gestures here and there modernize the concept of Candyman, a hook-handed ghoul that appears to murder those foolhardy enough to speak his name five times into a mirror. The Gen Z teens tauntingly summoning the Candyman in a possible nod to the Slenderman stabbing of 2014 qualifies as one, and a pair of characters without counterparts in the original would be another. Though the main conflict burns between Anthony and his gallery curator girlfriend Brianna (Teyoonah Parris), her brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and his boyfriend Grady (Kyle Kaminsky) pop in to lighten things up every few scenes with some snappy levity.
Troy gets in a couple of friendly cracks at the gratuitously handsome Anthony’s expense – he needs to spend less time with the weights and more with the brushes if he’s going to support Brianna, Troy ribs – but his function goes beyond simple comic relief. As a gay couple, and an interracial one at that, he and Grady’s casual, unremarked-upon presence signals the partial arrival of a future that felt remote as recently as the 90s.
Working under the auspices of MGM, rising director DaCosta had more money to play with than on her indie feature debut Little Woods, and it shows in one gruesome practical effect. While snapping some photos of a boarded-up church that viewers of the first film will nonetheless recognize, Anthony gets a sting on the hand from one of the bees commanded by the Candyman. Instead of healing, the reddened bump gets worse and worse until we’re smack in the middle of Cronenberg country, his skin the approximate texture of a lizard’s hide and peeling off in gooey lasagna-sheets of gore. The final stage of his transformation is a sight to behold, honeycomb-sized holes in his flesh allowing for his bee minions to pass in and out. Trypophobes, consider yourselves warned.
While the 1992 film trained its focus on the societal violence of displacement and gentrification in neighborhoods like the impoverished Cabrini-Green, DaCosta bites off a good deal more to chew on by working in the epidemic of police brutality. A prologue set in the 70s sees young William Burke (played as an adult by the rusty-voiced Colman Domingo in the rest of the film) encounter a man he believes to be Candyman, the boy’s screams alerting the cops that shoot the man dead on sight. He’s later revealed to be innocent, one in a cycle of black men’s wrongful murders at the hands of law enforcement, creating an enmity that fuels the continuing havoc of Candyman. In artful cut-paper silhouettes reminiscent of Kara Walker’s work, a long lineage of cruelty from police to black people minding their own business takes shape, its sorely needed vengeance coming from a series of Candymen. The grand finale weaponizes this idea, as officers once again go too far and then try to extort a cooperative testimony from Brianna, who now knows she can call on the latest iteration of Candyman for protection. That the repeated dare to “say his name” recalls the remembrance chanted for George Floyd is no coincidence.
Let’s be clear: though DaCosta borrows the original’s title, her film is a sequel rather than a remake, and its games with continuity make that much clear. Viewers who recall Rose’s film will gradually realize that a couple of members of his cast have reprised their roles, Tony Todd returning as Candyman and Vanessa Estelle Williams as single mother Anne-Marie. Just as important is the awareness that her grown son, Abdul-Mateen’s character Anthony, is the same infant imperiled in the first film, the Candyman and the Cabrini-Green projects being woven into his destiny. Rather than a specific figure, “Candyman” turns out to be a mantle passed down from one generation to another, a defense mechanism for the black community. Anthony is the one to carry on this legacy, his mutation complete once he embraces his connection to Cabrini-Green and the wide-scale conflict still playing out there – and urban centers like it – today.