The classic 1992 horror film “Candyman” was that rare film which demands sequels not just narratively, but also thematically. Candyman, the film’s titular monster, is an urban legend. He’s a Black man with a hook for a hand who was murdered by a group of hired assassins in an orgy of white supremacist violence; he returns when anyone looks in a mirror and says his name five times. It’s a ghost story about narrative recursion, and about oral traditions of racist trauma which survive even as white people try to erase their memory. In revisiting the Candyman and telling his story again, director Nia DaCosta’s new film fulfills the first’s demand for repetition and return. It’s also a sequel that shows some stories take on more meaning in the retelling.
In revisiting the Candyman and telling his story again, director Nia DaCosta’s new film fulfills the first’s demand for repetition and return.
The 2021 “Candyman” immediately improves on the original by putting Black people at the center of a Black story. The 2017 hit “Get Out” by Jordan Peele — who produces and co-wrote the film — started a revolution which helped open mainstream horror film to Black creators. In 1992, though, director Bernard Rose inevitably framed “Candyman” as the story of white anthropologist Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), who decided to investigate the stories circulating in the housing project of Cabrini-Green. She’s something of a white savior figure; at the end of the movie, she literally rescues a Black baby from Candyman (the stunning Tony Todd, who reprises the role in the 2021 film.) She also takes revenge on her philandering husband, a narrative that felt tacked on.
In DaCosta’s sequel/reboot, though, the white point of view is gone. Instead, the movie’s main character is Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a blocked artist who starts researching the old stories of Candyman as a source of inspiration. Art critic Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence) suggests that Anthony is appropriating these legends and capitalizing on Black trauma; she accuses him of gentrification. But as Anthony points out, the trauma in question is his own. And as we learn more about him, we also discover how ineffectual Helen’s white savior efforts are in the face of ongoing cycles of violence.
Putting Black people back in a Black story gives the 2021 film a focus and unity that the original didn’t really try for. DaCosta’s plot unfolds with the same chilling, inescapable inevitability of “Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman.” Police violence at the beginning is mirrored at the end; cops are always swarming Cabrini-Green. Anthony is stung by a bee early on, just as Candyman was supposedly smeared with honey by his white killers and tied down so bees could sting him. Anthony’s wound festers until his hand becomes a grotesque parody of Candyman’s hook. The trauma Anthony paints with his wounded limb becomes who he is. This symbolic reversal is stunningly visualized in a mirror scene in which Anthony’s reflection becomes Candyman’s, as Abdul-Mateen and Todd imitate each other in a slow-motion ballet of lost identity and death.
The murders themselves are so foreshadowed that DaCosta often doesn’t even bother filming them. Candyman is invisible; his victims jerk around the screen like puppets manipulated by the story itself, no assailants needed. One virtuoso scene is shot through a long-distance lens, almost too far away to see. The narrative demands that you become a collaborator in violence. Like a witness badgered by police, you are forced to fill in the details yourself.
DaCosta is also careful to allow some of the original movie’s ambiguity and dreamlike logic into her own. She includes a series of lovely shadow puppet scenes which tell the history of the first film, and various, altered retellings of it. The multiple possible versions make the past uncertain — and the present uncertain, as well.
Urban legends give Candyman multiple origins, and DaCosta doesn’t try to choose between them. Mackay wanders in and out of holes in the narrative looking more and more desiccated, just as Candyman disappeared into holes in the walls of Cabrini-Green. Peele’s “Get Out” was an arch parable, brilliant in its clarity. DaCosta’s “Candyman” is more like a myth, told and retold. As in the best stories, even obscurities are filled with meaning, and even the clearest meanings open up on mystery.
“Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happen. That they’re still happening,” one longtime resident of Cabrini-Green explains in the film. He also says Candyman is not a single person, but a hive — a communal creation. The first “Candyman” was trying to say something about collective racist trauma, and about how speaking about horror can be an act of revenge and resistance. The message, though, got garbled in the buzz of anthropologists, of Hollywood, and of whiteness. Sometimes a story has to circle a while before finding its perfect teller. In DaCosta, Candyman has finally found the right voice to say his name.