By now, even expressing the need to reiterate that yes, many horror films are political, always have been, always will be, ahem is rote. If you don’t get the symbolism in everything from “Night of the Living Dead” to “Get Out,” “Black Christmas” to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” it may be too late for anyone to even try, but leave it to Nia DaCosta’s alternately artful and brutal “Candyman” sequel to make plain the power of political symbolism in good, old-fashioned gore. Much like Bernard Rose’s 1992 original, which DaCosta’s film uses as its touchstone and starting point (the film’s other two sequels, not so much), this “Candyman” uses the history of trauma against Black Americans as its real villain, with genuinely horrifying results.
A working knowledge of Rose’s film, itself adapted from a Clive Barker short story that Rose cleverly moved from the UK to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, isn’t necessary to enjoy DaCosta’s film, but audiences who grew up (rightfully) afraid of men with hooks for hands and knowing never to say “Candyman” five times in front of a mirror will surely have a deeper appreciation of this new version. Stories, after all, stick with us, especially the scary ones, and that’s something DaCosta and co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld keenly understand.
It’s the legend of Candyman (or, at least, the legend of a Candyman) that opens the film, flashing back to Cabrini-Green back in 1977 (more than a decade before the events of Rose’s film), as a young resident heads off to the projects’ shared laundry room to run a load. Tucked inside a wall: a hook-handed fellow resident, best known for offering up candy to the neighbor kids. He’s Candyman, but he’s not; he’s familiar, but he’s a new creation; the cops are coming for him, but he hasn’t done anything wrong. Thus begins DaCosta’s unnerving exploration of the cyclical nature of trauma and the storytelling that often attempts to explain it away.
By 2019, when the film is set, most of Cabrini-Green has been torn down to make way for glossy, glassy high-rises, which DaCosta brings us to by way of topsy-turvy opening credits that literally turn the city upside down (or is it a mirror image?). Meanwhile, the story of Candyman has been mostly forgotten, including the horrific events that framed Rose’s film. But the past — and its stories — have a tendency to come back around again, for better and for worse.
Chicago natives Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, turning in another stellar performance) and Brianna (a heartbreaking Teyonah Parris) have recently upgraded to one of those swanky new apartments, but unease is simmering beneath the surface: Brianna is a successful art dealer, while Anthony is a painter who hasn’t made anything new in nearly two years. Both of them are plagued by their own stories (and, in Anthony’s case, secrets he doesn’t yet know), which seem destined to color the way everyone sees them, including themselves (hey, it’s a film heavy on mirrors and reflective surfaces, that inevitably leads to facing yourself down). But Brianna’s flashy younger brother Troy (an amusing Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) knows all about the history of Cabrini-Green, and when he offers up some of its tragic backstory, Anthony can feel himself pulled toward it.
Anthony’s background in art isn’t just a crafty way to get him to dig deeper into the legends — what better way to inspire new work? — but a winking throwback to the origins of the first Candyman, himself a painter. Anthony will learn about all of that later, guided by an oddly chatty local laundromat owner (Colman Domingo), who seems all too eager to let the younger man into the terrible history of the place he now calls home. If that connection sounds awkward, that’s certainly how it originally scans, though DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld’s script eventually brings it back around to an understandable, if not wholly satisfying explanation.
As Anthony plunges into the history of Candyman, weird things start to plague him: a bee sting that quickly turns grotesque, visions of a man in the mirror, and a sudden (and nearly manic) burst of inspiration that pushes him into new artistic directions. Elsewhere, things aren’t just weird, they’re downright brutal, as a series of supporting characters (all of them, as Domingo has previously noted in interviews, white) dare to summon the Candyman and soon learn the price of his wrath. But if those deaths — and the blunt approach DaCosta takes toward them — are painful, it’s nothing compared to the history that has led Anthony to this point in time.
While DaCosta ably toys with the usual genre trappings — jump scares, things that go bump in the night, eye-popping gore — the filmmaker, directing only her second feature, effectively adds unexpectedly artful touches. Rife with reflective surfaces, DaCosta cleverly uses every mirror, sparkling window, even a particularly ill-fated compact mirror to show just as much as she wants, just enough to scare both her audience and her characters (hint: it’s usually that goddamn hook). Blood spatters and splotches, even pours down in a dripping sheet, every kill a new way to explore the many ways a human body can be brutalized. But that’s the point, especially as DaCosta moves toward the full horror of how Candyman was created: how to explore the many, many ways a human body can be brutalized.
Rose’s first film didn’t flinch at using a “political” storyline to drive its terror — anyone complaining that DaCosta’s film does the same is totally missing the point — but this new “Candyman” makes it even more overt, and somehow, even more timeless. As the grotesquerie grows and the stakes get ever higher, “Candyman” delivers a wholly unsubtle meditation on the history of violence and legacy of trauma that has led to this new incarnation. The film, originally scheduled to be released in June 2020, was always destined to be timely one, but arriving after so many pain-filled pandemic months, ensures that its sting will linger even longer.
Universal Pictures will release “Candyman” in theaters on Friday, August 27.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.