Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in Candyman
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in Candyman

The new Candyman film draws inspiration from the original from the very first scene of the opening credits. Just as the 1992 version began with a slow crawl along the highway, the 2021 version follows the path of the el tracks, then flips, traveling skyward and westward through downtown in a stunning, upside-down shot of skyscrapers ominously disappearing into a cloudy sky.

Those unfamiliar with the franchise should stop reading now, as spoilers will fly like bees from an open maw. The 1992 film is based on a terrifying urban legend which states that if a person says “Candyman” in the mirror five times, He (a chilling Tony Todd) will appear and murder them with a rusty hook placed on a bloody stump where a hand should be.

I have now typed it twice. Better pace myself.

In the original version, based on a Clive Barker short story, a naive white grad student (Virginia Madsen) delves into the legend and discovers that it is based on the real (in the film) brutal lynching of a Black man who had an affair with a white woman. Of course she promptly says . . . um . . . you know . . . in the mirror five times and summons him. A bloodbath ensues, and she goes insane. The film became a cult classic, striking terror in the hearts of Gen-X children everywhere, who were inappropriately allowed to watch it. (Boomer parents: The Worst, or The Best? Discuss.)

Candyman ★★
Dir. Nia DaCosta, R, 120 min. Now playing at AMC Theatres, Davis Theater, Logan Theatre, Regal Theatres, ShowPlace Icon

The 2021 version, directed by Nia DaCosta and written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and DaCosta, keeps most of what made the original so compelling (a solid plot, exploration of the intersection of race and class in Chicago in neighborhoods like Cabrini-Green, a visual love letter to the city), left behind some of the more awkward details (like an uncomfortable fetishization of white womanhood and gratuitous titties), and hooks into some new subject matter, including gentrification, generational trauma, and art as a provocation. 

An exquisitely cast Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Us) plays Anthony McCoy, a struggling painter who co-opts the legend of Candyman for a last-ditch effort to reach the heights of the great master painters, and ends up ironically in Picasso territory in Peele’s traditional Monkeypaw fashion. 

Varied depictions of violence create an interesting juxtaposition, as evidenced by the film’s tagline, “Say it,” a grim double entendre on the hashtags used in the wake of the very real victims of police violence. The lightheartedness of the “slasher” moments are blood-drenched and corny, while striking visual art, including graffiti, and modern art installations, play a sophisticated role in translating the unfathomable and unceasing generational pain of lynching from slavery to modern murders by the hands of the police, in a way that does not fully descend into trauma pornography. The most impactful technique is constructed by the masterful artists at the Chicago-based Manual Cinema. Shadow puppetry is used as a storytelling technique to dramatize flashbacks of brutal violence. The effect is at once whimsical and devastatingly terrifying, with the mechanism that controls the marionettes operating in stark relief, creating a dreadful commentary about the inescapable hand of fate. 

Chicagoans may recognize a lovely camera ascent up the iconic crocheted cotton sculpture by Ernesto Neto inside the doors of the Museum of Contemporary Art, aptly titled Water Falls From My Breast to the Sky, during a quietly devastating scene where the brilliant Teyonah Parris (Dear White People, WandaVision, If Beale Street Could Talk) as Brianna Cartwell is asked to give up her own dreams in service of others, like so many Black women before her. DaCosta’s deft direction overshadows their figures with a silently screaming yellow neon sign (You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place, Virgil Abloh) in a dark room, capturing the imperceptible implosion of her soul. 

The film isn’t perfect; it perhaps regurgitates too much of the original, and despite several great jump scares, never quite successfully anchors itself in a true sense of dread and foreboding present in the very best horror movies—though given some Black audience’s growing hesitation to want to consume real Black trauma as entertainment, perhaps that choice is intentional. 
Despite those minor quibbles, Candyman is a cut above the average slasher film, and the perfect summer thrill ride. Ultimately, the film does an excellent job of paying reverent homage to the original, then pivoting to position itself as a repeatable franchise that moves away from the heavy weight of depicting trauma to a revenge fantasy for those systematically denied justice. This is art that dreams the dream deferred of what could be—if change does not come—and that is the potential of the power of psychic collective rage coalescing in the fury of a buzzing swarm of a million bees.