Somehow—one assumes though skill, effort and good timing—comedian Jordan Peele earned himself a spot at the forefront of modern horror with his first two writing-directing gigs. Get Out and Us were a couple of socially conscious scare fests that tapped into the zeitgeist and lodged themselves in public consciousness like few other recent horror flicks. His latest, the much-anticipated sequel/reboot to the highly regarded 1992 supernatural slasher Candyman, finally arrives in theaters to follow up on that promise. But does it bring the frights?
This new iteration of Candyman is very much a sequel to the original film (ignoring the clunky sequels from 1995 and 1999). Peele, for all his previous funny business, knows his horror history and takes it seriously. The first Candyman (based on a short story by Clive Barker and directed by fellow Brit Bernard Rose) was set inside Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project. Inner city drama was very trendy in the early ’90s (Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City, Candyman) and made for a timely setting. But the notorious Cabrini-Green was demolished starting in 1995 and is now as much an urban legend as the Candyman himself.
Quite smartly, Peele’s script plays off of this generational shift. Today’s Cabrini-Green area is an upscale neighborhood full of expensive high-rise apartments and trendy art galleries. Our guides to this new world are Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from Aquaman and HBO’s “Watchmen”) and Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris from Dear White People and Disney+’s “WandaVision”). Anthony is a visual artist coasting on the fumes of the button-pushing paintings he made two years ago. Brianna is his wealthy girlfriend, the director of a gallery that still carries Anthony’s decreasingly edgy work. Struggling for inspiration, Anthony stumbles across the myth of the Candyman, an inner city boogeyman who once haunted the Cabrini-Green housing project. Naturally, his work ends up resurrecting the spirit of the honey-dripping, hook-handed horror who has the power to materialize whenever his name is chanted into a mirror.
This 2021 Candyman takes the 1992 Candyman as a given. We learn in flashbacks about semiotics grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and her previous encounter with the legendary Candyman. Peele (presumably quite busy these days) only produces and co-writes this outing. Directing duties fall to Nia DaCosta (the award-winning thriller Little Woods), who lends a certain elegance to the proceedings. She renders the flashbacks, for example, as shadow puppet plays, driving home the fairy tale atmosphere of the piece. Despite acknowledging the 1992 narrative, this Candyman rewrites the history a bit, casting our monstrous apparition as more of a sympathetic figure of righteous vengeance. Unsurprisingly, this film’s story weaves in elements surrounding today’s Black Lives Matter Movement (the “say his name” mantra mirroring various social justice campaigns for victims of police brutality). Stories of institutional violence and oppression inflicted on Black people is every bit as trendy a topic today as “the inner city ghetto” was in the early ’90s. And it’s here where Peele’s script miscalculates things a bit.
Horror works best when it serves as a metaphor for real-life concerns and not a lecture about them. Get Out hid its racially motivated moral under a satirical layer of horror movie tropes, while Us diverted audiences with its surreal sci-fi twist. While Candyman starts out as an urban fairy tale, it continues to pile on the real-world connections. The two sides end up at war with one another. In early reels the fairy tale elements get appropriately eerie. Director DaCosta manages some nifty visual spookery with mirrors and reflections. And the script has some fun poking holes in the snooty, patronizing world of high dollar art. The idea that Anthony’s art suddenly becomes “relevant” because it’s now tied to a string of grisly murders opens up an interesting debate. The concept of white people “accepting” (“exploiting,” really) African Americans based on the art they produce (jazz, for example) has a long, troubling history. But Peele’s message about police brutality and gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods is too much realism delivered too bluntly, and it makes it harder for audiences to suspend disbelief and get all worked up over ghostly serial killers.
There’s some convincing gore judiciously sprinkled throughout the film—just enough to keep audiences flinching. The unsettling score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe adds notably to the tension as well. And there’s no doubt that Peele’s savvy take adds new dimensions to the old ghost story. Candyman is a solid effort. But it feels unbalanced—more concerned with making its message clear than in milking the horror of its admittedly clever concept.
Directed by Nia DaCosta
Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris
Now playing in theaters