Candyman is playing in cinemas now.
Before we explore Nia DaCosta’s new Candyman offering, let us take a trip back to the original. Born in the imagination of the formidable Clive Barker in a collection of short stories, The Books Of Blood (1984-1985). Barker’s original story took place on a Liverpool housing estate, as its residents investigated the urban legend of a local serial killer. However, in translating the book to film, British director Bernard Rose (Paper House) transferred the action to the urban decay of 90s Chicago. As a result, he created a nuanced horror that spoke directly to social themes of poverty, crime and race in 1990s America.
University researchers Helen Lyle (Madsen) and Bernadette Walsh (Lemmons) head to the Cabrini Green housing project to investigate the legend of The Candyman. Cabrini Green is a housing estate of abject poverty, populated by black families who suffer the social injustice of racism at every turn. The estates shared urban legend revolving around the son of a slave viciously murdered following a relationship with a white woman. His hand cut off, and his body smeared in honey before being thrown naked into an apiary. The community of Cabrini Green, still fearful of his legend in a city of limited opportunity. Their lives, entrenched in the abject poverty of racial segregation in an apparent land of opportunity.
Candyman’s horror came from mixing urban legend with the uncomfortable realities of a racially divided America still haunted by slavery. Here a white middle-class university researcher got far more than she bargained for as she crossed the divide of wealth, race and poverty built into the fabric of 1990s America.
The original Candyman was surprisingly different from the crop of 1990s horror’s it sat alongside. Its mix of slasher horror and socio-political commentary, prophetic of the current crop of horrors we watch today. However, it also created one of the only prolific black horror icons to date, with a hauntingly unsettling Tony Todd ensuring the character became a legend of modern cinema. There was enormous potential in creating a Candyman franchise under the right creative direction following the Bernard Rose original. But middling-to-awful sequels ensured it remained buried while increasing the original film’s popularity as a benchmark in modern horror. However, now Candyman is back, in the hands of Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele.
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While Jordan Peele may have produced and helped write the new Candyman script, make no mistake, this is Nia DaCosta’s film. DaCosta is able to bring old and new fans into the fold with her amalgamation of a reboot and continuation. However, if you have seen the original, there’s intentional narrative tweaks and shifts that occasionally seem slightly off, as though misremembered or perhaps knowingly changed. But, despite this, we feel close to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Anthony as he rummages through a complicated and possibly misleading history. Here, DaCosta plays on the malleability of urban legends, exploring how they change from person to person. The details becoming clouded over time through omissions and inclusions as the story is retold. The result is a fresh retelling of the Candyman legend. But this new version by no means overwrites the original; they sit alongside one another.
DaCosta’s cast includes some of the strongest players in Hollywood; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo. Here DaCosta weaves the lives of her characters together into a strangely poetic tapestry of collective trauma, grief and fear. It’s almost as though both Domingo and Parris represent two sides, with Yahya’s Anthony trapped in the middle. Domingo and Mateen II’s relationship is a particularly mysterious puzzle that gradually unlocks itself as we delve into the story. Domingo’s performance, providing us with tantalising clues as to their true intentions.
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However, it wouldn’t be a slasher without the guts and the gore, and Candyman doesn’t skimp in this area. For example, people are suspended in mid-air, their throats opened up into a horrific red waterfall of death. It’s brutally visceral but never gratuitous as sound and visuals combine to create untold terror. After all, we all know that heard but not seen is often so much scarier; your brain, forced to fill in the gaps. So when we hear the sound of Candyman’s hook gutting and skinning high-school students, we can only imagine how horrifying it must look. Here DaCosta knows precisely how to titillate the imagination in the right way to get your heart racing.
But aside from the gore, this is a film that is also surprisingly playful. Candyman is self-aware that almost all its murders centre on white people, their fate resulting from their own moronic actions. In contrast, pretty much every non-white person in Candyman knows not to mess with the summoning or venture into dark basements. This ensures Candyman turns many classic racial horror cliches on their head while playing with notions of cultural appropriation.
Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, right) reaches toward a reflection of Candyman in Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta.
DaCosta continues these racial themes while taking them to a darker place when reflecting on Cabrini Green and its relationship with the police force. Here there are multiple moments where you feel more terrified by the looming police presence than the Candyman. A simple look or a slight tonal intention, injecting us with intense discomfort and a lack of safety, a hint that the actual monsters may have just entered the room. DaCosta almost reclaims Candyman through this socio-cultural lens, reframing her personal Candyman as an ambiguous anti-hero – a protector of a community, rather than an indiscriminate harbinger of fear and death.
If anyone was unsure about Nia DaCosta’s directing talents before, then Candyman puts them thoroughly to bed. Not only does she resurrect the Candyman by building on the original, but her intelligent designs on the malleability of urban legends allow her Candyman to stand alongside Bernard Rose’s original. The result is a brilliant love letter to the original and a solid modern continuation. Is Candyman one of the most potent horrors of the year? Well, look in the mirror and repeat three times after me, “I WILL see Candyman on the big screen”.