With thought-provoking films like Get Out and Us, writer/director Jordan Peele has already cemented his status as a master of smart, socially relevant modern horror. His influence is even broader as a producer, bringing fresh voices, directorial visions, and diverse perspectives to a genre badly in need of all three. His latest production is Candyman, director Nia DaCosta’s imaginative sequel (of sorts) to the 1992 horror classic, Candyman. This is only DaCosta’s second feature film, yet she handles the material with deft assurance, transforming the singular slasher known as Candyman into an ageless malevolence whose curse reverberates through time.
(Spoilers for the 1992 film below; mostly mild spoilers for the new film.)
As I’ve written previously, the original 1992 Candyman was based on the Clive Barker short story “The Forbidden.” The film starred Virginia Madsen as a Chicago graduate student in sociology/semiotics whose thesis deals with urban legends. She hears about a series of brutal murders in the Cabrini-Green public housing project. The killer is rumored to be the ghost of a late 19th-century artist named Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd) who was lynched because he fathered an illegitimate child with a white woman. The mob cut off his right hand and smeared him with honey to attract bees to sting him to death before burning his corpse and scattering his ashes over what is now the project’s grounds.
The legend holds that anyone can summon Robitaille, aka Candyman, by repeating his name five times while looking in a mirror. Candyman will then appear to kill the summoner with a hook in place of his mangled stump. Helen’s disbelief in the legend somehow reawakens Candyman, who embarks on a new series of murders while framing Helen as the perpetrator. When Candyman kidnaps the baby boy of a Cabrini-Green resident name Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams), Helen strikes a deal to join him in immortality in exchange for releasing the baby.
The famous kiss—in which bees pour out of Candyman’s mouth and down Helen’s throat—involved 500 real honeybees, although these particular bees were of the non-stinging variety since Madsen was allergic to bee stings. (Todd wore a protective mouthpiece for the scene. Over 200,000 bees were used in the film, and Todd received a $1000 bonus for each of the 23 stings he received during filming.)
But Candyman reneges on the deal, planning for all of three of them to burn death in the project’s annual giant bonfire. Helen manages to escape with the baby, but dies from severe burns. Candyman appears to perish in the flames. In the final scene, Helen’s cheating husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley), wracked by guilt, repeats Helen’s name five times while looking in the mirror. Helen’s spirit appears and she kills him with a hook, thereby becoming part of the Candyman legend herself.
Candyman debuted at the 1992 Toronto International Film Festival and hit theaters in October of that year. The film earned mostly positive reviews from critics, who praised writer/director Bernard Rose’s unusual combination of highbrow ideas with spooky chills and the requisite slasher film gore. Todd’s performance made Candyman an iconic horror movie slasher, and the film’s success spawned two terrible sequels: Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999).
A fourth film, presumably set in in winter at a New England women’s college, got stuck in development hell and was ultimately scrapped. (Todd himself nixed the idea of a Candyman vs. Leprechaun movie, which would have been laughably disastrous.) That’s when Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions stepped in.
It’s easy to see why Peele would be drawn to the story, given the original’s themes of race and social class in Chicago’s public housing projects. Barker’s novel was set in the author’s native Liverpool in England, and focused on the British class system. Rose changed the setting to Cabrini-Green, struck by the irrational fear it inspired in local residents, many of whom were afraid to even drive by the project. Rose even drew upon newspaper accounts of the real-life murder of a woman named Ruthie Mae McCoy, killed in another housing project by intruders who gained access through the medicine cabinet.
This new take on Candyman is set a decade after the Cabrini towers have been torn down—30 years after the events of the first film. Visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Us, Watchmen) and his gallery-owner girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris, If Beale Street Could Talk) move into a luxury loft in the now-gentrified neighborhood.
With his career flagging, Anthony searches for inspiration and latches onto the urban legend of Candyman, after hearing about it from the owner of a local laundromat, William Burke (Colman Domingo, If Beale Street Could Talk). The story is told not in traditional flashbacks, but by re-enacting scenes with shadow puppets—a novel and visually striking narrative device. In this incarnation, Candyman is the ghost of a man with a hook for hand named Sherman Fields, who liked to give out candy to kids in the 1970s. When razor blades started appearing in candy, police targeted Sherman and beat him to death. He was innocent, of course, and the Sherman/Candyman entity committed a rash of brutal killings, just like the previous incarnation.
Fascinated by the tale, Anthony decides to create an art exhibit around Candyman. Per the official premise, with this decision Anthony is “unknowingly opening a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifying viral wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with destiny.” Anyone who has seen the original film will likely guess Anthony’s connection to it.
Peele is fascinated by doppelgängers and mirror imagery, and the 1992 Candyman certainly played with those motifs. DaCosta’s film brings those motifs front and center, starting with the opening credits. Sammy Davis Jr’s 1972 recording of “The Candy Man” (a song written for the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is playing, but we’re hearing a muted, distorted version, as if hearing it from the other side of a mirror—almost as if we are Candyman. And the piece Anthony creates for his entry into the gallery exhibition (titled “Say His Name”) is a mirrored medicine cabinet that opens to reveal several paintings in the space behind it. Yes, some people take the dare to say “Candyman” five times into the mirror. And yes, they die horribly.
The performances are terrific across the board, and DaCosta strikes a nice balance when it comes to the requisite gore. There are certainly some very graphic scenes of violence, but the director uses them sparingly. Just as often, the violence occurs off screen, at a distance, or in the reflection of a mirror, thereby avoiding what can often feel like a monotonous bloody slog in your average slasher film.
Above all, DaCosta and Peele have created a compelling story that explores how urban legends rise out of traumatic injustices; how those traumas continue to haunt communities over generations; and how the victims of those injustices can be turned into monsters by the stories we choose to tell. As Helen Lyle posited decades before, creating the narrative of Candyman was how the residents of Cabrini-Green tried to make sense of the senseless. It’s not a coincidence that in DaCosta’s film, Helen has attained her own local lore: the cautionary tale of a white woman who went insane, committed several murders, and kidnapped a baby before burning to death in a bonfire.
I do have a couple of minor quibbles. The art world is a bit too easy to ridicule, and on that score, the film falls a bit flat. (Velvet Buzzsaw did a better job at combining satire and horror elements set in the art world.) The story gets a little over-complicated in the final act, and the film occasionally becomes a bit too heavy-handed with its symbolism, taking on a preachy, moralistic tone. (There’s even an accompanying online “educational curriculum” featuring commentary by “Black educators, genre experts, and the horror-obsessed examining the legend of Candyman and Black culture.”)
But those aspects can’t quell the strength of the storytelling and the undeniable cultural resonance of Candyman as a timeless avatar channeling the repressed anger over centuries of Black pain and trauma. The terrific end credits bring back the shadow puppet motif to show the endless cycle of violence that leads to different incarnations of Candyman over the decades. What could be more horrifying than that?
Moviegoers apparently agree: Candyman topped the box office last weekend, making DaCosta the first Black female director to open a movie in the top slot. She is currently directing the MCU Phase Four film, The Marvels, the sequel to 2019’s blockbuster Captain Marvel. Given what’s she’s accomplished with Candyman, I can’t wait to see how DaCosta reimagines the superhero genre.
Candyman is now playing in theaters. We strongly recommend caution when viewing movies in theaters. Only do so if fully vaccinated and wearing a mask for the duration of the screening.
Listing image by Universal Pictures