The 90s horror franchise gets a sharp, smart and sublimely shot new instalment, as produced and co-written by Jordan Peele.
Who can take tomorrow and dip it in a dream? 'The Candy Man' can, or so the suitably sugary earworm of a song has crooned since 1971. What scratches at the past, carves open its nightmares and sends them slicing into the present? That'd be the latest Candyman film, a powerful work of clear passion and palpable anger that's crafted with tense, needling thrills and exquisite vision. Echoing Sammy Davis Jr's version of the tune that virtually shares its name across its opening frames, this new dalliance with the titular hook-handed villain both revives the slasher franchise that gave 90s and 00s teen sleepovers an extra tremor — if you didn't stare into the mirror and utter the movie's moniker five times, were you really at a slumber party? — and wrestles vehemently and determinedly with the historic horrors that've long befallen Black Americans. It'll come as zero surprise that Jordan Peele produces and co-penned the screenplay with writer/director Nia DaCosta (Little Woods) and writer/producer Win Rosenfeld (The Twilight Zone). Candyman slides so silkily into Peele's thematic oeuvre alongside Get Out and Us, plus Peele-produced TV series Hunters and Lovecraft Country, that his fingerprints are inescapable. But it's rising star DaCosta who delivers a strikingly alluring, piercingly savage and instantly memorable picture. Alongside bloody altercations and lashings of body horror, razor blade-spiked candy makes multiple appearances, and her film is equally as sharp and enticing.
In a preface that expands the Candyman mythology — and savvily shows how the movie has everyday realities firmly on its mind — that contaminated confectionery is thrust to the fore. In 1977, in the Cabrini-Green housing estate where the series has always loitered, Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove, Chicago PD) is suspected of handing out the laced lollies to neighbourhood kids. Sent to do laundry in the basement, pre-teen Billy (Rodney L Jones III, Fargo) soon comes face-to-face with the man everyone fears; however, after the boy screams and the police arrive, he witnesses something even more frightening. Jumping to the present (albeit absent any signs of the pandemic given Candyman was initially slated to release in mid-2020), Cabrini-Green is now Chicago's current poster child for gentrification. It's where artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Watchmen) and curator Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, WandaVision) have just bought an expansive apartment, in fact. They're unaware of the area's background, until Brianna's brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Generation) and his partner Grady (Kyle Kaminsky, DriverX) start filling them in on the legend that's long been whispered across the local streets — and, struggling to come up with ideas for a new show, Anthony quickly clasps onto all things Candyman for his next big project.
The feeling that springs when you discover that something isn't what it seems, and that its murkiness run so deep that it's devastatingly inescapable? That's the sensation that Anthony experiences as he plunges down the rabbit hole of learning everything he can about Candyman. Laundromat owner William Burke (Colman Domingo, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) helps fill some gaps, and the events of the original 1992 film also guide the artist's research — with all that backstory conveyed via seductively gothic shadow puppetry — but fans with strong memories of the initial movie will already understand why Anthony is so thoroughly consumed. DaCosta also builds towards his jittery and obsessed mental state stylistically from the get-go. Urgency seethes through the feature's fidgety, nervy score, with composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (aka Lichens, a musician with credits on It Comes at Night and Mother!) turning restlessness and anxiousness into jostling notes. In Candyman's stunningly vivid imagery, as lensed by Happiest Season and An American Pickle cinematographer John Guleserian, every visual choice further solidifies the feverishly unsettling mood. Shots involving mirrors stand out, aptly, but bold framing decisions, careening camerawork through hallways, and clever use of placement, angles, and zooming in and out all prove expertly calibrated.
Again and again, DaCosta gives cinematic flesh to Anthony's emotional and mental states. She apes his inner turmoil in her external flourishes; so much of Candyman is about reflections, given that's where its eponymous boogeyman arises, after all. That notion also shimmers across the film's heftier layers and heaving social critique, as it muses on the cycle of violence against people of colour that keeps being mirrored in generation after generation — upping the ante from the flick that started it all. Back then, the franchise's fearsome force was 19th-century artist Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd, The Flash), who was brutally attacked and murdered for loving a white woman. His hand was severed, and he was smeared with honey that attracted bees to dispense fatal stings. Now, he's not the only ghostly victim of such ghastly racial injustice. This fourth instalment in the saga, following terrible initial sequels in 1995 and 1995, isn't subtle about the picture it's painting; however, it is intense, ardent and shrewd at almost every moment. And, while it sometimes tasks characters with too overtly making blatant statements (a critic's dismissiveness of Anthony's latest creations is just too neatly scripted, for instance), Candyman usually finds the right balance, stressing but rarely overcooking its message. That its central figure's new artwork is called Say My Name provides one such example; it's obvious, in both its links to uttering Candyman's moniker and to the #SayHerName movement that raises awareness for black women subjected to violence, but it's also wounding.
From Abdul-Mateen II leading the show, to stellar supporting work by Parris, Domingo and Todd, casting is another of DaCosta's painstakingly perfect touches. In The Get Down, Aquaman and The Trial of the Chicago 7 — and, of course, in Watchmen — Abdul-Mateen II has already shown that he knows how to make his presence felt, and Candyman wouldn't burn as searingly or buzz as stingingly without his performance. He's front and centre in a movie that excavates, contemplates and ravages the past, rather than tries to simply construct something new from its ashes. Helping the film cut its own path while remaining fully aware that it'll always swarm into its cult-favourite predecessor's hive, he never merely plays the always-sympathetic and dutifully heroic protagonist, either. Nor is Anthony just an emblem of reckoning with prejudice and fighting back, even in a feature that adores its symbolism. Indeed, his name is worth saying multiple times, as is DaCosta's — en route to her next gig directing Marvel Cinematic Universe project The Marvels — and this haunting and entrancing movie's moniker as well.