The first time Candyman, the hook-wielding ghoul, hit the big screen it was 1992 and he was making mincemeat out of people in Cabrini-Green, the troubled public housing development in Chicago. Since then, residents have left (or been moved out), and more than a dozen buildings have been razed. Forgettable sequels have come and gone, too, yet Candyman abides, cult film characters being a more enduring and certainly more prized commodity than affordable housing.
The original “Candyman,” written and directed by Bernard Rose, is more icky than scary, but it has real sting. It centers on the son of a formerly enslaved man — Tony Todd plays the title demon — who, once upon a time, was punished by racists for loving a white woman. Now he wanders about slicing and dicing those who summon him. Just look in a mirror and say his name five times (oh, go ahead), and wait for the blood to spurt. Among those who did back in the day was a white doctoral student who becomes a red-hot victim. The pain wasn’t exquisite, as Candyman promised, but it had its moments.
In the sharp, shivery redo directed by Nia DaCosta, Candyman seems on hiatus. The time is the present and the place is the bougie community that’s sprung up around Cabrini-Green. There, in sleek towers with designer kitchens and walls of windows, the gentrifying vanguard sips wine, enjoying the view. Beyond, the city sparkles prettily and its ills are at a safe distance (if not for long). The restless camera clocks the scene, and Sammy Davis Jr. — a Black civil rights touchstone turned Richard M. Nixon supporter — belts out his sticky 1970s hit “The Candy Man” (“Who can take tomorrow/dip it in a dream.”) It’s a sly reminder, and warning, that the past always troubles the present.
Sometimes the past also bites the present right where it hurts, and before long the opening calm has been violently upended. As the blood begins to gush and the body count rises, the story takes shape, as does the somewhat tense domestic life of a painter, Anthony (a very good Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and a curator, the pointedly named Brianna (Teyonah Parris). They soon learn that Candyman never left (well, he is a valuable franchise property). Enter the scares and shrieks and anxious laughs, and the dependably indispensable Colman Domingo, who pops up with a Cheshire cat grin. There are also flashing police lights that aren’t as welcoming as they might be elsewhere.
“Candyman” is the second feature from DaCosta, who made her debut with the modest drama “Little Woods.” She might have seemed a counterintuitive choice for this horror rethink, but while her first movie didn’t fully hold together, it was clear that she could direct actors and make meaning visually. She didn’t just clutter the frame with talking heads; she set (and exploited) moods and created an air of everyday, prickling unease, demonstrating a talent for the ineffable — for atmosphere — that she expands on here. It’s easy to shock viewers with splatter but the old gut-and-run gets awfully boring awfully fast. Far better is the slow creep, the horror that teases and then threatens.
The dread inexorably builds in “Candyman,” which snaps into focus after Anthony learns of the boogeyman. Intrigued, he seizes on the tale of a Black spirit who stalked the area’s disadvantaged residents as grist for his art, which could use a creative kick. DaCosta — who shares script credit with Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peele, who’s also a producer — nicely fills in the texture, stakes and emotional temperature of Anthony’s milieu with its cozy domesticity, artistic frustrations, gnawing jealousies and crossover dreams. The banter is believable, as are the pinpricks of disquiet and the weird suppurating wounds that increasingly mar this otherwise ordinary scene and its genial hero.
It takes nothing away from DaCosta to note that “Candyman” is of an intellectual and political piece with Peele’s earlier work, including “Get Out” and “Us.” Like those movies, “Candyman” uses the horror genre to explore race (Peele gets under the skin), including ideas about who gets to play the hero — and villain — and why. Peele isn’t interested only in what scares us; he’s also asking who, exactly, we mean when we say “us.” As a form, horror is preoccupied with the unknown and ostensibly monstrous, a fixation that manifests in visions of otherness. Much, of course, depends on your point of view. (The series’ genesis is Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden,” set in a presumptively British slum.)
DaCosta plays with perspective, shifting between Anthony’s and the intersecting, sometimes colliding worlds of more-successful artists, urban-legend propagators and, touchingly, profoundly scarred children. Throughout, she intersperses bits of shadow puppetry that work as a counterpoint to the main narrative, a reflexive device that emphasizes that “Candyman” is also fundamentally about storytelling. We tell some fictions to understand ourselves, to exist; others we tell to turn other human beings into monsters, to destroy. In “Candyman,” those who summon up this ghoul, thereby allowing him to tell his tale, first need to look at their reflections. When they do, they see innocence staring back at them — that, at least, is the story they tell themselves.
Rated R for horror-movie violence. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.
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