Horrific reflections: New ‘CANDYMAN’ delivers a haunting treat that examines culture, racial injustice

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

CANDYMAN (2021)

Rated R, 91 minutes.
Director: Nia DaCosta
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Kyle Kaminsky, Brian King, Vanessa Williams, and Michael Hargrove

Opens Friday in theaters nationwide.

When Candyman first arrived on the scene almost 30 years ago, the horror community was shaken. Here was a daring, cathartic, and terrifying tale that wasn’t just blood and guts. Although it possessed the power to follow you into your dreams with its gory images of bodies being torn into and Tony Todd’s hauntingly deep voice, the titular character’s story is a rather tragic one that frightens more with its ideas rather than fall victim to cheap thrills.

And now, with a new Candyman on the cinematic block, there are more ideas to send your heart racing and your imagination into a frenzy.

It’s clear that director Nia DaCosta (2018’s Little Woods) and producer Jordan Peele, both of whom penned this re-envisioned sequel with screenwriter Win Rosenfeld (2019’s The Twilight Zone), have a profound admiration and respect for the original narrative. Creativity stings as soon as the production logos appear, fed to the audience as reversed images while a warped version of Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man” plays over them. The concept of a mirror is sprinkled throughout this new Candyman, from how DaCosta shoots the Chicago cityscape to the plot itself, which, compared to the first film, is a flipped perspective of the racial space in which fear is explored (black to white).

Like any truly great horror movie, DaCosta’s film is rife with opportunity and allegorical interpretations. It impeccably builds upon the original foundation by not giving the legend a singular identity. Candyman is a concept, a story—a boogeyman that carries the weight of the world’s violence on Black bodies. It’s a chilling work that surrounds you with a grand sense of unease and fascination. Allow it to nibble away at your nerves.

For those new to the lore, here’s a simple breakdown: A poor, naive soul says the name “Candyman” into a mirror five times, and a swarm of bees and a few pieces of sweets appear, followed by a mythical figure wielding a hook for a hand. And, well, you could probably guess the rest. The new installment resurrects the thrills through a journey steered by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s character, Anthony McCoy, an artist compelled by the legend. Anthony returns to the Cabrini-Green neighborhood from the original. However, the housing project has mostly vanished, with the area gentrified beyond recognition.

“White people built the ghetto and erased it when they realized that they built the ghetto,” Teyonah Parris’ Brianna Cartwright says over an opening dinner party. Brianna is an art gallery director and Anthony’s girlfriend, and she hints at a critical thematic element that exists everywhere in Candyman. The unsavory aspects of history and American culture are constantly ignored and tossed into the rearview. There’s this desire of wiping away anything that could be considered a stigma, and Candyman represents the idea of never forgetting what’s come before—remembering the pain. Just say his name, and you’ll keep the truth alive.

It’s these thoughts that maintain a hook in you. What if urban legends became a reality if enough people believed in them? Could it materialize into a supernatural force? Are gods born from humanity’s faith in them? So many questions to chew on, and it’s all packed into a tight 90-minute runtime.

While the blood does hit the deck, especially one terrifying scene at an art gallery when the entity is summoned, it doesn’t flood the feature. It’s what happens around these signature horror moments that cause Candyman to matter. DaCosta doesn’t glorify the bloody sequences either. They happen, but they don’t carry on longer than they should. Sometimes, the filmmaker focuses on other characters’ reactions rather than showing a victim’s unfortunate demise. If it doesn’t have any value to see in its entirety, then you don’t see it. Violence is perfectly calibrated to knock you out of your seat.

In addition to the thoughtful themes, the performances, cinematography and musical score all deserve the spotlight. Mateen II, Parris, and Colman Domingo (as a laundromat worker who relays the legend) are quite effective, selling the sense of emotional trauma and deep-seated tension among one another. John Culeserian’s camerawork simultaneously feels calculated and otherworldly, embracing a fairytale-like quality as it twirls around its environment. And Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s music just may be the most inventive score of any film this year, humming along with haunting, bee-like sounds that create a seamless marriage with the images on screen.

After a few COVID-impacted delays, 2021’s Candyman proves it was very much worth the wait. It’s not only an incredibly well-crafted horror work, but it’s a great movie—period. DaCosta announces herself as a talent to watch, whether she’s generating smaller-scaled miracles like this or Little Woods, or soaring among the clouds in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (She’s currently filming Captain Marvel 2, a.k.a. The Marvels.) DaCosta has a knack for controlling a narrative with a reflective spirit, and Candyman is a treat to savor.

Grade: A-

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.