Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, the repetitive, superficial fourth entry in the horror franchise, is set in Chicago, the same city where Bernard Rose’s original 1992 version of Candyman began the saga by exploring the connection between mythology, urban legends, and anti-Black violence. Those themes haven’t abated since Rose’s film hit theaters — they’ve only intensified. But the new version muddles them, with flat social commentary, and even flatter horror thrills.
DaCosta’s version opens in 1977, as an echoed, haunting rendition of Sammy Davis Jr.’s signature song, “The Candy Man,” jangles. The camera peers over the Cabrini-Green row houses, the infamous housing projects located auspiciously on the city’s affluent north side. The police are patrolling for a local murderer, a Black man with a hook attached to his arm. He’s been accused of putting razor blades in candy and giving it to children, hurting a young white girl in the process.
The residents, including a young Black boy heading to a basement laundry room, avoid the cops who are patrolling for him. The racial dynamics at play, and the overpoliced location, make the situation ripe for trouble. Similar to Rose’s film, DaCosta uses the racial dynamics of Cabrini-Green to set up a story about white-inflicted racial violence, the ways white folks encroach on Black spaces, and the harm that an overzealous police force and apathetic government can cause to neglected Black people.
Several rounds of Black Lives Matter protests and the proliferation of videos capturing Black death at police hands have crystallized Rose’s film as a fantastical folkloric horror, a palpable parable of Black reality, set on a forsaken side of town. DaCosta is the recipient of those themes, responsible for translating them into a story that fits the present racial environment. But her Candyman is a confused, overstuffed web of shallowly presented ideas, including critiques of gentrification and the white critical lens, and a request for Black liberation.
After the flashback opening, DaCosta’s Candyman jumps to the present day, where Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a noted visual artist, carries out a chemistry-free relationship with art-gallery director Brianna (Teyonah Parris). Lately, Anthony has been in a creative rut. His previous series of paintings, featuring Black men with nooses draped over their necks and bare chests, is now old news. But then Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) tells Anthony the legend of Candyman, in a campfire story that sums up the events of the 1992 film: Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) ventured to Cabrini-Green and kidnapped a Black baby, but died in a bonfire. Anthony, who connects with Black pain on a shallow level, exploiting it for personal fame, decides to make Cabrini-Green his next subject.
This won’t be the only time we hear of Candyman’s legend: How you need only to say his name five times in a mirror to call him, or how his story traces back to the late 1800s, when a lynch mob captured him for fathering a child with a white woman. They cut off his arm, covered him with honey, and unleashed a swarm of bees to kill him. While viewers who haven’t watched the 1992 film will probably need this refresher on its plot, DaCosta’s sequel recounts the events of the prior film no less than three times, making its 90-minute runtime terribly distributed.
Each iteration of the retelling uses the same visual style, with bewitching silhouette images from real-life painter Kara Walker, who makes miniature black cutouts of people to convey the legend. In the beginning, this motif offers a captivating storytelling method, marrying the origin of myths with the idea of shadows on a cave wall. But DaCosta hits that well one too many times, and on each successive deployment, the strategy is less intriguing, mostly because there’s little meaning behind the aesthetic choice. While Walker’s art often interrogates the past, disrupting the romanization of America’s racial fairytale and the idea of a grand melting pot, the redundant retelling blunts the intended depth of her work.
That’s a general problem with the script, written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and DaCosta: Candyman is so message-driven that it flattens into a generic fable. During his research, McCoy ventures to Cabrini-Green, traversing through the nearly abandoned row houses. He meets William Burke (Colman Domingo), not only one of the area’s last residents, but a totem for the hurt and sense of abandonment felt by the city’s terrorized Black folks.
Domingo does some Herculean heavy lifting as William. He’s speaking for this community, and in a sense, almost every African-American urban neighborhood, when he tells McCoy about seeing a Black man wrongly accused of being Candyman, and beaten to death by police. Domingo nearly pulls it off, imbuing an agony and hidden rage within William that isn’t totally fleshed out in this withered script.
DaCosta’s previous film, Little Woods, was lived-in and detailed because she used the rugged landscape as an extension of her characters. In Candyman, Cabrini-Green isn’t as well-leveraged. Viewers who have never been to Chicago may not know the geographical importance of Cabrini-Green: The housing project bordered the Gold Coast, one of the city’s luxe neighborhoods. Barring a brief shot of Chicago’s glittering downtown skyline, which backgrounds the row houses, DaCosta’s film doesn’t work to convey that economic disparity, and why the city desperately wants to gentrify the former projects to make room for more luxury housing.
Today, those row houses are the last remnants of Cabrini-Green — the brick towers shown in Rose’s film were demolished in 2011. Those abandoned homes still hold a foreboding, from the memories of police brutality that scar the landscape, and the generations of Black folks who once dwelled in the complex. But DaCosta’s film doesn’t convey any of that, because she barely filmed in the neighborhood.
The lack of a visual metaphor makes the film’s exploration of gentrification more of an assemblage of nonspecific dialogue. It talks about what gentrification is, and not what it looks like. The same can be said of the movie’s kills, which are less propelled by plot, and more message-driven. There’s plenty of blood-spewing and bone-cracking, but with no sense of the terror lurking in the shadows, or the foreboding behind the walls.
The movie also delves into body horror, while exploring the obsessive sacrifice artists make for their art. After Anthony is stung by a bee, a rash develops on his hand, slowly causing his skin to itch and peel. His burst of neurotic creativity coincides with the deterioration of his body. The practical makeup work here is highly effective and gruesome, as is Abdul-Mateen II’s cowering performance. During this period, McCoy produces a plethora of pieces centering Black death. Much of it is rote, because he’s exploiting Black folks’ shared historical pain in a shallow manner. A white art critic who isn’t impressed with his work sees a different repetition, one about Black artists perpetually crying about gentrification. She’s totemic of an ignorant white-centered critical lens, but DaCosta’s critique of that lens isn’t very interesting, or connected to the overarching narrative.
Like Anthony, DaCosta struggles to craft art that isn’t wholly informed by the past. From Anthony listening to Helen’s audiotapes to other visual motifs — like a hole in the wall behind a mirror — this film is filled with copious references to the prior Candyman entries. But what story does DaCosta want to tell? If this is a movie about the legend of Candyman, then why is he no more than an underutilized boogeyman? If this is about the residents of Cabrini-Green, then why not feature them or the area more heavily? Vanessa Estelle Williams reprises her role from the 1992 film, and considering the rich depth of her backstory — in the first movie, her baby was kidnapped by Candyman — it’s a wonder why this story wasn’t centered on her.
Like Anthony, DaCosta seems to want to say something substantial with her work. Her Candyman makes broad metaphorical strokes about the larger urban Black experience, but it’s aimed at an oblivious audience that needs didactic storytelling to understand racial politics. The film’s end is particularly muddled, doing more to set up a sequel than to smartly bind together Candyman’s varied, nascent themes. The film is missing out on a cohesive vision, to the point where the audience will spend the entire film waiting for the flashbacks and summaries to end, and for DaCosta’s movie to finally begin. But by the end, she’s only offered a visually stunning homage to the original film. For a director of her talent, that isn’t enough.
Peele’s own directorial work tends to explore fraught social issues on a subtler level than this, but the other projects he’s backed — Twilight Zone, Lovecraft Country, and Hunters — have been underwhelming because they approach their subjects with suffocating bluntness. DaCosta’s Candyman, a sequel clearly filmed by a director with only a cursory knowledge of Chicago, a lesser understanding of the ways legends haunt us, and an unevenness for looping frights in with social commentary, is bold in its ambition. DaCosta tries to pay tribute to a classic horror film while upping the ante of that film’s social conversations, but she follows in the same disappointing steps of Peele’s other produced projects. She doesn’t have the voice required to approach these issues with depth.
Candyman debuts in theaters on August 27.