Because I was a kid who scared easily, horror films are still a fairly substantial blind spot in my cinematic education. I’ve been slowly catching up over the years, but there are plenty of genre favorites that I haven’t seen. Until recently, that included the 1992 cult classic “Candyman,” starring Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd.
The story about a grad student who summons a murderous supernatural entity while researching urban legends definitely falls into the slasher category, but it’s far more compelling than the typical masked psycho gorefest. Like the best genre fare, it comments on vital cultural issues — “othering” Black men until society views them as monsters, gentrification, etc. — in a metaphorical way that doesn’t alienate audiences with sermonizing.
I finally overcame my fear and gave it a shot because I knew an updated version was hitting theaters this weekend. Now that I’ve seen both, I’m happy to report the new “Candyman” not only lives up to the original’s reputation — it might even be better.
Directed by Nia DaCosta, who also shares screenplay credit with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, the flick isn’t exactly a direct sequel or a straight remake. Instead, it’s an intriguing mixture of both, complicating the original’s mythology while also delivering some timely social commentary in its own way.
The housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood, where much of the original “Candyman” took place, were torn down years ago to make way for luxury condos. However, longtime residents still whisper about an otherworldly killer with a hook for a hand who appears any time someone stands in front of a mirror and says his name five times. In the present day, visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend, gallery director Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), move into the newly gentrified area without knowing its history.
That changes after Anthony meets an old-timer (Colman Domingo) who still lives in a section of Cabrini-Green that most people abandoned long ago. He tells Anthony the horrific true story behind the Candyman legend, which inspires the artist to explore this bleak history in his latest series of paintings. Unbeknownst to him, this opens a door to his own secret past, unravels his sanity and kicks off a new wave of gruesome murders.
While “Candyman” might not be scary in the traditional slasher sense, it’s a haunting experience that will linger with most viewers long after they’ve left the theater. The film practically demands repeat viewings to pick up on the symbolism expertly placed throughout, as well as the almost constant foreshadowing that places the characters on their tragic path to inevitability.
Horror purists shouldn’t get upset, though — there’s still plenty of gnarly body horror on display, some of it so gross that I had to look away from the screen. (What can I say? I’m braver than I was as a kid, but I’m still squeamish.) Furthermore, this isn’t just a shlocky, hastily assembled excuse to showcase a steady flow of blood and guts. Although the subject matter is ugly, it’s a truly gorgeous film thanks to John Guleserian’s outstanding cinematography.
There are other moments of stunning visual creativity as well, specifically DaCosta’s use of deceptively simple animated puppetry to deliver exposition and cement the film’s themes with a powerful closing credits sequence. Composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe also wisely chooses to reprise elements of Philip Glass’ hauntingly beautiful score from the 1992 film.
As you might expect with Peele as a co-writer, characters also deliver some blisteringly funny dialogue that acts as a much-needed release valve. Although these moments never come at the expense of the film’s tone, which would pull viewers out of the world’s carefully constructed mythology.
The entire cast, led by Abdul-Mateen and Parris, is fantastic. However, Domingo and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett end up stealing the movie; the former with some riveting monologues and the latter with some of that aforementioned comic relief. There are moments when both actors threaten to go over the top, but they rein it in at just the right times.
Viewers who haven’t seen the original film needn’t worry about feeling lost — DaCosta’s version of “Candyman” stands on its own.
It reminded me a lot of Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of “Doctor Sleep,” Stephen King’s follow-up to “The Shining” that somehow served as both a sequel to the book and the movie. That should’ve been impossible, but Flanagan managed to pull it off. DaCosta accomplishes a similar feat. She and her creative team have crafted a deeply unsettling flick that’s a contender for my Top 10 in a few months — despite the fact that I’m a wimp when it comes to horror.
“Candyman” is rated R for bloody horror violence, and language including some sexual references. Opens in theaters August 27.