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Gory but not too scary, 2021’s Candyman is a direct sequel to 1992’s Candyman, which means it builds on the narrative and the lore of the first film rather than the 1995 and 1999 sequels. It also builds on the lore and narrative of Tony Todd’s Candyman, the first mainstream black horror whacko, someone to be pitched alongside Freddie Kruger or Leatherface in a nightmare beauty pageant.

Clive Barker wrote the original story, The Forbidden, and set the action in rundown Liverpool. Bernard Rose relocated the whole thing to Cabrini-Green in rundown Chicago for the 1992 version he adapted and directed, reshaping the story to his liking – for example, in Barker’s version Candyman would appear if you said his name out loud 13 times. Rose slimmed it down to five. Tony Todd himself came up with the backstory of Daniel Robitaille aka Candyman, the artist son of a slave who had the temerity to fall in love with a white woman and ended up at the wrong end of a lynch mob, had his hand amputated and then was stung to death by bees.

The 2021 version kicks off with unsettling opening credits – mirror images of the usual studio and production house credits, while Sammy Davis Jr sings The Candy Man song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the pitch varying drunkenly. We’re once again in Cabrini-Green, which has been gentrified in the intervening decades, where artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Matten II) and his gallerist partner Brianna (Teyonah Parris) find their “first world problems” lives disrupted by Anthony’s discovery of the Candyman legend. Hook-handed Candyman himself arrives not long after, and Anthony himself starts transforming into Candyman: The Next Generation after being stung by a bee.

Director Nia DaCosta’s version is lushly gorgeous, and uses gore effectively and sparingly. She gives us occasional money shots of, say, a neck ripped open and arterial blood pumping life onto a floor. But for the most part she works through suggestion. One foolish person after another summons the unquiet spirit by intoning the word “Candyman” five times in front of a mirror, but most of the deaths happen off screen, a long way off, through a distancing window pane or on the other side of a toilet cubicle.

Shadowplay to explain the Candyman myth
Shadowplay gives us Candyman’s backstory

No matter how unimpressive you find the original film, that “say his name five times in a mirror” idea was and remains a piece of storytelling genius and is so powerful that every time someone in this movie starts doing it, it’s like the beginning of a gruesome countdown, tension ratcheting with every repetition.

Jordan Peele wrote the treatment, along with Win Rosenfeld and DaCosta herself, and it’s tempting to see Candyman as an attempt to say something about the new universe created by Peele’s Get Out, which not only asserted that a black character could anchor a mainstream horror movie but went on to prove it when the film became a massive worldwide hit.

Candyman 2021 inhabits this universe and points out it’s not an entirely comfortable place to be. Are Anthony and Brianna just characters in this movie or are they black characters? Do they live in a post-racial world or a white world accepting them on suffrance? At one point, Anthony is being snootily addressed by a white art critic who doesn’t much like his current work. Her appetite sharpened, the critic moves on to discuss the part in Cabrini-Green’s gentrification played by Anthony and “your kind”. Anthony responds with an affronted “Excuse me!?” I meant artists, the critic says. He, rushing to judgment, had thought she meant black people. Maybe she did. Later, while Brianna does a bit of routine networking with a fellow black art curator, a neon art installation blinks away behind them as they chat. It reads, “You’re obviously in the wrong place”.

It’s all fascinating, stimulating, thought provoking and will give media studies students plenty to work through, much as the original movie did, though all this subtext does tend to slow things down, especially when comparisons are drawn between the original Candyman, lynched artist Daniel Robitaille, and the update, comfortably-off painter Anthony.

The result is a good horror movie with ambitions to relaunch the franchise. It might. It’s decently acted and slickly directed, and it has “something to say”. If it’s a bit too tasteful, you can put that down to the times we live in. This is genre, but gentrified. Put another way, a bit more Tony Todd would not have gone amiss.

Candyman – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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