Almost thirty years ago in 1992 director Bernard Rose unleashed his adaptation of the Clive Barker short story The Forbidden, Candyman, unto the world. The film is regularly regarded as one of the best horror films of the nineties thanks to some great directing and even better acting. Although having plenty of credits already on his CV, including a part in Platoon, Candyman made a name out of Tony Todd. His oddly empathetic portrayal of an urban legend birthed into reality struck a chord with many and all these years later it is still the first film that springs to mind when you hear his name. In the wake of the original film’s success, a couple of sequels were made, but failed to capture the same magic. Now the film receives a modern update via Nia DaCosta.
Set in modern times, Candyman follows struggling artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his art curator girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), as they move into a new area. After hearing a local legend about the Candyman Anthony feels inspired and begins to investigate the story. He immediately feels a connection to the location and embarks down a dark path guided by life-long local, William (Colman Domingo).
Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is intrinsically linked to Bernard Rose’s original, making it a genetic sequel rather than troublesome reboot or remake. One character remarks “make the story your own, but some of the specificity should be the same”. This seems to be exactly the mantra to which DaCosta has created her art. There’s an abundance of references for fans of the original film, from the legend of Helen Lyle, Cabrini Green, that open mouth graffiti over a door, and that dread inspiring score from Philip Glass. DaCosta aligns her vision with that of Rose’s right from the beginning, her opening titles perfectly homaging the original’s. As for the rest of her film though, she does add her own twist and flair. The 1992 film’s opening titles played over sweeping shots of the tops of cityscapes. This time, the cityscapes remain, but the shots are looking up and at the sky rather than down. It’s subtle, but with this move DaCosta asserts the perspective from which her story will unfold. Rose’s stuck with Helen, a white woman, investigating and looking down upon Cabrini Green, this story is rising up from the bowels of history and Cabrini itself.
The excellently creepy shadow puppets that you’ve glimpsed on the poster and in the trailer play a weighty part of the story, enacting the ghosts of the past. Not only does this method of storytelling look cool as Hell, it’s super creepy and sets the eerie tone for what is to follow. Furthermore, it excels at exposition, explaining plot and past events in a dynamic and interesting way. By swerving the temptation to re-enact the histories discussed in a more common live-action context, it injects some dynamic visual flourishes into the piece. These decisions prove that, as well as being a mouthpiece for important issues, this version is as pretty as a picture, just thankfully not the kind that Anthony starts creating.
Where Candyman 2021 falls behind its predecessor is in its horror elements. What made Rose’s original so special was that he embraced the sticky nature of Barker’s texts, coating syrupy blood everywhere. Helen waking up covered in the red stuff is such an iconic moment from the 1992 film, and yet this new incarnation is a fairly anemic affair. Obviously bloodshed remains, but it’s almost all in the distance, the viewer a casual bystander rather than reactive participant. This stance is likely intended to make further commentary on society’s inability to step in and address its racial imbalance, but this move will leave some disappointed. Mirrors form a larger component of DaCosta’s Candyman, this version haunting and stalking victims through the looking glass. Whilst the bloodshed may be minimal, the sinister nature of the entity popping up in reflective surfaces is horribly effective.
If you’ve seen the trailers, some of the finer aspects of Candyman might lose some of their impact, but this does not dull the sheen that DaCosta has given this iconic character. DaCosta uses the framework of the Candyman story to explore America’s broken relationship with racism, and the tangled circular loop that it seems to be caught in. Things improve long enough for the white institution to feel good about themselves before repeating the same mistakes that keep people of colour perpetually at a disadvantage. An effective modern reworking of a criminally little known horror character, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman puts fresh eyes on an old story with excellent results. Falling just the right side of being respectful, Candyman pushes boundaries and creates a film that, although intrinsically linked to the original, ventures into new territories, thus ensuring that the legend of Candyman will live on once more.
Candyman is available on Digital Home Premiere now.
This review first appeared on THN.