When you see a film, you don’t always know that it’s ahead of its time. That requires time passed and context. When I re-watched the original 1992 “Candyman” to get into the head space for Nia DaCosta’s new sequel, it struck me that here was a movie that used the horror genre to remind us that Black lives matter.
Released in the wake of the Rodney King riots, “Candyman,” adapted and directed by Bernard Rose (“Immortal Beloved”) from a Clive Barker short story called “The Forbidden,” was a canny mix of American Gothic, bodice ripper romantic fiction and perhaps the first mention of “urban legend.” Virginia Madsen played a Chicago grad student touring the notoriously dangerous Cabrini-Green projects to research her thesis on folklore, which draws her into the legend of the Candyman (Tony Todd). Todd’s character was a racially charged version of the innocent man cursed to live in infamy as the city’s scary legend, the man with a hook for a hand. Just look in the mirror and say his name — “Candyman” — five times.
The film was slightly spoiled at its climax due to some poor prosthetic work on Madsen, but its overall strength of vision still marked it as one of the 10 best horror films of the ‘90s. (For the record, some of those other films would include “Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight” and “Scream”.)
Aside from David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of “The Fly,” most of the attempts to reboot horror franchises like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” haven’t really worked. Nia DaCosta’s new “Candyman” (Universal Pictures-MGM-Monkeypaw Productions-Bron Creative, 2021, 91 min.), which she co-wrote with Win Rosenfeld and producer Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”), isn’t just a cheapjack sequel. It actually pushes the series into a smart new direction while also doing a classy job of tying itself in with the events of the 1992 original. It stands on its own as a scary picture, but the more you know about the series (I’ve only seen one of the two original sequels, 1995’s “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh”), the more you’ll get out of the new “Candyman.”
In DaCosta’s continuation of the saga, we’re back in Chicago in Cabrini-Green, which is in the process of being renovated and upgraded. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Anthony McCoy, a talented and successful painter looking for the next creative spark to inspire him. He learns about the events that happened in ’92, finds Madsen’s research and her micro-cassette recorder, and stumbles down the rabbit hole of the “Candyman.” He gets bitten by a bee — there’s lots of bees in the mythology — and his hand gets infected and begins spreading to the rest of his body. Meanwhile, people connected with him and the art gallery displaying “Say His Name,” his latest exhibit, start turning up viciously murdered. And thanks to social media, other people start looking into mirrors and saying his name. (There’s a particularly effective kill sequence involving five female students in a high school bathroom.)
DaCosta is obviously a gifted storyteller and visual stylist; she’s currently shooting the “Captain Marvel” sequel for Marvel. Here, she stages an unsettling title sequence involving misty moving shots looking up at Chicago buildings, and there’s also a lot of beautifully done shadow puppetry that tells the Candyman legend, and is reprised over the closing credits. She also borrows artfully from Bunuel and John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London,” which celebrated its 40th anniversary just last month, with characters waking in terror again and again from nightmares.