The Candyman Lives On

Nia DaCosta’s take on the 1992 horror classic finds new depths in an urban legend but drowns in its own innovation.

A shadowy silhouette of Candyman
Universal Pictures / Everett

The 1992 original Candyman film, my favorite piece of horror cinema from that decade, is about an interloper. Helen Lyle (played by Virginia Madsen), a plucky, white graduate student researching urban legends in Chicago, is drawn to the city’s dilapidated Cabrini-Green projects, where she learns of a monster named the Candyman: a vengeful Black ghost who appears if you say his name five times while looking in a mirror. The movie becomes a tale of seduction and fascination. Helen’s academic interest evolves into something more personal and obsessive, until her need to understand a world that’s not her own eventually destroys her.

A slasher movie rife with gore but rich with metaphor, the original is also about the storytelling that goes into the horror genre. The Candyman, played by Tony Todd, is an imposing figure—a grandiose, hook-handed Dracula whose ribcage is filled with bees. But the legend around him, and his tragic history, is what gives him his power, and the director Nia DaCosta zeroes in on this notion for her sequel, also titled Candyman. The new film, out Friday, functions as a follow-up but also as an attempt to refresh the first movie’s mythos and expand its perspective.

DaCosta’s bold, stylish work overflows with ideas. It attempts to pay homage to Bernard Rose’s original, approach it from different angles, and critique it, all in the span of 91 minutes. DaCosta, who co-wrote the film with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, had an exciting debut with her thriller Little Woods and is already working on a Marvel movie. Her talent is evident: She packs Candyman’s running time with artfully staged set pieces and is admirably uninterested in making a straightforward retread. But as it reaches its bloody conclusion, this film drowns in its own innovation, losing sight of its most intriguing concepts in favor of more-familiar gory shocks.

The protagonist of DaCosta’s Candyman is also an interloper of sorts: Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a visual artist who grows equally obsessed with the myth of Cabrini-Green’s hook-handed killer. He lives in the gentrifying neighborhood built atop the now-demolished projects with his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), an art-gallery director who encourages him to find new sources of inspiration for his work. Like Helen Lyle before him, he is pulled toward the Candyman, but this time the film’s tension doesn’t arise from a clash between academia and grim reality.

A child looks through an ajar door in fear
Universal Pictures / MGM

Instead, Anthony’s fascination develops into a sort of appropriation, as he turns the Candyman stories into a series of frightening artworks that evoke the trauma visited on Black men for generations. One of the pieces is a hinged mirror that opens to reveal a cavernous room filled with detritus, graffiti, and nightmarish imagery. It’s a nod to one of the most foreboding scenes in the original film, in which Helen discovers a makeshift shrine built in an abandoned Cabrini-Green home. DaCosta gives the reference a slick, artistic sheen, turning it into a clever bit of commentary on the way stories get remade and burnished as time passes.

Unlike Helen, Anthony is Black, but he also feels out of place in the neighborhood, and his discomfort at his perceived inauthenticity is apparent. He’s not from Cabrini-Green, he admits—he only lives in a fancy modern high-rise built on its ashes. He flinches when an art critic points out to him that artists are the original gentrifying force, encouraged by cities to move into “bad” neighborhoods and make them cool and alluring. DaCosta emphasizes Chicago’s changing landscape as much as she can—the original film’s opening credits show the city from the point of view of a camera flying overhead, but DaCosta depicts Chicago from below, gliding through its streets and gazing up at the skyscrapers.

Anthony’s growing artistic success based on the Candyman legend, of course, eventually summons the Candyman himself, and plenty of inventive murder sequences involving mirrors are sprinkled throughout the film. But narratively, I was most drawn to Anthony’s guilt over telling a story that isn’t his own, and the unsettling way in which the (mostly white) artistic community embraces him as the buzzy flavor of the month. In the original Candyman, the vengeful spirit reappears because Helen is discrediting his existence with her research; Anthony’s glib art feels like an echo of the same idea.

But then Candyman starts plumbing many other big concepts, chiefly the notion that many Candymen exist, each representing a Black man wronged by society at some point in history. Anthony’s pieces are titled “Say His Name,” a reference to the Candyman’s summoning ritual, but also a loaded invocation of the contemporary meaning of that phrase. The film simply doesn’t have enough time to offer more than glancing commentary on police brutality and institutional neglect while also trying to focus on the original movie’s thorny allegory and Anthony’s artistic troubles.

In the final, tragic act of the first Candyman, Todd plays the character as a Phantom of the Opera–esque villain, both horrifying and lovelorn. But in DaCosta’s movie, Anthony starts to transform into the creature himself, a script choice that serves only to sideline the film’s protagonist as he grows more zombified. By the end of this new Candyman, little personal investment remains for the audience, just a miasma of provocative thoughts failing to cohere into something greater. The film has enough visual panache to make it an involving watch, but it struggles to live up to the audaciousness of its deeper ideas.