“The legend is if you say his name five times while looking in the mirror, he appears in the reflection and kills you … so I thought we could summon him.” — Really bad idea expressed by a particular character in “Candyman” (2021).
From the opening moments of Nia DaCosta’s gory yet strikingly beautiful and socially relevant “Candyman,” it’s clear we’re in for an especially haunting and just plain entertaining thrill ride.
Before we even settle in for the main story, we hear Sammy Davis Jr.’s version of “The Candy Man” from 1972 mixed with the sounds of a swarm of bees, and we see mirror images of the various studio logos, including the MGM lion, involved in this film. After a prologue set in the Cabrini-Green Homes in 1977, the opening credits flash over a montage of the Chicago skyline — as seen from below, through a dense white fog, in the middle of the night. It’s almost as if we’re on a gurney, looking straight up. This, too, is a kind of mirror image of the opening titles in the 1992 “Candyman,” where the camera swooped directly ABOVE the streets of Chicago.
Buckle up, kids. And be careful what you say into that mirror.
“Candyman” is billed as a spiritual and direct sequel to the 1992 original (ignoring the events of the two forgotten “Candyman” follow-ups from the 1990s), and director/co-writer DaCosta, along with co-writer and producer Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), have delivered a worthy successor with far superior production values and an equally powerful story combining traditional GOTCHA! horror moments and some suitably gory splatter moments with running themes about institutional racism, social class warfare and how unreliable narrators will shape and shift urban fairy tales to suit their world views.
Oh, and it’s also wickedly funny at times, as when a young woman says she just might say “Candyman” five times into a mirror, and the creepy guy trying to hook up with her retorts, “Do it. Necrophilia has always been on my bucket list.”
This “Candyman” is set primarily in the present day and specifically in the gentrified Near North Side neighborhood that a generation earlier was the site of the notorious Cabrini-Green complex. (One character explains the transformation in the voice of planners saying, “Hey, you artists, you young people, you white[s] preferably, please come to the hood, it’s cheap. And if you stick it out for a couple of years, we’ll bring you a Whole Foods.”) In a powerful and resonant performance, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Anthony, a celebrated young artist (who is almost always labeled “a Black artist”) who lives with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Paris, doing fine work), an art gallery director, in a posh apartment.
Anthony has been struggling for the last couple of years and is looking to explore new themes, and he’s intrigued when Brianna’s younger brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) tells the urban legend of Candyman through a shadow box presentation. It’s not accurate to the “real” events as we know from the original film, as the Helen Lyle character is now painted as the real villain, who went on a killing spree and tried to sacrifice a baby in a bonfire, when we know she gave up her own life to save the child. But it’s still one chilling story.
Anthony’s curiosity about the Candyman turns into a full-on obsession after he hears more about the legend from Colman Domingo’s William Burke, who claims to have had an encounter with the hook-handed specter when he was a child. (There’s also the matter of a bee stinging Anthony’s hand, leading to a horrific infection that’s a little reminiscent of what happened to Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly.”) Anthony has a burst of feverish intensity as he creates a series of paintings depicting violence and racial injustice — and that’s right about the time the body count starts piling up, as a looming figure guts an art gallery owner and his assistant, then takes out a number of girls in the bathroom of a North Side college prep school. Director DaCosta does a brilliant job of alternating the visuals of these kills; sometimes we see the murders in silhouette, while on other occasions it’s more about crackling sound effects and dripping blood than hardcore close-ups.
This is a visually striking film, containing establishing shots of Chicago at its most beautiful, and interior scenes brimming with eye-catching artwork on the walls, and color-coordinated rooms and hallways in shades of blues and oranges and greens and stark whites. Even something as simple as Anthony navigating a curving hallway to visit the apartment of a noted art critic has a claustrophobic, vaguely nightmarish journey. There are a number of callbacks to the original film that add layers to the story, and constant reminders of how the Candyman legend is something that sprung up from decades of very real, racist violence — starting with the story of Tony Todd’s Daniel Robitaille, who in the 19th century was tortured and murdered by a mob after falling in love with and impregnating a white woman. The social commentary is not subtle, but it’s legitimate and justified. We end up looking in the mirror on a number of levels.
If you want to say “Candyman” five times, go ahead. I think I’ll stop at four just to play it safe.