“You can really make the story your own. But some of the specifics should be consistent.” So says William Burke (Colman Domingo), the aging keeper of the Candyman legend. And so say writer-director Nia DaCosta (“Little Woods”) and co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld (“The Twilight Zone”), the inventive re-creators of the “Candyman” franchise.
The filmmakers built their movie by deconstructing another one: Bernard Rose’s 1992 original, which was in turn based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden.” (Two sequels, also made in the ’90s, are ignored altogether.) Though it was embraced by genre fans at the time (including a teenage Peele), Rose’s version is long overdue for a contemporary revision. It’s hard to imagine one with more searing impact than this.
The pandemic pushed the movie’s release date back a year, so the story opens in 2019 Chicago, long after the Cabrini-Green housing project of the original was razed to make way for gentrification. Among the residents of the ultra-luxe condos that replaced it are Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “Watchmen”) and Brianna (Teyonah Parris, “WandaVision”). He’s an artist and she’s a gallery curator, and she’s a little concerned about his lack of inspiration before their upcoming show.
But then he meets William, an original Cabrini resident who witnessed the events of the first film. Anthony has heard the ghost story of urban lore, but William shares the true history of a haunting, and haunted, figure who has come to embody the trauma of white violence and supremacy.
Before long Anthony is not merely inspired but possessed, at least artistically (though his extreme response to a recent bee sting surely doesn’t bode well physically). With increasing obsession, he creates a series of works designed to reflect the anguish of Black men in America, and the mythology of Candyman in particular. This includes the method of summoning him: saying his name several times while looking into a mirror. And so, once the mirror is hung and the gallery doors open, the nightmare begins.
A franchise with a hook-armed killer isn’t going to be shy about gore, but although there are slayings aplenty, anyone who overlooks the film’s pedigree and expects a generic slasher flick will be surprised, if not disappointed. (The latter may include those who rooted for an earlier, thankfully-cancelled plan in this franchise: “Candyman vs. Leprechaun.”) Then again, Candyman was always more of an antihero than a villain. He began as a victim, his own transformation an expression of the racism and cruelty inflicted upon him by others. (In the original, his tormentors were 19th century lynchers; in the update, they’re 20th century cops.)
Indeed, both William and the filmmakers take pains to honor Candyman, laying bare the ways that trauma sculpts a body without and within. DaCosta uses a range of thoughtfully considered media to shape their already-sharp script; the film’s violence is equally startling whether it’s depicted graphically and up-close, or through old-fashioned shadow puppets and oral traditions.
In fact, DaCosta’s attention to detail permeates virtually every aspect of the film: Anthony’s artwork, which reflects his shifting mental state, was created by Chicago artists Sherwin Ovid and Cameron Spratley. Production designer Cara Brower (“Our Friend”) ably transports us from the graffiti-covered Cabrini-Green of the 1970s to the pristine glass duplexes that replaced it. (Anthony assures Brianna their stunning apartment can’t be haunted: “It was listed on Zillow!”)
J. Anthony Kosar’s makeup effects team also deserves credit for the unnerving way Anthony’s mental and physical decay collides, a decomposition mimicked by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s eerie score. Likewise, the spare and sophisticated work of cinematographer John Guleserian (“Love, Simon”) reflects DaCosta’s vision beautifully. One of the most unsettling deaths takes place far away, unheard and nearly, but not quite, unseen.
DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld are playing with us — the victim is rendered less sympathetically than Candyman — as much as they are with notions of history, culture, art and appropriation. They bring in actors from the first film (including Tony Todd and Vanessa Estelle Williams) but not always in ways we expect. They build on canon while simultaneously dismantling it. Their script is always self-aware but only occasionally self-conscious.
With the exception of William, the supporting characters — including Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, “Generation”) and a cartoonishly appalling art critic (Rebecca Spence, “Saint Frances”) — are written in rather broad strokes. But Abdul-Mateen and Parris, in particular, are outstanding.
One of the ideas Anthony inadvertently explores is the overwhelming power of a name. You’ll be hard-pressed to stop sharing those of the artists who rewrote Candyman’s story, and elevated his legacy.
“Candyman” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.