CANDYMAN wants to do more than creep you out with mere gore. To that end, this sequel to the original does more than ignore the three subsequent films in that previous franchise, though it does, like those other films, drench the screen in blood from time to time. Here, though, the true horror that it seeks to explore concerns the legacy of racism in these United States. In this case, gentrification, which, along with the troubling history of police brutality, has become a more insidious way to oppress people of color, and, occasionally, driving them mad in several senses of the word.
We begin in the Cabrini Green of 1997, where a reflexive, startled scream on the part of a little boy leads to the murder by police of Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), aka Candyman, a black man with a penchant for handing out candy to children. Many years later, 2019 to be exact, Cabrini Green has been swept away by the same entrenched white establishment that built it in the first place, thereby once again fracturing communities of color without the promised improvement in their quality of life. One of the new, posh lofts, is occupied by Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an up-and-coming artist, and his gallery curator girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). When Brianna’s boss, Clive Privler (Brian King) tasks Anthony with going in a new direction the piece that will be in the gallery’s next show, the artist betakes himself to the still standing part of the old projects for inspiration. He finds it in the person of an ex-resident, who regales him with tales of Candyman’s demise. It inspires a canvas that Brianna tries very hard to like in the face of Anthony’s enthusiasm, while the bee sting he received while exploring the abandoned site begins inspires his right hand to fester. The bee, of course, being one of Candyman’s avatars, with swarms of them forming a cloud of his familiars as he goes about his murderous business.
Further exposition of the Candyman mythos is provided courtesy of Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) an ebullient gay man with a gift for storytelling and drawing a line when it comes to nonsense. Drawn further into the legend, Anthony begins his own delving into the past, only to discover the series of horrific events that haunt Cabrini Green, using it as the impetus for his work. One of those pieces, pointedly entitled Say His Name, relates how saying Candyman’s name five times while staring into the provided mirror, will summon Sherman, who will then murder the summoner. Naturally someone does just that, and after the first slaughter revives the long-forgotten formula, others tempt fate and Candyman with predictably bloody results.
The tension of a serial killer on the loose, particularly of the supernatural variety, is juxtaposed with the tension people of color feel while negotiating a white world. From an art critic’s glib and condescending dismissal of Anthony’s work to his face, to a white-art world pundit on a visit to Chicago calling the city charmingly provincial as Brianna looks on, as the microaggressions accrue, we are reminded of the history of forced displacement and racist violence against the community. It’s done with a deft hand, capturing the unease with small acknowledgements, such as the camera showing the Brianna’s frozen smile while the others continue talking. Depictions of police brutality take on a different, more forceful and monolithic cast, which is less stereotyping as it is demonstrative of the perceptions at play among the people who have been brutalized by them. This is subjective filmmaking, to be sure, determined to make its points by becoming experiential in its storytelling.
It is also determinedly artistic, beyond the clever use of trick perspectives, mirrors that defy optics, and composed scenes that evoke dreamlike landscapes of alienation informed by artists such as Hopper. With the use of shadow puppets as a trope for telling the most brutal parts of the story, the filmmakers continue that dreamlike quality to excellent effect by introducing the starkness, visually and ethically, of black and white. Perpetrator and victim are the same, with only prejudice separating them. It becomes more real than reality.
The performances are uniformly fine, with Stewart-Jarrett as Troy standing out for the sardonic energy he brings to his role, as well as unexpected depths of empathy. Abdul-Mateen, for his part, goes quietly unhinged with the requisite confusion and fear, while Parris makes the most of a part this is barley a ghost. To be fair, though, Brianna may have the best moment when, staring down the dark stairs of a strange basement, reacts with a decisive “uh uh”.
Will this be the start of another CANDYMAN series? Very likely. Here’s an opportunity to reboot a franchise with a new sensibility that speaks to more than the simple joys of being scared to death.