The New Candyman Plays It Too Safe for Real Scares

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot is a hit, but unlike the strange and haunting 1992 original, it’s a by-the-numbers horror flick.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Chicago artist Anthony McCoy in the new Candyman. (Universal Pictures)

The new Candyman, produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, Lovecraft Country) and directed by Nia DaCosta (Little Woods) is so popular, it’s already considered a landmark success. It hit number one at the box office on its opening week, a historic first for a black woman director — especially noteworthy because the film “didn’t play it safe.”

Building on Peele’s reputation and DaCosta’s talent, it combined, according to IndieWire, “an element of danger, a sense of the unknown, strong IP [intellectual property] and execution: That’s a good lesson for producers who fear taking risks.”

But what exactly makes Candyman so risky isn’t spelled out. On paper, it has all the right ingredients for a box-office success. Not only are horror films a winning genre right now, but Peele’s got a solid track record for delivering a specific (and profitable) strain of horror drawn from the black American experience. Throw in some cult-classic IP (1992’s original Candyman) to base it on, and you have what any executive could identify as a highly anticipated sequel.

In fact, I would’ve said the film is doing so well because it doesn’t take risks.

The main goals of the film seem to be to make the original Candyman more readily comprehensible, topical, and consumable for contemporary mainstream audiences, who seem less and less inclined to let weird, inscrutable, crazily compelling shit happen to them at the movies.

There are some fairly efficient scares in this new Candyman, nice production values, and a charismatic lead performance by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Trial of the Chicago 7, Watchman, Aquaman). He plays Chicago artist Anthony McCoy, who lives with his gallery director girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) in upscale, gentrified digs on the site of the once notoriously neglected and crime-ridden Cabrini-Green public housing project. He begins to delve into the legend of the vengeful hook-handed ghost of Candyman that supposedly haunted Cabrini-Green as a way to jumpstart a stalled career, feeling desperate now that he only used to be “the great black hope of the Chicago art scene.”

This plot offers plenty of commentary about racial oppression in America — so seamlessly it even involves the marketing campaign. The “say his name” exhortation that serves as the film’s promotional tagline also describes the way to summon Candyman — saying his name five times in a mirror — as well as invoking the #SayHerName, #SayHisName, and #SayTheirNames campaigns to raise awareness of black victims of police violence.

Compared to the first Candyman, it’s all very coherent and makes an abundance of sense, with everything fitting together in a slick, gear-meshing way. But it’s not very memorable.

See, the old Candyman struck such a cord because of its strange id-like power that defied easy interpretation. Finding out that Tony Todd’s mesmerizing performance as Candyman was informed by a shared investment in hypnosis with director Bernard Rose and co-star Virginia Madsen — with Madsen literally entranced for her key scenes with Todd — is exactly what one would expect of this occult shocker of a film.

Whereas the new Candyman looks bright and glossy, the 1992 Candyman was murky, glowering, and creepily erotic. And the confounding qualities of black rage and terror that roiled wildly in the first film are now contextualized, explained, and enacted so pedantically by the characters in the new film that I predict this movie will be taught in many an undergraduate film class.

1992’s Candyman was the perfect movie to discover on television late one night. But if you tried to describe it to someone else, you were quickly bogged down in plot madness:

Candyman 1992 is about a white female graduate student named Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) who’s writing a thesis dealing with Chicago’s local urban legends. She’s focusing on the figure of Candyman (Tony Todd), who supposedly haunts the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project and is blamed by the black tenants she talks to for a series of murders. With her friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), a black grad student who tries to dissuade her from her more callous intrusions into the lives of the Cabrini-Green tenants, Helen keeps pushing to do bolder research — it’s their only way to make a real mark at a university dominated by condescending white men, including Virginia’s live-in boyfriend professor (who also happens to be cheating on her).

The original Candyman backstory revolves around the late nineteenth-century lynching of Daniel Robitaille, the son of a slave and a successful black artist until he falls in love with and impregnates the daughter of a white patron whose portrait he’s painting. The mob hacks off his hand, takes him to an apiary where they cover him with honey so the bees sting him to death, and then finally burn his body in a pyre.

Virginia tests the Candyman legend by saying his name five times in a mirror. But instead of killing Helen, Candyman possesses her and commits a series of brutal murders, including stabbing her friend Bernadette to death, that get Helen thrown into an institution for the criminally insane. It seems that Candyman is both punishing Helen for the way she’s explaining away the power of his legend, as well as trying to reunite with her as a kind of reincarnation of his lost love — or something. He’s also stolen the baby of a Cabrini-Green resident (Vanessa E. Williams) because uhhhhhh. . . . Jeez, I forget why he does that. Well, anyway, there’s a lot more plot, but it only gets more unhinged from there.

To be fair, it’s quite a challenge to take on a sequel to such a discombobulating cult classic, and the screenwriters of the new Candyman — DaCosta, Peele, and Win Rosenfeld — are clearly trying to do some sensible things. The new film takes on the convoluted plot of the 1992 Candyman by having characters explain it to each other incorrectly, so the story can later be straightened out and corrected by others. These retellings are illustrated by distractingly beautiful silhouette animation sequences. They evoke a landmark early animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Germany, 1926), which is an Arabian Nights tale involving a shape-shifting African sorcerer seeking to abduct a princess — clearly someone did their homework.

Then a new plot is constructed in response to the old one that’s, in many ways, quite logical. It makes sense, for example, to take the vile careerist world of academia from the first film, and replace it with the vile careerist world of contemporary art. In recent decades both have tended to reward studies by the elite (or would-be elite) of the complex sufferings of the non-elite, in often grotesquely fad-driven ways. The film takes some nice shots at this tendency, as when Anthony McCoy, trying to impress an art maven, says he intends to explore his own background growing up on Chicago’s South Side, and the maven winces and says, “Ahhh, the South Side is . . . a little played out.”

McCoy’s offering up of Cabrini-Green instead gets him renewed interest, and soon he’s investigating what’s left of the old housing project, unconsciously following in the footsteps of Helen Lyle as well as evoking the artistic ambitions of doomed Daniel Robitaille.

The first Candyman plot confuses people in part because of who Candyman chooses as his victims. Haunting the site of his own lynching is the reason given, but still, why would he be targeting impoverished black tenants? The new film’s way of handling this is, again, comparatively streamlined and logical. There are generations of “Candymen” being created, because there’s always a new form of lynching in America. These vengeful legions are waiting to gut people who doubt, forget, refuse to take seriously, or make a joke of the nightmarish reality. And those people, in this film, tend to be white.

After looking forward to it for so long, it’s hard not to feel let down about the film’s lack of imagination. However, I’m one of the few disgruntled critics — the film’s getting fantastic reviews.

There’s a lot of that going around lately — mediocre movies being praised to the skies — in an even more extreme form than is typical in the history of film criticism. Professionals in this field have long been willing to say and write fawning things in exchange for invitations to premieres and access to celebrities.

But the gushing over what can only be called Hollywood’s diminishing returns these past few years has gotten so over-the-top post-lockdown that I’m beginning to fear that critics really and truly mean it now.