CANDYMAN Offers Mixed Rewards for Horror Enthusiasts and Casual Fans Alike

This “Spiritual Sequel” is a worthy successor to the original

Mel Valentin
5 min readAug 30, 2021

Candyman, the spiritual sequel to the Bernard Rose-directed, Tony Todd-starring 1992 cult horror film of the same name, has taken a long, circuitous route to multiplexes. After spending the better part of two decades in on-again, off-again development, Jordan Peele (Us, Get Out) and his Monkeypaw Productions practically sprinted into production, hiring Nia DaCosta (Little Woods) to co-write and direct the much-anticipated, long-delayed sequel three years ago. Filming on the Near North Side of Chicago (a deliberate choice made by Rose — Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” was set in England) in the now defunct Cabrini-Green housing projects ended two years ago, but as with so much else over the last eighteen months, the pandemic pushed the release back repeatedly before Universal settled on the last Friday in August. (The studio chose to forego VOD as a potentially viable option).

With Academy Award-winner Peele and the 31-year-old DaCosta (already tapped to direct the Captain Marvel sequel, The Marvels) involved, the sequel to the cult favorite (the other sequels play no role here, effectively erasing them from continuity/canon) promised a deep dive into the original’s themes, ideas, and subtext through the eyes and experiences of Black filmmakers. Despite near-Herculean efforts, the result deliberately subverts the original’s take on racial politics and white-savior narratives, but frustratingly delivers too few scares and muddled, if intriguing, ideas (e.g., gentrification, police violence/brutality, the commodification of Black pain and anguish) across a too-brief running time (91 minutes, including credits that play over a summary of the shadow plays DaCosta cleverly substitutes throughout for generic flashbacks).

Candyman opens with a semi-enigmatic prologue set in 1977 and a preteen who witnesses the brutal beating and murder of a mentally disabled man, Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), by racist cops. Fields, assumed to be the culprit behind razorblades found in candy (itself an urban legend that transcends geography, culture, and time), doesn’t stand a chance. He, not Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), becomes the Candyman of the title, at least for the preteen character who grows up to become William Burke (Colman Domingo), one of the last remaining residents of the low-rise row-houses that remain on Cabrini-Green grounds and the local repository of urban legends and folklore, including the Candyman.

Burke, however, isn’t Candyman’s central character. That role, at least nominally, belongs to Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman), a painter with a middling reputation short on inspiration and long on coasting through life thanks to his girlfriend and art gallery owner, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Together, they live in a clean, well-lighted place, an exclusive condo that marks them as upper-middle-class. For McCoy, a comfortable life might be too comfortable. Free of financial struggle, McCoy seems to lack the drive to create, to transform a blank canvas into personal expression and political/social/cultural commentary.

That impetus, of course, arrives in the form of Candyman, less real than myth or legend, but exactly what McCoy, venturing into the emptied Cabrini-Green neighborhood after Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), recaps the events of the 1992 film, including the white academic, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), who apparently lost her mind and immolated herself in a bonfire after encountering the Candyman or a reasonable facsimile. Once McCoy begins painting, however, he can’t stop. At first, it’s clear McCoy sees an opportunity to exploit Black pain and anguish into art, the kind of commercially viable art that McCoy’s patrons, wealthy and white, will leap over each other to purchase for their multi-million-dollar homes and condos.

Candyman suggests that McCoy’s hubris, his artistic ambition, his willingness to trade the Black pain and anguish suffered by Black men due to white-supremacist violence, inevitably, inexorably leads to his tragic downfall as much — if not more so — as the supernatural intervention of one of the iterations of the Candyman, a boogeyman that, at least in DaCosta and Poole’s take on the original, is no longer aimed at the despairing, broken residents of the Cabrini-Green housing projects, but on the representatives of white privilege (e.g., an art gallery owner, an art critic) or white supremacy (e.g., the overtly aggressive, overtly violent police), though like many of its genre predecessors, not everyone who dies deserves to die. Too often, the punishment doesn’t match the sin or crime.

With several notable exceptions, including an art gallery turned into a bloody killing ground and public restroom where four teen girls meet their grisly fates, DaCosta intentionally choose to keep most of the violence off-screen (undoubtedly a divisive aesthetic choice), relying primarily on a combination of sound and the audience’s imagination to convey the horrors of the Candyman’s hook-and-slash antics. It’s less effective than the alternative, especially given the infrequency in which the title character makes any kind of appearance. That’s partly because this particular Candyman entry is more origin story and reboot than direct sequel, rewriting some elements of the original, shifting the focus from the central character of the 1992 film, primarily a white female academic, to Black characters and their unique experiences, and otherwise taking a restrained approach to the material.

Oddly, that means Candyman doesn’t really feel like a Candyman film until the final moments when McCoy’s journey, described by one character as a “tortured artist suffering a psychotic breakdown,” reaches its predictable, foreordained end. It’s there that DaCosta and Poole’s obvious intent, to turn Candyman into an avenging spirit, righting centuries-old racist wrongs, finally comes into focus. By then, though, it’s time for the end credits to roll and the characters to exit stage left (or right) to await box-office returns and the possibility of returning in another, potentially more-straightforward sequel.