Clive Barker was described as “the future of horror” by Stephen King in the mid-1980s, and after turning his own novella The Hellbound Heart into the extraordinary Hellraiser (1987) it seemed like the British author’s extremist approach was going to be the future of horror films too. That expectation was met by Bernard Rose’s incredible adaptation of Barker’s short story The Forbidden, Candyman (1992), about a university student investigating an urban legend, which transposed events from a rundown English council estate to the housing projects of Cabrini-Green, Chicago.
Rose’s own screenplay also added many elements that weren’t in Barker’s story, such as making ‘Candyman’ (Tony Todd) a handsome black man instead of a gaunt white man (which led a lot of the movie’s racial themes), giving him a sympathetic and tragic backstory (as the victim of a racist murder by white men), and even threw in a variation of the macabre Bloody Mary party game where saying ‘Candyman’ five times into a mirror conjures him into reality. So while Clive Barker’s fertile imagination planted the seed of Candyman, it’s fair to say Bernard Rose is more responsible for creating one of the 1990s best horror films.
Two disappointing sequels followed—Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999)—which were lucky to get Tony Todd back as the eponymous boogieman, but unfortunate not to have Rose return. An idea for a prequel was bandied around in the early-2000s by Rose, but his desire to focus on a different boogieman and instead tackle gender inequality (with the ghost of Jack the Ripper terrorizing modern-day London) didn’t go down with studio executives, who were instead more excited by the prospect of making Candyman vs Leprechaun—even without Todd! Both movies never happened, thankfully, but writer-director Jordan Peele’s success in making racially motivated horror (Get Out, Us) has given him the necessary clout to co-write and produce a direct sequel, directed by Nia DaCosta (Top Boy).
Candyman ’21 is a direct sequel set 30 years later, which flips the original’s premise by having a black man investigate the urban legend instead of a white woman. That man is modish artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who’s attracted to the tale of Helen Lyle from the ’92 film, whose descent into madness and murder appears to have become more popular than Candyman’s ghost story in recent times—perhaps because it all happened within living memory. But it’s not long before Anthony discovers there’s a deeper legend surrounding the now-gentrified Cabrini-Green neighbourhood, where the tower blocks have since been replaced by luxury condos. And it concerns a hook-handed killer who can be summoned by saying his name five times into a mirror. The gruesome story inspires Anthony’s next painting and eventually starts to dominate his art and cozy life with gallerist girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), once he’s stung by a bee and seems to come under the control of the Candyman figure as the infection spreads. Simultaneously, people around him are reminded of the Candyman tale through his pieces of art, which leads to some ill-advisedly daring each other speak those words into a mirror…
Nia DaCosta’s film is a loose remake that gains half its strength from being associated with a better film, especially once a direct link between them is established that fans will have likely predicted early. The screenplay finds interesting ways to deepen Candyman lore, particularly in revealing there have been dozens of ‘Candymen’ over the years (wackos and hoodlums who dress like murdered slave Daniel Robitaille) to keep the legend story alive in a more tangible way. There’s even a shaky explanation for why the character’s called ‘Candyman’ this time (one of the fake Candymen gave sweets to kids with razor blades inside them), and other flourishes that pull elements of the mythos together in a fun way.
The problem is that this well-intentioned sequel gets lost in trying to connect Candyman to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Rose’s classic was about how an impoverished black ghetto found unity through communal belief in a gruesome horror story, therefore collectively willing Candyman to life through a form of worship. But when Cabrini-Green’s folk story was seemingly disproved by a levelheaded outsider, white student Helen Lyle, the ghost of Candyman had to take steps to maintain his existence by framing his reincarnated lover for murder before trying to possess a baby in order to regain physical form.
This sequel does some of that same stuff again, but in a less subtle way that evokes A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). It also reinterprets Candyman as an avenging angel targeting pretentious white folk and trigger-happy white cops. I can understand why the writers decided this was the best way to make Candyman feel relevant for modern audiences, post-George Floyd, but it seems more like a misreading of the material than a clever ret-con. It perhaps wouldn’t be too much of an issue if this was a bold reimagining of Candyman (and thus its own thing with its own rules and themes), but in clearly being a direct sequel it’s odd we’re asked to suddenly accept that every time a black man’s killed for impersonating Candyman he’s magically transformed into a mirror-dwelling phantom. Maybe this idea came about as a means to avoid having Tony Todd play the character throughout, as we now mostly get Michael Hargrove doing cosplay? (Incidentally, if there are multiple Candymen, why is only the one killed in 1977 able to be summoned? Was it his shift?)
Fans of the original will likely spend much of the film excitedly waiting for the famously deep-voiced Tony Todd to reprise his signature role, as it’s been known he was cast in the film for a long time. And he does eventually appear, but for a ludicrously brief scene to speak only two lines, which is sort of like having a Nightmare on Elm Street Part 7 where Robert Englund gets a cameo to not say any of his catchphrases.
Philip Glass’s hauntingly beautiful theme is reprised sporadically, but for the most part composer Robert A.A. Lowe opts for a forgettable drone, which is another major letdown considering the music was a vital part of the spell Candyman ’92 cast over audiences. While Candyman ’21 does have creepy fun with mirrors (loved the better use of the idea Candyman is invisible outside of reflections), and there are wonderful shadow puppet sequences used for flashbacks, DaCosta’s movie simply lacks the rich atmosphere of Bernard Rose’s masterpiece.
Overall, Candyman ’21 does add colour to the mythology, and the premise has merit in returning to Cabrini-Green a generation later to see what’s survived of the Candyman legend. DaCosta crafts some stylish sequences too, but those expecting a terrifying supernatural slasher are going to be disappointed because it’s not gruesome enough (there’s nothing on par with the original’s scene of a psychiatrist being torn asunder in his office), and those who want more of what Candyman offered are going to be saddened by its lack of a queasy atmosphere and wasteful use of Tony Todd. (There are even moments when Todd could’ve done a few of the voiceover for easy goosebumps, which were unforgivably avoided). The new ideas being added are often problematic or fly in the face of what Candyman was once about, leading to a film that’s not particularly frightening, and filled with dull characters stuck in a disorganized story that puts all the subtext upfront.
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CANADA • USA | 2021 | 91 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Nia DaCosta.
writers: Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld & Nia DaCosta (based on ‘Candyman’ by Bernard Rose, which adapted ‘The Forbidden’ short story by Clive Barker).
starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo & Tony Todd.