If there’s one thing horror cinema loves, it’s a reboot, remake, or sequel of a damn fine bit of cinema from a couple of decades ago. And if there’s one thing horror cinema is awful at, it’s making reboots, remakes, or sequels that are any good. They forget what made the original worth watching, add nothing to the narrative, or alienate fans of the original. Well, good news for all: whatever Candyman 2021 is, it’s a damn fine follow-up to Candyman 1992.
It’s also a film that, as far as I can see, you don’t need to have watched the original to enjoy. What we have here is a well-acted, wonderfully directed, and tightly scripted horror. It is strong enough on a concept to get into the mainstream but just outsider enough, both with the gore and the themes involved, to stir things up quite delightfully. It is also a film that understands that the best horror has always had some kind of social message behind the spooky goings-on, even if the only thing I can compare it to on bluntness is The Texas Chainsaw Massacres take on Vietnam. Then again, that was also a classic.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is Anthony McCoy, a visual artist in Chicago who starts investigating and, through his art, interpreting and re-popularising a set of urban legends from the Cabrini-Green housing projects that orbit the local spook, the titular Candyman. As he starts bringing these tales to the fore, spurred on by local William Burke (Colman Domingo) and, initially, supported by his gallery world girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), the bodies start piling up and he starts experiencing a string of supernatural events.
Alongside the artfully envisioned supernatural slayings, there is also a very large discussion on race within America, both the current situation and various parts of its history. Anthony’s position as a black man within the heavily white world of art, the gentrification of Cabrini-Green, and the racial nature of policing are all put into sharp focus. And frankly, why not? It’s a very timely subject and the original was hardly timid when it came to those subjects (in a 90s progressive way, obviously).
There is also, as with the original, a lot of discussions (both in the dialogue and in the subtext) about the place of stories and legends within communities. This is fitting, as both films were heavily into discussions on those narratives and this film masterfully plays with and subverts large elements of the original. It fully embraces going from an intellectual outsider (Helen Lyle, played by Virginia) trying to analyze that communities experience to an artistic insider trying to express it. It also riffs off of shots, sounds, and dialogue from the original to devastating effect. Honestly, hearing the line “Be my witness”, rather than “be my victim”, had my hairs stand up on end.
This is not a copy though; this is an amazing reinterpretation and progression of the story. This is understanding of the story, pacing, and what scares the audience both in their seats and on the drive home. It’s also a willingness to try experimental with the artistic possibilities of the horror genre, without moving into the crazy world of arthouse or the more sanitised path of a thriller. Hell, even the credits were entertaining, evocative, and had true merit to them.
Was it a bit “on the nose” with the social politics? Yes, with an unapologetic sledgehammer. It’s indifferent to upsetting anyone’s sensibilities, and it’s all the better for not pussy-footing around the subject. “Go woke, go to #1”, as the saying now goes. Was it a bit weak on the violence? Well, if you discount the severed necks, cascades of blood, continuous body horror, phantasmagorical staging, and on-screen dismemberment then you’re an idiot. Even if it is 15 rated, it’s squicky as heck and has jump-scares aplenty. It also dodged the fatal bullet of a lot of modern big-budget horrors by clocking in at 91 minutes of film with 91 minutes of material. This surprised me, as producer and co-writer Jordan Peele normally suffers from a lack of that tightness.
Hopefully, director Nia DaCosta will come back in 20 years and do the next entry in the series (assuming she can move from under the pile of awards she’s going to get for this and her future works). Until then, go and see this now. If nothing else, but for the pure joy of your eyes darting across every shiny surface for the next time the man with the hook jumps out and does someone a mischief. It’s undoubtedly a metaphor, but it’s also solid horror entertainment.