Horror remakes can be decidedly tricky customers. Like those endless Halloween sequels, for instance, they can turn out to be pale retreads of a brilliant original. I have good memories of Bernard Rose’s 1992 Candyman, which was so much more than just another creepy slasher movie. That said, I’m also uncomfortably aware it had its own slew of inferior sequels, so I’m not exactly filled with anticipation at the prospect of Candyman 2021. But, with Jordan Peele attached as producer, I’m hopeful that this new offering from director Nia DaCosta might have something different to offer.
It’s clear from the get-go that this is intended to be more than just a straightforward reboot. For one thing, the opening credits (even the Universal logo) are reversed left to right, as though reflected in a mirror – a delightful reference to the film’s central premise – and then the startlingly stylistic cinematography takes a grip on my senses, aided and abetted by delightful shadow-puppet sequences, depicting the history of the film’s infamous urban legend. There’s also a powerful ‘black lives matter’ subtext running through this version. Some critics have derided it, claiming that it is hammered home a little too forcefully, but I disagree. The message is an important one and it’s clearly stated. It adds to, rather than reduces, the power of the story. And that has to be a good thing, right?
Twenty-seven years after the events of the first film, visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is living in a swish high-rise apartment in the area of Chicago that borders the old Cabrini Green housing project where the original Candyman strutted his grisly stuff. This part of the city has been gentrified over the years and now, Anthony and his art-dealer partner, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), spend their time sipping expensive wine and attending flashy art exhibitions. But Anthony has lost his painting mojo. It’s been some time since he came up with anything new.
When Brianna’s younger brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), tells him about an old urban legend, Anthony is interested enough to wander into Cabrini Green with a camera, looking for inspiration. It’s there that he meets William Burke (Colman Domingo), who tells him more about the story of the Candyman. And it’s there too that Anthony is stung by a bee and begins to experience some startling reactions to the venom…
Cinematographer John Guleserian creates a world where everything seems inverted. The sinister glass towers of Anthony’s home are depicted upside down as though plunging into sinister depths, rather than reaching for the sky. Much of the ensuing action is glimpsed via reflections in mirrored surfaces – and one sequence where an art critic is murdered in her high rise apartment, filmed in a distanced silent long shot actually makes me gasp. I have been made to feel like a helpless observer. The film doesn’t shy away from its slasher roots either. There are some genuinely wince-inducing murders and a couple of instances of extreme body horror that almost have me looking away from the screen. But the violence, though savage, never feels salacious – and DaCosta has the canny knack of knowing exactly when to cut away from the action.
Ultimately, this feels like a palpable win, a film that treats the original with reverence but also manages to develop the story in coherent and inventive ways. The stylish art direction adds a dazzling sheen to the whole enterprise. There’s also a wonderful joke in here that provides, once and for all, the definitive answer to an age old question: ‘Why do people in horror movies go wandering down staircases into dark and gloomy cellars?’ I won’t reveal what happens but, in the midst of all the dread, it actually makes me laugh out loud.
There will always be reboots of popular horror movies and many of them won’t be worth the price of admission. But this one, I feel, is a cut above.