“Candyman,” the 1992 slasher movie starring Tony Todd as a vengeful specter in a floor-length fur-lined coat, with a hook for a left hand and a devoted swarm of killer bees, was an urban-legend horror film that was ahead of its time but also, just maybe, a little too much of its time. Todd’s scowling ripper started off as an enslaved person’s son, Daniel Robitaille, who in the late 1800s was a successful artist. But then he had a relationship (and fathered a child) with a wealthy white ingenue whose portrait he’d been commissioned to paint. Her father hired a lynch mob to go after him. The mob tore off his hand and covered him in honey, and a swarm of bees stung him to death. Candyman is the violent ghost he became.
That’s a potentially incendiary premise, but in 1992, amid a swarm of boilerplate sequels featuring Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees, each of whom came with his own sadomasochistic backstory, “Candyman,” directed by the English filmmaker Bernard Rose (and adapted from a Clive Barker short story), adhered a little too closely to the stylized tropes of the slasher film. The fact that Candyman would be summoned if you said his name five times played as the kind of storybook megaplex device (“One two, Freddy’s coming for you…”) designed to prime the audience for shock cuts. The movie worked, but like too many slasher films of the time it was more sensational than haunting.
But now “Candyman” has been remade, by the director Nia DaCosta (I’m pleased to report that Tony Todd is back — he looks a little bit older, and a lot more venerable in his grin of unspeakable pain), and what she has done is to make a horror movie that has its share of enthralling shocks, but one that’s rooted in a richer meditation on the social terror of the Candyman fable. The new “Candyman” references the plot of the original as a sinister fanfare of shadow puppets, as if to say, “That was mythology. This is reality.” It’s less a “slasher film” than a drama with a slasher in the middle of it.
It stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the actor who just about seared a hole in the screen as Bobby Seale in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and Abdul-Mateen gives as searching a performance as you’re likely to see in a movie that’s a voluptuous pageant of fear and gore. He plays Anthony McCoy, an aspiring artist who grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago, which is where much of the original “Candyman” took place. He hasn’t just heard the legend; he was taken by Candyman as a child. And now, as he prepares a new set of work for a group show that’s being organized by his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), who works for Clive (Brian King), a hipster gallery owner who’s the person in the movie you most want to see die in a fancy way (the film does not disappoint), Anthony looks to the Candyman as an inspiration to leave aesthetic safety behind and create a work that’s daring enough to be true.
The art-world setting allows DaCosta, who co-wrote the film with Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peele (who is one of the producers), to offer a deft satire of gentrification, with the Cabrini-Green projects paved over — and the knowledge of American economic apartheid they represent buried right along with them. At the gallery show, Anthony’s featured piece is a mirrored installation that, if you look closely enough, contains images of horror from the past; but if you don’t look closely, you’ll just see yourself. (That’s a great metaphor for liberal myopia.) The name of the piece is “Say My Name,” and that’s a disquieting joke — because, of course, it’s a Candyman reference that plays off the rhetorical fire of our own time, in a way that suggests that confronting racial demons isn’t as simple as “acknowledging” the crimes against Black people that have happened on a daily basis. The movie says: You can acknowledge the injustice — but what happens to the rage? “Candyman” presents the return of the repressed for an era that wants to pretend it’s no longer repressing things.
One reason this “Candyman” never feels like a formula slasher film, even during the murders, is that DaCosta stages them with a spurting operatic dread that evokes the grandiloquent sadism of mid-period De Palma. When four young women prepsters stand before the school bathroom mirror and say “Candyman” five times, it’s as if they’re acting out what they think is their privilege; their deaths come at us in a way that’s just oblique enough to get you to imagine the worst. And when a know-it-all art critic (Rebecca Spence) receives her own ghastly comeuppance, DaCosta shoots it from an elegant distance that heightens the horror.
Mad slashers in movies are technically villains, and then, if they hang around long enough (i.e., for enough sequels), they turn into ironic franchise heroes; they’re the icons you want to see. But the whole premise of “Candyman” is that Candyman, from the start, is a supremely un-mad slasher. He’s a walking historical corrective, throwing the violence of white America back in its face. It’s Anthony, the film’s hero, who turns into its most haunting figure. He gets stung by a bee, creating a wound on his hand that starts to grow and rot, spreading over his body, until by the end he’s become a shattering image of what racial violence looks like when it begins to eat you up from the inside. In “Candyman,” there’s plenty of horror, but none of it is as disturbing as the true-life horror that can make people feel like they’re ghosts of the past.