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Review: New 'Candyman' expands horror mythology, delivers sobering allegory of racial violence

·4 min read

Hide your mirrors and look out for bees: Candyman has returned, more relevant and terrifying than ever.

Director/co-writer Nia DaCosta’s gripping new reimagining (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters and available on digital platforms now) expands the mythology of the original 1992 “Candyman” – and makes it better in retrospect – though it's much more a slowburn social chiller than a horror-villain vehicle. (It’s awfully nice to see the legendary Tony Todd back, however.) The film acts as a creepy and sobering allegory about frightening, centuries-old racial injustice as well as a character study tackling Black artistry and the power of storytelling.

Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a former wunderkind painter in Chicago living in a posh neighborhood that was the Cabrini-Green projects – mass gentrification has paved over generations of trauma and brought in well-to-do millennials – and he's in desperate need of new inspiration.

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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays a Chicago artist who uses a terrifying supernatural story as inspiration in the horror film "Candyman."
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays a Chicago artist who uses a terrifying supernatural story as inspiration in the horror film "Candyman."

The events of the first “Candyman” are now urban legend, and when he hears about it, Anthony’s interest is piqued, needing to know more. Enter William Burke (Colman Domingo), a local laundromat owner who tells him of the area’s history and imparts upon him the tale of a hook-handed man known for giving out candy to children who's murdered by white cops.

With the help of his gallery director girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), Anthony creates a mesmerizing new work that dares people to say Candyman’s name five times – which brings the horrifying figure back to life – and a bloody murder at the exhibit stirs up public interest in Anthony’s work and also sets him down a dangerous path as he also learns of the 19th-century painter (Todd) – the original subject of the Candyman legend – lynched for falling in love with a white woman.

The nightmarish visions Anthony puts on canvas worry Brianna yet garner the attention of a white art critic (Rebecca Spence) and as the body count climbs around him, the artist slowly discovers the role he plays in the mythology.

Brianna (Teyonah Parris) worries about Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) when his artistic inspirations and work begin to lean very dark in "Candyman."
Brianna (Teyonah Parris) worries about Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) when his artistic inspirations and work begin to lean very dark in "Candyman."

Abdul-Mateen, so impressive in “Watchmen” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” is superb navigating Anthony’s descent into insanity – the audience feels everything he goes through and sees, including an evolving image of who and what Candyman is – and DaCosta adds some wonderfully ghastly body horror to his travails. Parris is also a standout as the woman trying to keep her professional and personal lives from falling apart, and Brianna’s backstory becomes an essential aspect of the narrative.

Domingo, too, is a dynamo as the man tying everything together in a real-world manner: When Burke tells Anthony, “they love what we make, but not us” – referring to the historical white exploitation of Black artists – it cuts deeper than any wound Candyman’s hook might make.

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Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove) is a hook-handed Chicago man who hands out treats to kids and becomes part of the greater mythology of "Candyman."
Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove) is a hook-handed Chicago man who hands out treats to kids and becomes part of the greater mythology of "Candyman."

Having Jordan Peele as producer/co-writer gives the new “Candyman” some horror bona fides, but DaCosta is the chief creator crafting a visually arresting work that’s deeply timely and entertaining – even when Candyman’s on one of his bloody sprees. The filmmaker evokes a definite mood from the start, using a disturbingly distorted version of Sammy Davis Jr.'s classic "The Candy Man," and crafts a movie that weaves together the real and the fictional in a meaningful fashion: The invocation of Candyman's name, a running dare for various characters, subtly reflects calls to remember actual victims of police brutality such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

While there’s a certain disconnect with the title antagonist – somehow he’s both spirit of vengeance and also a killer of seemingly innocents – DaCosta uses shadow puppets to stunningly tell some of the most important aspects of her narrative, lending a childlike quality to the gut-punching cycle of violence that comprises the Candyman mythology.

As Burke says, it’s not just one man but “the whole damn hive,” and no matter if you come to “Candyman” for the message or for the gore, it’s impossible not to feel the sting.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Candyman' review: Hook-handed menace gets a timely modern reimagining

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