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► Candyman is in UK cinemas from 27 August.
The new Candyman arrives with a weight of expectation that none of the films in the 1990s trilogy bore. That is partly because of the reappraisal of Bernard Rose’s 1992 original in the aftermath of the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Suddenly, Candyman was talked of as a classic which merged the complexities of America’s racial divide and the othering of African Americans into a horror movie.
Historically, horror has been one of the few genres to champion outsiders in society. Night of the Living Dead (1968) highlighted the plight of refugees, while Bill Gunn’s underrated vampire opus Ganja & Hess (1973) used African artefacts to tackle white cultural imperialism and Black assimilation. In recent films – Get Out is the most notable – horror has become a platform for highlighting the race divide in America.
Even though Rose’s original Candyman deserves recent praise for its no-frills narrative style, fine central performances, diversity of characters and atmosphere, it is still a story about Black lives made with and for a white gaze. The film acknowledged the problem – the main character, academic Helen Lye (Virginia Madsen), worries that she’s exploiting poverty-stricken African Americans by writing about them – without solving it; Nia DaCosta’s remake jettisons the problem entirely.
Rose shifted the action of Clive Barker’s short story from an impoverished estate in Liverpool to the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. DaCosta latches on to the location, not only to connect the new film to the original but, more importantly, as a way of talking about race from a Black perspective with nuance and complexity. An introductory sequence shot like stock footage takes us back to 1977, when Cabrini-Green was part of the American public consciousness. That was because the estate appeared in the credits of Good Times (1974-79), the first African-American two-parent family sitcom, which was largely about the characters’ struggles with poverty. By the time the original Candyman came out, the talk was of demolition, a process that started in 1995.
In DaCosta’s remake, as in real life, the decrepit high-rises have been replaced by condos and apartments aimed at the middle classes. Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an artist who has hit a roadblock in his career, lives with his partner, gallery director Brianna (Teyonah Parris), in a plush apartment on the site of the old candy factory. Tellingly, they have no knowledge of the site’s history – affluence has led to a collective amnesia. But Anthony’s worldview changes when he runs into long-term resident William Burke (Colman Domingo), who prompts him to investigate his history and think about his past. In consequence, Anthony creates an artwork, Say My Name, that plays on the myth of the Candyman (who can be summoned by saying his name five times in front of a mirror). The artwork gives Anthony the success he craves, especially when people start dying before it (there is a side-theme here about how relationship to a work changes when it becomes notorious – especially if it’s by a Black artist).
DaCosta – whose first film, the crime thriller Little Woods, won the Nora Ephron Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 – uses the history of Cabrini-Green and her knowledge of the original Candyman film to ask a remarkable question: can the Black gaze be as problematic as the white gaze? It’s the type of question that American cinema was not interested in before Get Out and Black Lives Matter. The race element was jettisoned in the two Candyman sequels, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999), and Virginia Madsen has even said the studio turned down the idea of a prequel because they were worried about a suggested interracial romance.
But there are limitations to the inventiveness of Candyman. It follows David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween reboot in weaving the original into the remake, through the reappearance of Tony Todd as Daniel Robitaille, the artist who became the Candyman, and Vanessa Williams as Anne-Marie McCoy; meanwhile, Madsen voices Helen Lye in an animated sequence. But in the final act the movie topples into a slasher horror that plays out all too quickly and, apparently intent on whetting our appetite for another instalment, ends abruptly and confusingly.