Jordan Peele produced and co-wrote this highly anticipated horror sequel. And picked 31-year-old Nia DaCosta to helm it. DaCosta’s now a huge deal because she’s in charge of Captain Marvel 2 but back in 2017 she was just a first-timer whose indie Western, Little Woods, starred Tessa Thompson and Lily James as working-class siblings, trying to scrape together money for an abortion. The worry, when a writer-director takes on a high-profile franchise, is that their personality will get swamped. No danger of that, here. With Peele’s support, DaCosta has made one of the most original, beautiful and savagely satirical films of the year.
The first Candyman film was an evocative take on racism and gentrification, the story of an ill-used Black man from the 19th century, who haunts Cabrini-Green, an about-to-be-yuppified area of Chicago, appearing whenever anyone says his name, five times, in front of a mirror.
What DaCosta pulls off is an act of homage that expands and updates the story. Instead of having one Candyman, we have many (some of them children). Another crucial difference: where the main character in the 1992 movie was Caucasian, now all the sympathetic leads are black.
Anthony and Brianna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris), are an artist and gallery director who’ve just moved into a swanky apartment in Cabrini-Green. Anthony wants to please white gallery-owner, Clive (Brian King), the kind of privileged liberal who’ll do anything to be “on trend”. For Clive, black suffering is the latest flavour of the month. So Anthony - introduced to the Candyman myth by Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and a local (Colman Domingo) - happily starts work on a new installation that will supposedly explore the Candyman’s pain.
Talk about pointed. Of late, various real-world projects, which supposedly tackle the subject of racism, have been accused of serving up “trauma porn”. Most recently, the Amazon Prime series, Them, stuffed with brutalised black bodies, caused outrage.
What’s so clever about this movie is that Peele and DaCosta make us understand why ambitious black artists might collude in such a process, whilst finding a way to avoid such a pit-fall themselves. We rarely see black characters getting hurt. Shocking racial attacks take place, including the first Candyman’s mutilation and death-by-a-thousand-bees, but the violence is represented almost entirely via delicate and dazzlingly pretty shadow puppets. As paper cut-outs make us feel the terrible weight of systemic abuse, the phrase “two-dimensional” becomes a virtue, not a vice.
All the performances are superb and every single character, whatever the colour of their skin, is allowed to have contradictions. A jaded, if articulate, art critic (Rebecca Spence) proves fascinating. So does Brianna’s out-and-proud brother, Troy, who bitches about indulgent, Basquiat-like artists, but has his own extraordinary, and tragic, backstory. As played by spry Londoner Stewart-Jarrett, Troy exposes the boldness of DaCosta’s vision. In a different movie, he’d be dead in the first ten minutes and we’d be invited to giggle as he met his demise. In Candyman, he’s just seriously funny.
By the by, almost all of the modern-day victims of the Candyman are white (the rules of this game have been changed, though it would be a spoiler to say more). The death scenes are truly disturbing and one ravishingly intricate sequence, involving a multi-media installation, threw me into a complete paddy. My only gripes: things get a bit muddled and overheated towards the end. Also, a last-act cameo from a certain actor doesn’t add anything to the proceedings and, obviously meant to please devotees of the original film, will almost surely strike that demographic as too little, too late.
Covid has turned packed cinemas into somewhat scary places and it’s entirely possible that DaCosta’s Candyman may do less well at the box office than Peele’s horror movie, Us. Which would please the kind of trolls whose mantra is “If it’s woke we’ll nix it”.
The nice thing about the horror genre is that the financial stakes are so low (Candyman’s budget is rumoured to be $30m). This film doesn’t need to earn a fortune to be deemed a success and, whether now or in the future, it’s guaranteed to find an appreciative audience.
DaCosta and Peele’s supernatural slasher offers portraits of the artist as a tortured black man. If you likes tales that come with a sting, you’re in for the sweetest of treats.
Candyman is available to view in cinemas from August 27. 91mins, 15