Tom Jolliffe looks at the original Candyman and the new Nia DaCosta directed reboot/sequel. Which reigns supreme? Spoilers follow…
In the early 1990s, maybe a year or two after the release of Bernard Rose’s hit horror classic Candyman, I watched as a preteen who had already become well versed in the kind of horror films I was too young to watch. Like many iconic horrors throughout the 80’s and 90’s, much of the lasting legacy rested on the villain. Whether that was Freddy Kruger or Jason Vorhees, or one off antagonists, the ultimate success of a horror picture tended to rest on just how effective the villain was. Said villain needed calling cards, be it their look, their associated weaponry or penchant for catchphrases. Pinhead will tear your soul apart whilst very much looking the part of a grotesque and chilling villain. It’s now 2021 and I still don’t think I could say Candyman in a mirror five times.
Rose’s horror classic, adapted from a Clive Barker story, essentially had every element needed to create an iconic horror film. Rose knew how to work the genre, having done so in Paperhouse. Barker’s name was intrinsically linked to dark tales and gothic horror. Candyman sees a pair of grad students researching urban legends. Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is particularly fascinated by a mythical and chilling boogeyman, whose name strikes fear into residents in and around the projects (most notably Cabrini Green, a ghetto in the midst of gentrification). The legend goes, you say his name five times in the mirror and he’ll appear behind you and kill you. Lyle delves into dangerous areas, as a well dressed, evidently quite affluent white woman. She may well represent an element not welcome in the beat down ghettos, in part created by affluent white developers intent on buying up land cheap, driving out poor black folk and then gentrifying the areas. Or she’s assumed to be a cop. Still, she’s intent on digging into the lore and going to the source of where the stories have spawned from. She also makes her most fatal error…she says his name five times in the mirror.
The Candyman (Tony Todd) thus finds himself awoken and fascinated/allured by Lyle. She becomes the subject of his latest spree as he reigns terror on those who are on the verge of forgetting just how much power he holds. Rose’s atmospheric film is built on mesmeric visuals and eerie atmosphere which is offset by Philip Glass’s organ heavy gothic score. It really does envelope the film with a chilling and perpetually uncomfortable tone. As the titular villain, Tony Todd remains ominously in the background of the story until he first appears before Helen. The more he begins to take over her, the more her mind fractures. She blacks out and inevitably awakens in the midst of a gruesome bloody scene, including at the home of Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams), one of the tenants at Cabrini who is reluctant to speak about Candyman. A dead dog, a missing baby and a blood-soaked Helen left holding a knife as McCoy is hysterical when the police arrive. More die with Helen at the scene as Candyman continues laying the suspicion upon her.
Virginia Madsen is fantastic it must be said. She’s got the most amazingly big and expressive eyes, which Rose makes great use of as he tips the film into nightmarish/dream-like states. It’s a tough performance, putting her through the wringer, physically and emotionally. You could even read the film as a psychological breakdown with this folklore boogeyman perhaps existing in her head. She loses it, but several scenes as she deals with blood and gore, or the aftermath (Lyle being inspected and searched for hidden weapons, prior to her first interrogation, whilst still covered in blood is pretty blunt) are intensely brilliant. Additionally, re-appearing after escaping an institute to find her husband has moved his young lover in, is also a great sequence. Then there’s Todd with his imposing stature and intense menace. His growling voice, beefed with bass and an added echo creeps up the spine before entering your lugholes. The iconic imagery Todd covered in bees is also unforgettable.
The film stays lithely focused very much on the central ideas. The social commentary regarding ghettoising and gentrification is there, even if there’s a distinctly white gaze on those ghettos themselves. That kind of, whether intentionally or not, adds to the notion of how districts might be viewed/feared by those of a different ethnicity/class. Additionally the film stays almost wholly focused on Lyle’s journey in search of this figure (aside from a brief sidebar to show an unsuspecting couple unleashing Candyman). Still, that backdrop has the white woman living in a gentrified flat with her lecturer husband, who both benefit from the affordable price that will prove profitable as developments expand. It’s shown with great effectiveness in opening City shots, but even more so in Lyle’s first trip deeper into Cabrini Green with birds-eye highway shots as they leave affluence, heading further into poverty. Not that this added layer of detail is new to cinema, but it’s certainly rarer in horror to have something that makes comment on societal issues, and in turn the film has certainly retained prescience. Sure all the horror aspects hit the right notes, but there’s a bit of depth to Rose’s film both in societal issues and with the psychological aspects.
This brings us to Nia DaCosta’s Candyman. I saw a gag on social media; “If you say Jordan Peele’s name five times in a mirror his name will appear above yours on your movie poster…” There has been a lot of buzz around this film over the last 18 months since it was announced. Throughout the buzz, the trailers and promotion, Peele’s name has been very prominent. Of course he is a man of the moment, even if he hasn’t quite lived up to Get Out (in fairness it’s an incredibly high bar). There has as such, almost been a Mandela effect across some cinemagoers that Peele directed the film (in the same way many thought/think, Tim Burton directed A Nightmare Before Christmas). Things are improving now that the film is out, and some have commented on it (and I’d wager this was more a marketing perspective than a Peele ego trip), but DaCosta as a black female director in a genre barely known for female directors, let alone ethnically diverse directors, should be more widely celebrated as the orchestrator here. Peele did write, did produce and it is inherently Peele in many aspects, but DaCosta deserves more spotlight here.
So how is the film? Here, a struggling black artist on a dry spell, is living in a freshly gentrified area, in a very modern apartment. His girlfriend gets a very middle class and swanky apartment in ‘improving’ area for a reasonable cost (but still the kind of cost that alienates blue collar workers, and certainly previous residents in the area). So Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is currently living off his successful curator girlfriend (Teyonah Parris), is almost complicit. He becomes aware of the Candyman legend, first hearing about the legend of Helen Lyle. The story rings differently to the reality of the first film. This playing on the notion of old wives tales and backstreet horror stories. The truth has skewed over time to make Lyle look more deranged and irredeemable, and more of a figure of fear. It inevitably leads to hearing about Candyman and this is where the film gets interesting. Peele and DaCosta toy with the idea that Candyman is a hive rather than one particular person. The original legend originally based around Daniel Robitaille has now been taken on by a variety of wronged black men, killed in horrific circumstances. When first appearing in the film (through mirrored images) Candyman is now Sherman Fields, a mentally ill man who was wrongfully accused of injuring a white girl and then beaten and shot to death by police.
This essentially opens out the mythology a bit and gives the reboot a new twist that doesn’t rest too heavily on the original film. You can watch this independently, absolutely, although I would say it benefits the new film (which only pays homage to the first film, and not second and third) to watch the original beforehand. They’d make a great double bill certainly. In addition to the expansion on the mythology and looking deeper into the notion of folklore, the film also adds a more subjective voice on the dissection of ghettoising and gentrification. It also doesn’t merely dismiss the benefits of improving areas but the fact that these improvements are not equally beneficial to enough sections of society. Our two main protagonists in the film mark an exception to the rule where they have been able to enjoy the fruits of capitalist labor. The film also takes a blunt, if on the nose, gaze at white police violence against black men. It’s almost comically exaggerated (perhaps as the reality of it is far more depressing, and sadly too relevant today) but it’s a wry stab at something inherently shitty. Additionally, DaCosta and Peele savagely skewer the more pompous nature of artistic pretentiousness. It was an enjoyable part of the film too.
How does this reboot/sequel stack up to the original? DaCosta’s skilled direction and some great visuals certainly make this eye catching. It’s atmospheric, but perhaps not chilling. It didn’t have a lingering nightmarish feel like Rose’s film. For me the film has a lot of threads. There are a lot of additional ideas and elements. It does bleed a lot of Peele’s wry observations on an variety of subjects (from more serious, like police profiling etc, to lighter, such as the art world mockery). We also have a little too much going on and side plots that don’t often lead anywhere. A gay couple are there which tails off to nothing, which then feels pointless if not in danger of being labelled ‘woke.’ In horror it feels like significant characters will often come in to end up being more involved in some horror, and/or killed off. A section of teen girls then get offed by Candyman, who have no relevance to the main plotline. Okay, this happened with Ted Raimi in the first film, but certainly more succinctly.
Whilst Candyman (2021) is actually a more lithe in running time, it feels distinctly baggier than the original. The hive aspect also gets increasingly convoluted. All the while, there’s an evasive approach to our titular villain as far as his own screen theatrics. There’s reasoning behind that of course, but Sherman as an antagonist isn’t as fleshed out or quite so interesting as Robitaille. He’s also not seen much outside of reflections. A couple of the horror sequences are evasive too, lacking perhaps an upfront brutality that Todd’s incarnation had. It’s not to say DaCosta’s film isn’t horrific. In places it is, but a little grosser (from seeping wounds, dying flesh and peeling nails etc) rather than being brutal and gory. Ultimately that decision will alien some fans who might expect a nastier punctuation to the way Candyman offs his victims. Additionally some of the more insightful aspects in the film are left a little unfulfilled. It opens up an array of these topics, but leaves many behind as the film inevitably has to move on with a core horror story. Again, perhaps it’s trying too hard to be intelligent, to be something iconic in its own right or more than genre standard.
The cast are superb. Abdul-Mateen II is great as is Parris. Bringing the baby back from the original as our new protagonist was also a great idea. Indeed, Vanessa Williams returns. Ironically, it actually may take a while for some to twig that connection (unless you distinctly remember the character name). It took me a while to recognise that it was indeed Williams as McCoy again, but only because some 30 years on she barely looks any different (she looks incredible). My brain couldn’t compute someone looking no more than 10 years older when almost 30 had actually past. That took me out the scene but we’ll blame Vanessa for that (I jest).
Ultimately, it works well as a big screen horror film. It could have simplified a few loftier ideas into focusing on some more particular ideas, with fewer extraneous characters (much as Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is good as Brianna’s Brother, he could have been more central in some horror). Tony Todd of course appears at the end, leaving an enticing prospect for a potentially more Todd-centric follow up, but I can’t help but feel it might have gained a more enthusiastic fan response had he/Candyman been more prominent in the film (a bee swarmed image in the villain here, owing to CGI isn’t half as effective as Todd covered in real bees in the original). Rose’s film is iconic, a cult classic, that just feels a little more ethereal. The reboot has some weightier ideas, feels distinctly modern and is expertly crafted but…will people remember it in 10 years? I’m not convinced. That said, Peele continues a good streak as a writer and DaCosta also announces herself effectively to the horror world (whether it’s a one off visit, or not). As a stand alone it’s good and it is a very good follow up to a savoured (admittedly flawed) classic. Perhaps the bones to be iconic were there. The jump was good, the landing, not quite. Thus…Bernard Rose wins, not by knockout but on points.
What do you think is the best Candyman film, 1992 or 2021? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.