Intermittently throughout the summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to a major new release. This week: the myth of Candyman has been resurrected to remind us all of the nightmarish power of storytelling. It's not the first time the old ghost has been invoked for a sequel, not that the new film has too terribly high of a bar to clear in that regard.

The 1992 film Candyman is one of the few English-language horror movies of the first half of the 1990s that is literally any good at all, and as such is a precious thing worthy of not just admiration, but a kind of rapt, respectful awe. Unfortunately, it's also one of the few English-language horror movies of the first half of the 1990s that was an undeniable box-office hit, and given the ineluctable forces governing film production and especially genre film production, this meant it was getting a sequel. The fact that it took two and a half years for that sequel, 1995's Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh to materialise is, in its defense, a sign that they were trying to be thoughtful about how to make it. Too thoughtful, as it turned out: Candyman's writer and director, Bernard Rose, turned in a very conceptual sort of follow-up that the moneymen didn't care for, and when his draft was rejected, he left the project. Instead, Farewell to the Flesh ended up as the product of writers Rand Ravich and Mark Kruger, and directed by Bill Condon, as his second and more successful attempt to break into feature filmmaking (he somehow went directly from this to the Oscar-nominated Gods and Monsters. Deep are the mysteries of fate).

Just as the production company wanted, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh is not overloaded with thoughtfulness. It is, in fact, a pretty lazy and slapdash sequel that takes the path of very least resistance: re-running everything from the original with a slightly different color of paint. Oh, there's new material, and it's not terribly exciting: a good way through its 95 minutes, the film pivots into fleshing out the backstory of the Candyman (Tony Todd), the vengeful ghost with a hook for a hand who appears in the mirror if you say his name five times, and murders you. And this fleshing-out involves some secrets that manifest in the present day in an awfully stupid and trite way, while also pinning down the character far too much. He is, after all, rumor and myth and innuendo in the- well not "in the flesh". In the ectoplasm, I guess. But the point is, he's not mean to be concrete. He's not supposed to have a secret physical manifestation that allows the heroes to hunt him down and stop him. He is the embodiment of storytelling as a way of a culture defining itself against outside forces - the angry rage of an African-American man murdered horribly and for no good reason, turned into a terrifying symbol of injustice begetting unholy, implacable wrath. He's not, like, an actual pissed-off ghost. But Farewell to the Flesh makes him such a thing, and also does it through a line of corny melodrama that Condon and the writers don't treat that way leading to a deadened feeling.

The whole movie has a deadened feeling, is the thing. This is by far the most tangible fact of Farewell to the Flesh: it is criminally boring. It's almost difficult just to describe the plot, since it sort of feels like nothing actually happens here: in New Orleans, Phillip Purcell (Michael Culkin, the only other actor besides Todd to come back from the last movie), who was very tangentially associated with the unpleasantness in Chicago a few years back, is on a book tour discussing his study of urban legends and the one about the Candyman specifically, and as part of his lecture recites the ghost's name into the mirrored foil cover of the book. Presumably he does this bit at all of his events, but this one apparently counts more than the rest, because it's not very long before Purcell ends up dead by hook-related slashing. The obvious human suspect is Ethan Tarrant (William O'Leary), who had a heated encounter with the academic after the lecture, around whether Purcell was culpable for the murder of Ethan's father, also an apparent Candyman slaying. All this puts a bit of pressure on Ethan's sister, schoolteacher Annie (Kelly Rowan), who is trying to calm down her students from their own Candyman-related hysteria; to judge from the radio broadcasts by a local personality called the Kingfish (Russell Buchanan), New Orleans has Candyman very much on the brain these days, in fact. These days, for the record, are running up to Mardi Gras, because it's against the law to set a cheesy film in New Orleans and have it not be at Mardi Gras; but also it lets the filmmakers open the film by heavily noting that "Carnival" has a folk etymology of "farewell to the flesh", and boom, we have a good and menacing subtitle.

Annie's our protagonist, for no obvious reason other than that the last film had a blonde white woman in the lead role; it's not because she does very much or because she's very interesting. For at least the first half of its running time, Farewell to the Flesh basically just putters around as Annie has visions of the Candyman in reflections, with her husband (Timothy Carhart) serving as the first victim, and her student Matthew (Joshua Gibran Mayweather) going missing; in an attempt to skitter away from the world, she spends some time with her mother (Veronica Cartwright), a bit nervous and anxious to downplay the fact that the Tarrants appear to have a kind of fucked-up Candyman curse attached to them. As this happens, Annie learns about the Candyman's horrible backstory, which is mostly compatible with the backstory he had in the first movie, but gets shown in flashbacks this time around, and they are probably the most interestingly-shot and certainly the most interestingly-cut parts of the entire movie.

This isn't exactly bad; it gets bad, during the last third, when the reasons for the Tarrants unusually bad luck with the Candyman are revealed, and then it gets outright horrendous during the unspeakably terrible and confusingly unnecessary final scene. For the first hour, though, it's really just, again, boring. Annie is a thin and unmotivated lead, and Rowan doesn't have the screen presence to do anything about that, nor does she give up much of an indication that she's trying. In all honesty, Candyman itself didn't really have a whole lot more going on - a stronger and more deliberate lead in the form of Virginia Madsen, but still playing a character who spent a lot of time gathering facts and looking at things - but what it compensated with was its thick, moody sense of place, and its dense network of themes about race, class, culture, and outsider-ness springing from that place. Farewell to the Flesh starts out promisingly enough: there aren't many places in the United States better-positioned to serve as the home for a story about the history of racialised violence than New Orleans, and at least early on, with Annie primly serving as the authority figure for a classroom predominately, but not exclusively, made up of African-American students, it seems like this film is going to re-run the "white lady thinks she knows better and manages to destroy everything" subtext of its predecessor. Which would still, to be clear, be an uninspired retread, but it would still have been more than we get, which is to basically abandon that line of thought altogether, along with every other line of thought.

Nope, this is pretty much just a slasher, and not nearly trashy enough if that's the goal. The film has the reputation of being gorier than the first Candyman, and that's probably true, but not by such a lopsided margin as all that, and the deaths are paced out almost identically. So there's a lot of downtime that the first movie filled with atmosphere and social studies, and this film has neither of those. The lack of atmosphere is the particularly sharp disappointment, since the two men I'd most want to have brought back to ensure that we'd get plenty of it are here: Todd, and composer Philip Glass. The latter provides a sufficiently droning, weighted blanket of grimly fuzzy notes and repetitions, but for whatever reason - fewer geometrically suffocating visuals, is my first guess - they just don't land this time. As for Todd, he's being well-deployed by Condon: a repeating composition, inclining the actor's head down so that his gaze emerges from his body and face in a coiled-up, almost serpentine register, is the most reliable source of danger in the entire movie. But he has less volume, literally - the freaky sound mix that made him sound like part of the fabric of the air in the first movie has been done away with, leaving to some run-of-the-mill bass-boosting, and the film's larger quantity of backstory necessarily means that Candyman is more sympathetic, effectively neutering him as a real threat without giving Todd anything new to do other than seem irritated.

Condon at least recognises that he needs to do something stylish, and the film boasts a fair number of interesting compositions, though these tend to be spaced out pretty far, and they are not always interesting because they have any function within the context of the movie other than looking neat. He's definitely not good at providing the film with any sort of horrifying mood; even in New Orlean's crumbling, grand cemeteries under overcast skies, there's no real sense of danger in any of this. So overall, the film is a triple threat: the plot doesn't go anywhere worth the trip, it doesn't have any compelling thoughts along the way, and there's nothing tonal or emotional to distract us from the other two problems. Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh is by no stretch of the imagination a particularly bad horror film by the standards of 1995: it's functional, it's got a budget, it even has some reasonably ambitious special effects that look pretty rough now, but maybe they seemed cool then. But it's thuddingly mediocre, and by so directly inviting comparison to the undeniable genre classic it pilfers so very many of its narrative beats from, that mediocrity shines out all the brighter.

Reviews in this series
Candyman (Rose, 1992)
Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (Condon, 1995)
Candyman: Day of the Dead (Meyer, 1999)
Candyman (DaCosta, 2021)