The weird thing about Candyman - second film of that exact title, and an explicit sequel to the first, which I get is like a "thing" we have now, but I sure don't like it - is that the one thing it was supposed to be doing, it's kind of very terrible at, and the one thing I had no real hopes for, it's superb at. The thing it was supposed to be doing, based on the legacy of the 1992 Candyman and its very overt themes about white people fucking up the lives of black people, as well as coming out under the auspices of Jordan Peele's Monkeypaw Productions, who very conspicuously handed it to an African-American woman, Nia DaCosta, to direct, was a socially conscious horror film. And it is, in a sense - very aggressively conscious, in fact, conscious in ways that leave it unwatchably dead in the water. I cannot find it in me to imagine, based on the end result, that DaCosta gave even the slightest shit about the themes of gentrification and police violence; they are joylessly and artlessly shoved into the film like a much-resented obligation to be checked-off, and not at all like something fueled by passion. Especially gentrification; the handful of times the film has to explicitly talk about that (and it really does have to, given that Candyman '92 took place and was filmed in the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, which were demolished in the 2000s and replaced by aggressively upscale housing and commercial developments*), it all but has the characters stop in their tracks to look right in the camera and robotically give us the dictionary definition of "gentrification". Expository dialogue is never Candyman's foremost strength, but there's still a pretty big gulf between people talking in stilted language that feels mildly inhuman, and the complete bottoming-out that happens any time the actors are forced to didactically inform us of the exact themes we are meant to take away from what we're watching. And they do this for pretty much all of the themes, even the ones that have nothing whatsoever to do with race or any sort of social justice.

So that's what the film is bad at. Really remarkably bad, in fact, as bad as either of the original Candyman's first two awful bastard sequels, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh from 1995 and Candyman: Day of the Dead from 1999 (neither of which have been directly ruled out by this movie's existence, though I'm not sure why anybody would want to make a point of saving them). It is the kind of lifelessly hectoring, schoolmarmish lesson-learning that makes most contemporary message movies essentially unwatchable, all the more unpleasant because it seems impossible to believe that DaCosta herself wants it to be there. And the reason I make that jump is because of what the film is good at, which is being a pretty effective and impressively nasty horror movie, made by a filmmaker with a remarkable aptitude for putting such a thing together. The gulf, not just in quality, but every element of the aesthetic approach between the scenes where Candyman is trying to contribute to The Discourse and the scenes where it's just trying to give us a deep-down case of the willies is so striking that it barely feels like the same filmmaking team could possibly be responsible.

So let me then devote all the rest of my time to the latter, since even with its flaws (and I have not mentioned them all), I had a blast watching Candyman. It's a genuinely clever attempt to revise the original movie, taking as its starting point the idea that since this was always about the function of myth in modern urban society, it does well to treat it like a myth, something that can be flexed and adapted and changed in many of its details while remaining the same fundamental thing that is used the same fundamental way to make sense of the world around us. Some 27 years after the horrible events of the first movie, a young artist, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is running out of time to continue proving that he's worthy of all the enthusiasm he generated when his career was starting a few years back; he hasn't, in fact, produced anything new at all for two years, and while his gallery curator girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) is willing to indulge him, increasingly few other people are, including Brianna's passive-aggressive senior partner Clive Privler (Brian King) and openly hostile brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). The idea that Anthony falls into, more or less at random, is to do something with gentrification, not least because he and Brianna have just moved into an unliveably trendy condo in a new-designed-to-look-old building where Cabrini-Green used to stand. As he pokes around the cordoned-off buildings that remain of the projects, he finds an old-timer named Burke (Colman Domingo) whose reminiscences focus on the hideous act of police brutality he himself witnessed as a child in 1977 (and in the terrific pre-credits sequence), when a mentally-disabled, one-handed local named Sherman (Michael Hargrove) was beaten to death, on the false suspicion that he had been hiding razor blades in the candy he handed out to neighborhood children. After that happened, the story goes, if you said "Candyman" - Sherman's nickname - five times while looking in a mirror, he showed up to murder you. Anthony immediately says the name, and lives; in fact, if he has any paranormal reaction, it's that he seems to have suddenly been made the channel for some very profound but upsettingly visceral art. Also, the bee sting he received at the ruins of Cabrini-Green has gone very nasty on him, turning into an oozing welt that covers half of his hand. And pretty soon he's having visions of himself as the Candyman, right around the time that people he has professional disagreements with start dying by getting slashed open with a hook.

This is all consistently at its best when it hews closest to being a pure slasher; an upscale, stylish slasher, one that has heaps of style and thick brooding atmosphere, sure, but we do see an awful lot of blood, some of it present in rather blunt, leering shots that gawk with malevolent pleasure at the Candyman's victims. DaCosta has fantastic instincts for how to stage a thriller, especially as she and cinematographer John Guleserian rely on some shockingly wide shots for a modern movie: most of the Candyman's killings find him popping up deep in the back of compositions in some way or another, and it's not even always the case that DaCosta and Guleserian do anything to move our eye in that direction. It creates shots that are more about an uncomfortable feeling of not-quite-tangible danger rather than trying to set up jump scares. In one particularly bold moment, they pair this with a slow backwards tracking shot to show a murder happening in one tiny window of a high-rise, barely even visibly in the big geometeric sprawl of all the apartments indifferently full of movement, which then cuts to Abdul-Mateen's sweaty, quietly demented facial expression (one of the few conspicuously excellent cuts in a movie that has a shocking amount of sloppy editing).

Generally speaking, creating a tense, keyed-up mood is what this Candyman does best, and it gets started early: the opening credits are a direct inversion of the same sequence from the first Candyman, a masterpiece of a sequence that glides over the streets of Chicago staring down. Here, the camera is tilted up to look at the city's skycrapers disappearing into the clouds, and then flipped upside down so that the seem to loom over us from impossible hovering angles coming down into the frame. And while this happens, we get some of the first jarring jangles of Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe's excellent score, clamorous and tuneless chords instead of Philip Glass's hypnotic droning repetitions (Glass's music does put in a couple of well-selected cameos) that work almost as well in a very different register to create a sense of omnipresent menace in the world. Abdul-Mateen's performance is another fantastic source of this all-encompassing tension, as he appears almost ready to explode from the effort of keeping whatever ungodly demonic energy has crept into him from erupting out of his body: his eyes are on fire, his skin almost shimmers with sweat, his head crouches down onto his neck, he keeps flapping his arms around like they'll fall off if they're not always moving.

I don't know if any of this quite rises up to "scary", but it's all unnerving as hell, and I hope very much that DaCosta's impending sojourn to Marvel Studios doesn't mean we'll have to wait too long for her to come back to this genre. Candyman is by no means a particularly tidy or elegant film: it has a shitload of ideas on its mind, and on top of that a somewhat convoluted narrative structure that puts flashbacks in at strange places, not to mention an abrupt and poorly-motivated climactic sequence. It is clunky and cluttered, and while many of its ideas are interesting, virtually none of them get room to breathe. Still, a heavy layer of dismal moodiness and free-floating paranoia can cover up a lot of narrative shortcomings, especially when that paranoia more or less becomes the story. At heart, Candyman is about being constantly afraid - of inexplicable ghosts, of one's own capacity towards violence, of the arbitrary lashing-out of oppressive systems, and all three of those in concert - and nailing that atmosphere as well as DaCosta and company do means, to an extent, that film's various shortcomings and inefficiencies simply don't matter that much.

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

*One character makes a snide, very brief reference to Whole Foods as the end point of all gentrification, which I found much funnier than it actually was, given that I worked for several months at the very same Whole Foods that marked that point for the former Cabrini-Green.