Don’t Say His Name

Sweets to the sweet in Nia DaCosta’s wicked ‘Candyman’ reboot

Nia DaCosta’s wickedly smart Candyman conjures the pain with a pulpy wit and stylish thrills, all while fueling a red-hot undercurrent of social-justice fury. Say his name five times in a mirror and he appears? Hell no! “Black people don’t need to be summoning shit,” says one eye-rolling skeptic. But the creepy killer keeps clawing his way back.

This franchise refresher resurrects the macabre 1890s folktale of persecuted son-of-slave portraiturist Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), condemned for his interracial love affair, his hand sawed off with a rusty blade, his body smeared with honeycombs and fatally stung by bees before being burnt to cinders. The Gilded-Age hate crime, on the land that eventually became Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, sparked an urban legend that attracted comely white grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) a hundred years later to do research for her dissertation. But she ended up succumbing to the myth, beheading a rottweiler, leaving a string of dead bodies, and falling into madness. Or so the story goes.

CANDYMAN ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Nia DaCosta
Written by: Nia DaCosta, Jordan Peele
Starring: Yahya Adbul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo
Running time: 91 mins

And now up-and-coming visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Adbul-Mateen II), fighting creative constipation, sparks to the spooky tales—as does his white art dealer, who digs the North Side ghetto angle. “South Side is kind of played out,” he sneers to Anthony. Girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director, is dutifully supportive but a bit weirded out when she sees Anthony’s twisted works. But his obsession only grows after a trip to Cabrini-Green’s graffiti-festooned derelict buildings. And what’s with that nasty bee sting on his hand? It turns into a blistering scab that infects his whole arm. And his sanity.

While Anthony creates art installations made of mirrors and paint on canvas, the accompanying gallery literature encourages patrons to chant the mythic murderer’s moniker while ruminating on “an irrepressible viral ghost story.” Cue the majestically eerie Phillip Glass score—and watch for something lurking in your reflection. Heed the warning on those abandoned buildings’ walls: SWEETS TO THE SWEET.

Debuting three decades after the debut of Bernard Rose’s same-named 1992 gothic chiller, Candyman is that rare sequel enriched by so much passage of time. In this case, it’s apt: the two films are about a legacy of unshakable and ongoing persecution that stretches back decades and decades. And as a horror series built around a black man, it’s a fascinatingly of-the-moment look at generational racial trauma. That Candyman-repeating incantation is even more uncanny in today’s supercharged BLM climate. Say his name, indeed.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes some heartwarming ‘Candyman’ art.

But don’t call DaCosta preachy. She and co-writer/producer Jordan Peele are too savvy for that, sidestepping sobriety with winking self-references. “The idea is to almost calibrate tragedy into a focused lineage that culminates in the now,” Anthony explains to art critic Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence), a haughty white woman who finds Anthony’s Candyman-referencing works exploitative. “It speaks in didactic knee-jerk clichés about the ambient violence of the gentrification cycle,” she sniffs back. Art-world burn! And a side-diss to anyone over-academizing this honey-coated slasher. No surprise that Stephens meets her grisly fate in a very artistic way.

What made Candyman such an effective horror film back in the day was its embrace of black-hearted romance. Daniel Robitaille is essentially wooing Helen Lyle to her death. “Be my victim,” he coos at her. “It was always you, Helen,” he adds. This new film doesn’t have that kind of pat symmetry to Robitaille’s original tragedy, preferring to make his charred legacy one in a line of searing injustices that, all tolled, creates a myth of the eternal return. By the end, Candyman becomes a sort of Satanic curse and Avenging Angel, both something that seems to corrupt the African American community and protect it at the same time. But in trying to broaden his meaning into an overt social statement, the film also somewhat dilutes the elegance of Robitaille’s foundational horror.

Still, the evolution is a thrilling pivot into a dark empowerment. And to tell the stories within this story, DaCosta uses silhouetted puppetry throughout, an electric choice that invokes Kara Walker’s devastating tableaux. “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happened,” says one character towards the end. “That they’re still happening.” It’s recontextualized Faulker: the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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