Long before Get Out, 1992’s Candyman spun a backstory of racism into a potent piece of genre entertainment with a hidden gravitas. The titular murderer was the ghost of a black man killed by an 1890s lynch mob after having an affair with a white woman, but that was mere preface for a heady tale of sex, dualism, and the Chicago class divide. No other movie has so skillfully played upon our collective dread of these three unnerving elements: supernatural serial killers, the Cabrini-Green housing project, and graduate students.
Now Get Out’s author, Jordan Peele, is tipping his hat to his narrative forebears by co-writing and producing a follow-up with the same title: This Candyman, co-written and directed by Nia DaCosta, may appear on the surface to be a remake, but it’s actually a disguised sequel.
A likeable Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays an up-and-coming black artist named Anthony who lives in a luxury apartment with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), a successful gallery director. The area was once home to the notorious Cabrini-Green public-housing complex, the kind of place that turned the phrase “urban renewal” into a bitter irony. Candyman offers a very Peele-ian conspiracy theory that the massive government-created wasteland was not a well-intentioned (and very expensive) effort to improve the lives of black people but rather its opposite: a sort of disguised prison that was diabolically designed to deepen black suffering. Peele and the other lefty authors of the film are only half a step away from agreeing with conservatives that when it comes to poor black people, government intervention is the problem rather than the solution.
Anthony, Brianna, and their other rich, progressive, multicultural friends carry both righteous anger about the way black people suffered in this toxic environment and sheepish guilt about being gentrifiers, pampered lords whose gleaming skyscrapers displaced the public-housing tenants. The sense that Anthony’s success is linked to the misfortunes of others comes bloodily out into the open when ghastly murders start happening at the gallery showing his work. As per the norm in slasher movies, the victims present themselves for slaughter, in this case by saying the word “Candyman” five times in a mirror.
DaCosta rings up plenty of scares in gory and well-crafted slasher scenes but also finds the horror in foundational injustice: Who exactly is the Candyman and what is his place in the history of racial suffering in Chicago? Slasher movies often elicit twisted sympathy for the malefactor — Go, Jason, nail those idiot campers — but in this case there’s a more atavistic and voguish reason for the audience to be attracted to the killer: He is a kind of race avenger.
The first Candyman was better — tighter, punchier, more structurally and thematically coherent. But the second one has its merits as well. Most obviously, it’s far better-looking than the 1992 one, which had cheap production values and was as blandly lit as a 1990s television sitcom. DaCosta exhibits a flair for unnerving images, illustrating one interlude with a shadow box of creepy silhouettes, and she has chosen a knockout composer, Robert A. A. Lowe, to amp up the dread. At only 31, the director is already working on a superhero film, The Marvels, and figures to pump a lot of fresh energy into the genre.
Still, many of the most interesting ideas here are merely waved at without being fully developed. Take the tensions faced by the new black bourgeoisie (blabos?): Anthony has to reconcile within himself his sense of historic injustice and the knowledge that he lives in a palace. His kitchen cost more than what a middle-class family earns in a year. Yet, in a professional sense, being black means he must play to his audience’s expectations about black victimhood. One of his paintings is an unnerving blast of anguish that displays a noose layered over a racist slur, and in one of the film’s several self-teasing moments, a dealer suggests that this trope is tired — so two years ago. Taking that idea a bit further: What if Anthony simply wanted to paint landscapes like Monet? Would being black prevent him from doing so? Must black artists be stereotyped as prophets of racism, or will rich white people not allow that? How free is an artist who must answer to patrons who keep demanding variations on the same theme?
Yet as the film goes on, such questions get dumped in favor of a formulaic Black Lives Matter lesson: Candyman is a creation of police brutality. So an urban legend about a fictitious boogeyman advertises its sociological relevance by hyping a different boogeyman — the myth that it’s open season on innocent black people under attack by the police force. Out of 492 homicides in Chicago last year, three involved cops. There is large-scale horror going on in Chicago right now, but black artists, along with their white progressive patrons, react with a bored shrug, if they react at all.