Producers: Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld and  Ian Cooper   Director: Nia DaCosta   Screenplay: Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld and Nia DaCosta   Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Kyle Kaminsky, Vanessa Williams, Brian King, Miriam Moss, Rebecca Spence, Heidi Grace Engerman, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Christiana Clark, Michael Hargrove, Rodney L. Jones III, Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade: B-

A horror movie that also aims to serve as a topical socio-political argument as well as an exercise in florid visual style, Nia DaCosta’s sequel to/reboot of Bernard Rose’s 1992 “Candyman,” produced and co-written by Jordan Peele, has ambitions so grand that it inevitably stumbles over them, and yet it’s difficult to take your eyes off it. 

The original film—which was followed by two inferior sequels that go unmentioned here—centered on the investigations of grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) into the titular urban legend (Tony Todd), a murderous black bogeyman with a hook for a hand who could be summoned by repeating his name five times in front of a mirror.  It received better reviews than most slasher movies of its time, though it was only a modest boxoffice success.

The writers of the new “Candyman” connect their story directly to the one Rose told.  The 1992 tale was set at the notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project on Chicago’s Near North side, where the killer was supposedly active.  This one is based in the same neighborhood, but in the present, when the projects have been torn down and the area has been gentrified.  Among its present upscale residents are painter Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), the director of a local gallery owned by Clive Privler (Brian King).

Anthony was once hailed as the shining voice of black art in Chicago, but his work, as Clive and snooty critic Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence) point out, has gone stale, and he is desperate for inspiration.  He finds it in the Candyman legend related to him and Brianna one night by her gay brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) when he visits them with his current boyfriend Grady (Kyle Kaminsky). Anthony quickly creates a piece titled “Say My Name,” resembling a mirrored medicine cabinet with horrific paintings inside, which is installed in Brianna’s latest exhibition at the gallery.

The installation is initially dismissed by Stephens, but she reconsiders after Clive and his assistant Jerrica (Miriam Moss) are brutally murdered in front of it following the opening night party.  That’s but the first death: Stephens is killed in her apartment after an interview with McCoy, and a quartet of high school mean girls, led by Haley (Heidi Grace Engerman), who had visited the exhibition and been fascinated by “Say Your Name,” are slaughtered in a campus restroom when they foolishly repeat the prescribed ritual. 

Meanwhile Anthony is undergoing a frightening change.  While he was investigating the remnants of the old neighborhood in preparation for his painting, he’d been stung by a bee—a part of the Candyman mythology—and seems to be having a horrible reaction.  He also met William Burke (Colman Domingo), a longtime Cabrini-Green resident who, as is shown in a prologue set in 1977, encountered Candyman when he was a boy (Rodney L. Jones III) and can speak not only to the legend but to its broader historical significance.  It turns out, as Anthony will learn from his mother Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams), that he himself has an important connection to Cabrini-Green and to both the Candyman and Helen Lyle—a connection that ultimately places certain demands on him.

Horror films are not ordinarily conducive to great acting, and this one is no exception.  Abdul-Mateen, a charismatic presence, seems rather constrained here, while Parris relies too much on exaggeration, perhaps at DaCosta’s suggestion.  (Brianna isn’t a fully fleshed-out character, though she is given some depth through a flashback to her father’s suicide—which, as played by young Hannah Love Jones—she witnessed and has never processed.)  The same criticism can certainly be leveled at Stewart-Jarrett, who slips into caricature, and other members of the supporting cast show the same inclination—even the usually reliable Domingo is affected.   

“Candyman” may disappoint viewers addicted to the explosions of blood and gore familiar in most horror pictures nowadays.  The murders here are sanguinary affairs, to be sure, but as shot by John Guleserian and edited by Catrin Hedström, they’re done up in very artsy style, in which the influence of Dario Argento. Brian De Palma and Alfred Hitchcock can be felt.  (The art gallery murder shares elements with “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage,” the tracking shot in Fletcher’s recalls “Frenzy,” and the oblique way in which the high school slaughter is glimpsed in the mirror of a student’s compact will remind you of the shot of the glasses in “Strangers on a Train.”)

The tendency to employ suggestion rather than gruesome directness is also evinced in the decision to use shadow puppets in silhouette (effectively realized by Manual Cinema) to recount the origin story of Daniel Robitaille, aka Candyman, as well as the events of 1992; one might detect the influence of Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” here, though the images are still creepily effective.

So too is the overall look of the film—the production design of Cara Brower, which plays on the film’s emphasis on reflections in mirrors and on glass surfaces (a motif cheekily touched on in the opening frames), and the visual effects supervised by James McQuaide, which revel in the bee-heavy aspect of the Candyman legend.  Their extravagance is seconded in the synthesizer-influenced score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, which depends on repetitive throbbing tones and deep growls.  

The shadow puppets are also employed over the closing credits to articulate a theme raised periodically throughout the film—Candyman as an expression of long-repressed anger over the brutal treatment of black Americans over the course of the nation’s history.  Especially given recent history, it’s a message that resonates, though undoubtedly some will find it handled heavy-handedly in this case. 

The last third of “Candyman” goes somewhat awry in trying to tie all these elements into a tidy package while escalating the fright quotient, but while not everything works, the film remains a stylish resuscitation of an old horror franchise with something beyond scares on its mind.