The triumph of Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” is the sense of occasion the director and her co-writer/producer Jordan Peele bring to this reboot.
This is horror with grandeur, a movie that pays homage to history and feels so of-the-moment as to seem fresh out of the lab.
“Candyman,” the glossiest horror movie in ages, isn’t just horror. It’s horror that reaches for the Latin in that MGM (which produced the original film and gets co-credit here) logo we see in the opening credits — “Ars gratia artis,” “art for art’s sake.”
We’re treated to Tony Todd’s iconic boogeyman, the gentrification of Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green projects by not just yuppies, but art-world Black buppies, the long history of lynching African Americans, then and now, “extra judicial killings” by a callous, trigger-happy police force and one great big unintentional metaphor for America deluged by Delta.
If there’s a lesson about tempting fate in any story that invokes “Say my name (five times),” it’s right out in the open and said out loud to the militantly anti-vax and anti-mask moronocracy.
“F–k around, see what happens.”
DaCosta (“Little Woods”) conjures up a story about stories, having characters, from our artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of “The Get Down”), “researching” the legend for inspiration, to the Cabrini refugee (Colman Domingo of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) who runs a laundromat, grab us with just their voices. We hear how grad student Helen Lyles (Virginia Madsen, heard on tapes from the original 1992 film) played a part in summoning up the Halloween season horror long ago.
These chilling scenes, just an actor telling a tale, are brilliantly illustrated with creepy-as-all-get-out shadow puppetry. The cut-out stick-puppets match this art-world thriller’s self-conscious sense of “artistry,” pretentious poseurs dabbling where they shouldn’t, gentrifiers blind to their role in cultural destruction.
“The Great Black Hope of the Chicago Art Scene” lives with polished curator Brianna (Teyonah Parris of “The Photograph,””If Beale Street Could Talk” and TV’s “WandaVision”), and desperately needs “the new, the now.” Thanks to a spooky story told by her brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Anthony finds himself stumbling into the Candyman tale while digging around the ruins of Cabrini Green.
He titles his “didactic cliche” (everybody’s a critic, especially the critic — Rebecca Spence) show “Say my Name.” Uh. Oh.
We see the first wrapped candy hit the floor, we cringe. We hear the first bee, we wince. We get our first glimpse of the man with the candy in one hand and a hook for the other, we rejoice.
DaCosta serves up a few of “Candyman’s Greatest Hits” amid the violence she unleashes here. It’s a spatter film that goes to some pains not to show the slashing. We hear it, see flashes of bloody mayhem from inside a locked girls’ bathroom stall in the inevitable “high schoolers summon Candyman” moment.
It may not deliver the edge-of-your-seat gulping terror or pander to the “gore uber alles” corner of horror’s fanbase. But catching just enough of a mass slaughter through a dropped teen’s compact mirror is smart, sophisticated storyboarding and framing.
The acting is more solidly-grounded than dazzling, but Domingo stands out, a character actor taking his place among the greats.
The script is on a whole new horror level, weaving in the themes, subtexts, history and social commentary together so artfully that you might not notice until you see how Anthony’s body, rotting under the weight of the curse he’s unleashed, evolves into the most horrific lynching victim you’ve ever seen.
And kudos to whoever cooked up Troy’s bitchy gay put-down of “Basquiat ass…Sun Ra” pretentious artiste Anthony.
DaCosta, along with cinematographer John Guleserian, gloss-and-grit production designer Cara Brower and art directors Jami Primer and Ines Rose, ensure that fans are served, and fed something that feels — first frame to last — classy, upscale, an homage that delivers that “sense of occasion.”
Rating: R, for bloody horror violence, and language (profanity) including some sexual references
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyona Parris, Colman Domingo, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Rebecca Spence and Tony Todd
Credits: Directed by Nia DaCosta, scripted by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld and Nia DaCosta, based on the 1992 MGM film. A Universal/MGM release.
Running time: 1:31