Candyman, a sequel to the 1992 horror classic of the same name, opens with a Black boy recreating a scene of racist police brutality with shadow puppets on his bedroom wall. It’s a chilling reminder of the world we were living in when the film was originally scheduled to be released last June, just a few weeks after the police murder of unarmed Black man George Floyd. 

As its characters summon the titular bogeyman by saying his name in the mirror, the film conjures up a fever-dream reflection of today’s all-too-real racist terrors. But it’s also a sharp, funny, poignant portrait of communal trauma, hive mentality and artistic exploitation. 

The film takes place in the original’s setting of Chicago, a decade after the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing complex was torn down. It follows visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director, as they move into the newly gentrified neighborhood.

While searching the streets of the old Cabrini-Green for inspiration, Anthony stumbles upon the urban legend of Candyman, a hook-handed killer who haunts the area. Like the original, this film suggests that residents use the legend as a coping device to simplify and handle the deep-seated racism at the root of their problems. Unlike the original, this one tells us that “Candyman ain’t a he. Candyman’s the whole damn hive” — meaning he is not a single entity but a force that represents a whole host of racism victims. Ironically, the one who started it all was a painter like Anthony. 

During a gallery showing of his Candyman-themed artwork, a stuffy white critic (Rebecca Spence) turns her nose up at Anthony for exploiting Black pain while enjoying the financial benefits of the gentrification cycle that causes it. Of course, she will never understand that cycle the way Anthony does as a Black man who was born in the projects. And ironically, it’s only after murders related to the artwork occur that she begins to take interest in writing about it. 

A grisly scene at the gallery arrives as a terrifying and comedic comeuppance for the gatekeepers of the art world. A later sequence set in a high-school girls’ bathroom finds vain teenagers showing their inner ugliness by summoning Candyman in the mirror while bullying a Black classmate. The demand to “say his name” takes on a timely meaning in the midst of recent protests pointing out the numerous Black men murdered by the police.

This is where director Nia DaCosta and her fellow co-writers, Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, shine, mixing wicked humor, cutting commentary and inventive scares — like putting razor blades in candy.  

DaCosta brings much visual flair as well, focusing on circular structures to reflect cycles of racism and violence. Composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe adds to the moody atmosphere with a frenetic score that rivals the original’s great Philip Glass score. 

Abdul-Mateen II and Parris ground the film in tragedy with their performances as rising art stars still crippled by their dark pasts. The way they wrestle with each other’s scars mirrors the way Cabrini-Green grapples with Candyman and the swarm of racist horrors surrounding him.

Peele (who also produced this film) continues to be a horror voice worth listening to, as DaCosta also proves with this stunning sophomore feature effort. Candyman emerges as the first great horror film of the year. Like the best horror films, it’s rooted in harsh realities and it burrows under your skin while also giving you a cathartic sense of release.