Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “Aquaman”) is a painter on the rise. He and his curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris, “WandaVision,” “If Beale Street Could Talk”) live in a fabulous apartment in a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood. The neighborhood used to include the towers of the Cabrini-Green public housing project. An urban legend arose among residents about a murderous supernatural creature with a hook for a hand; and, yes, the hook was part of the murderousness. He was known as Candyman — hence the title, “Candyman.”
Told about Candyman by Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Anthony is intrigued. He does archival research. He takes photographs of where Candyman supposedly roamed. He interviews William Burke (Colman Domingo, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). William runs a laundromat. Forty years earlier, as a boy, he encountered the man reputed to be the inspiration for Candyman — a man the Chicago police murdered.
An important part of the Candyman legend (or maybe that should be “legend”?) is that if you look in a mirror and repeat his name five times — whisper it, chant it, yell it, doesn’t matter: “Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman,” the outcome is the same — he will appear and murder you.
Anthony does a painting of Candyman. Well, no, that can’t be right. He does a painting of how he imagines Candyman looks, since Candyman doesn’t really exist. The painting is part of an installation, placed within a medicine cabinet — you know, the kind with two mirrored doors. Read the wall text next to the artwork, look in the mirror, open the doors, and there’s the painting. The wall text includes the business about saying his name. Not that anyone would actually do that . . .
There’s the setup.
This “Candyman” is simultaneously sequel and reboot. The first “Candyman” came out in 1992, with follow-ups in 1995 and 1999. Elements of the original are acknowledged throughout this one. Virginia Madsen, who played a major character in the original, provides that character’s tape-recorded voice here. There’s a glimpse of Domingo (what a voice the man has!) reading a book in Burke’s laundromat. It’s by Clive Barker, who wrote the short story that inspired the movies.
There are missteps. The brother’s telling the Candyman story really comes out of left field. The comic effect to which the brother’s gayness is used pretty quickly stops being funny. Even more of a caricature is a self-important art critic (Rebecca Spence). If she were any less sympathetic, you could give her a hook and have her audition for Mrs. Candyman.
Those are exceptions, though, in a movie that displays real imagination. The nicest touch comes from director Nia DaCosta. This is her second film, following her fine debut, “Little Woods” (2018). DaCosta tells much of the backstory using shadow puppets. (They can be seen separately online in a short film.) Their black silhouettes, in turn, recall the work of the artist Kara Walker. The shadow-puppet images are arresting, elegant, and, yes, a nice way to minimize gore. Lest we forget, “Candyman” is a slasher movie. The final 15 minutes or so ensure that no one loses sight of that fact (unless they’re covering their eyes, which might not be a bad idea).
Acute and skillfully made, “Candyman” is also pointedly political. One of its producers is Jordan Peele. More important, he’s also one of the writers, with DaCosta and Win Rosenfeld. Peele is, of course, the writer-director of “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019). No one more searchingly braids together horror, imaginary and on a screen, with horror, real and in society. A supernatural guy with a hook for a hand is scary, no question, and what he does is horrifying. But he’s not as scary as a bunch of cops with guns — and what they do can be even more horrifying.
Directed by Nia DaCosta. Written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and DaCosta; based on a short story by Clive Barker. Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 91 minutes. R (you can imagine why — and if you can’t, then you’re not the sort of person who should even think about watching a movie like this).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.