Written by: Jordan Peele & Win Rosenfeld (screenplay), Nia DaCosta(screenplay), Clive Barker and Bernard Rose (characters)
Directed by: Nia DaCosta
Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, and Colman Domingo
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Candyman ain't a He. Candyman's the whole damn hive."
Spoiler warning: this review discusses the end of Candyman in detail.
Storytelling is one of our most primal survival mechanisms as a species. We tell stories to understand the world around us: who we are, where we’ve been, perhaps even where we’re going. We often draw comfort from this because there’s usually an internal logic to them that makes sense when the world doesn’t. Horror, oddly enough, is arguably the purest expression of this: in understanding the terror that surrounds us, we must confront it head-on and bottle it up into a story that dilutes those horrors. Sometimes, a boogeyman is less scary than the truth because it can be vanquished.
1992’s Candyman is one of the cinema’s finest explorations of this subject. An eminently haunting film, it harnesses the power of urban legends, revealing their capacity to enrapture a group of people, arresting them in the shadow of ancient horrors that continue to linger. But perhaps even more disturbingly, it’s about how that culture’s lore can be co-opted into a different sort of horror story for outsiders: what happens when an urban legend isn’t content to just be an anthropological curiosity and warps itself into a disorienting nightmare that challenges your position of privilege and the limits of your empathy? What happens when you become the subject of myth and hearsay?
And while that was compelling enough to catapult Candyman into the pantheon of great horror movies, it’s fair to say there’s room to further confront the racial tension underpinning it, particularly in the way it exploits Black trauma to conjure a Black boogeyman for a White woman. Bernard Rose reshaping Clive Barker’s original tale into a story that highlights American injustice was noble and thoughtful, but there’s a vitality to Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele holding up their own mirror to the his film to fashion a response that dwells upon the power of a people reclaiming—and repurposing—their own myths. It makes for one of the more ambitious and fascinating sequels to a major franchise, if not a somewhat frustrating one. DaCosta’s Candyman is formally audacious and narratively ambitious, yet its reach ultimately exceeds the grasp of its blood-soaked hook. There are worse fates reserved for movies, especially when we’re talking about the fourth entry in a long-running franchise that never escaped the shadow of its original film.
Where the other two sequels explicitly tried to do so by relocating to New Orleans and Los Angeles, DaCosta’s film rests in the shadow of the first film’s events, which have become a grisly footnote in the annals of Chicago lore. Seeking inspiration, local artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) returns to the newly gentrified Cabrini-Green housing projects after hearing the grisly story of Helen Lyle, a White woman whose obsession with a local legend caused her to go insane and sacrifice a baby to the altar of a boogeyman. What he doesn’t realize is that this legend has twisted the facts, omitting the very real specter of the tale and changing its ending: not only did the baby survive, but he is that baby. We know this, but he remains unaware when local laundromat owner William Burke (Colman Domingo) introduces him to the story of the Candyman, a spirit that can be summoned by speaking his name into a mirror five times. Now flowing with inspiration, Anthony’s art takes a dark turn when it revives the long-dormant spirit of vengeance, unleashing him on a new generation of victims.
Before addressing the many elephants in the room here, I want to say that Candyman is a sharp horror film. DaCosta’s film is soaked in dread and intrigue, propelled by the inherent tension of the story: it’s a sequel that seeks to advance the lore while tiptoeing back towards the original film. The way it plays coy with its predecessor—first by distorting its events, then by adding an unexpected layer to the Candyman mythos—results in an added layer of mystery when the film resorts to the familiar bloodletting upon the spirit’s return. Rare is the sequel where you spend most of the time wondering just how the dots will be connected to the lore, and Candyman has a fascinating—if not complicated—way of doing so.
Less complicated, however, is the crimson-stained path in arriving there since Candyman evokes the original, weaving splatter movie theatrics through a stylish, gothic horror story. DaCosta’s take isn’t quite as oppressively atmospheric and otherworldly as Rose’s film, but her flourishes are striking: shadow puppetry accenting the storytelling, long, eerie shots of the Chicago landscape, a horrifying burst of violence captured by an almost aghast camera that slowly moves away from the carnage, a playful sequence where Candyman eviscerates a bathroom full of school girls just out of sight. She digs into the grisliness of the premise and grafts it onto some agonizing body horror as Anthony’s skin begins to rot and decay as Candyman seems to possess him. DaCosta’s stylistic chops are beyond reproach, and her Candyman does something the sequels never quite did in recapturing the original film’s cinematic sophistication.
Likewise, it marks a return of the original’s character-driven approach, at least at first. Where the sequels increasingly became about Candyman’s carnage, this one treats the title character more like Rose did: as a fleeting spirit, lurking in the background as the audience spends time with protagonists that are compelling in their own right. Anthony and his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) occupy the familiar space of being outsiders to Cabrini-Green, existing in the entirely different upscale world of the art scene. He must contend with the expectations of being a Black artist moving into the familiar scene of commenting on gentrification, while she has to navigate the interpersonal politics of the business and publicity side of things. His journey especially becomes trickier when his work—which invites the audience to “say his name,” in reference to Candyman—garners attention for all the wrong reasons when the hook-handed killer slaughters an art dealer in his girlfriend right in front of his piece.
Abdul-Mateen is charismatic and in the role that’s best served by an increasingly slipshod script. Anthony’s arc is fairly well drawn (with some reservations that I’ll get around to), and Abdul-Mateen effortlessly carries the film, shifting from cool, quiet confidence to a frenzied mania once he finds himself wilting in Candyman’s crosshairs. The film’s climax effectively hinges on this descent, and its horrifying, gruesome images inspire genuine gasps that it couldn’t coax without such a magnetic performance. Less effective is the film’s treatment of Brianna and Burke, as the former almost becomes an afterthought just when the film introduces a compelling new conflict (it seems obvious that a famous art dealer is using her to make a connection to Anthony), while the latter warps from community soothsayer to an outright cultist whose motivations strain to tie together the film’s disparate thematic threads. Parris and Domingo have such a star presence that it ultimately salvages these characters, but you’re left wondering about the version of Candyman that had more room to flesh them out.
This, ultimately, is the real fiend looming over Candyman: a 90-minute runtime that cuts narrative corners and struggles to gracefully explore and articulate its various themes. The story takes some pronounced turns, often aided by awkward exposition sequences that force the film to sharply pivot. Anthony’s investigation is a slow burn, aided by Helen Lyle’s actual recordings, and, instead of organically arriving at the truth of his past by hearing his own mother’s voice on the tapes, he only discovers it when a visit to the hospital reveals he was born near Cabrini. And as nice as it is to see Vanessa Williams reprise her role from the original, it’s frustrating to see her reduced as a footnote that greases the wheels of the film’s final act, where more hidden motivations and surprise reveals induce further whiplash. Characters start to feel more like avatars, advancing the plot and establishing the film’s scattershot themes in unwieldy fashion.
To be sure, Candyman has a lot on its mind, and it’s admirable that so much thought has gone into Candyman 4, a film that muses upon gentrification, the intersection of art, and violence, the historical role of black martyrdom, connected by a thread of vigilante and state-sanctioned brutality that continues to tighten. And the thing is, you’ll know all of this because the characters often explicitly state it, whether it’s in casual conversation or during belabored discussions between Anthony and an art critic (Rebecca Spence) who doesn’t appreciate his work until it’s suddenly popular. You can’t miss what Candyman has to say because it often spells it out for you in the most obvious manner possible. The writing is very much on the wall, and it’s underlined, italicized, and bolded.
The most obvious and most vital choice here is to explicitly connect America’s present injustices—most notably, police violence against Black people—to the horrors of the Candyman mythos. In the script’s most clever move, Candyman is reimagined as a hive of brutalized Black men whose legacy began with Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd) and has taken other forms during the past century. For Burke, Candyman was Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), a hook-handed man who literally gave out candy to children before he was gunned down by the police in cold blood. He’s the avatar that appears throughout most of the film, which is a clever conceit to a point because it’s a wonderful manifestation of how urban legends take different shapes for different storytellers and different audiences. It’s one of the film’s main points: after all, 2021’s Candyman is taking the story of 1992’s Candyman and reshaping it into its own exploration of Black pain and suffering, right down to fashioning the icon himself into a spirit of Black vengeance.
And as provocative and intriguing as that sounds, it’s not without pitfalls. For one, the “hive” concept unwittingly creates the largest elephant in the room: because we know this is a sequel (and not just a “spiritual sequel”) that directly invokes Robitaille’s name, it creates an odd sort of anticipation instead of dread. Tony Todd’s Candyman is such an icon that teasing his presence and only barely delivering it creates a natural disappointment. At a certain point, this film is haunted by two Candymen: the spirit that Anthony has summoned, and the lingering memory of the original film’s icon. But more than that, building up to his brief appearance as a rousing moment of triumph is firmly at odds with the rest of a climax that sees the protagonist brutalized into becoming yet another black martyr for the Candyman mythos before he’s shot to death by the police, who quickly work to reframe the story. It’s such a bleak turn of events that’s turned on its head almost immediately when Anthony emerges as Candyman (a fate we’re meant to see as horrifying and dehumanizing just minutes earlier) to liberate Brianna from police custody.
At the moment, I found it absolutely riveting, if only because the sight of Tony Todd’s Candyman returning after twenty years creates a natural buzz. But as that effect waned, it revealed the dangers of miscalculated fan service: sure, it was nice to see, but what does it mean? In this case, it’s an attempt at reinterpreting a troubling boogeyman into a righteous avenger for the people he’s haunted. No longer a spirit that will indiscriminately kill anyone who summons him, he can now be conjured to exact vengeance on behalf of the oppressed. Forgive the obvious turn of phrase, but that’s a clever hook that deserves a more graceful through-line because the one here is a tangled mess that lionizes its true villain’s plot to resurrect Candyman via more Black suffering.
Doing so perhaps opens the door for discussions of Black-on-Black violence, but the film itself abruptly ends before it can confront its implications. Somehow, this Candyman is more stylistically lucid than the original but less coherent: Rose’s film gracefully lingers in the ether, an elusive little urban legend in its own right. DaCosta’s, on the other hand, is a similarly ambitious but more gangly stab at reclaiming a mythos without reckoning with it. I look forward to reading the perspective of Black critics (and I implore you to do the same), but my gut reaction is struggling to parse the logic of a film that insists on Black liberation relying on more Black suffering. The lack of subtlety I can forgive—much like Black Christmas, this film probably does need to spell it out for the fools who will feign dismay at Candyman suddenly being “woke.” More frustrating is how the message still manages to be muddled through the bullhorn. Acting as a funhouse mirror reflecting and distorting the original film, it trades a White savior for a Black messiah, yet resigns itself to the inevitability of Black martyrdom. Maybe that’s the real horror of it all: that this boogeyman will take his pound of flesh, no matter who conjures him. A mirror only reflects what’s put in front of it, after all.
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