LUKE’S GRADE: C
The two “Candyman” movies — Bernard Rose’s 1992 cult hit and Nia DaCosta’s new “spiritual sequel,” which ignores the pair of panned sequels from the ’90s — strike several conversations between the presence of fairytale and the persistence of tragedy. And now that DaCosta’s collaboration with “Get Out’s” Jordan Peele has finally released into theaters, it seems the two films converse very much with one another as well.
First, there are the infectious stories we tell ourselves to forget, to manipulate, or distract from reality. In 1992, a white graduate student (Virginia Madsen) entered Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects to carve a thesis out of the Candyman fable, which she understood to be the culture’s way of mislabeling the horrors of their reality: gang domination, rampant poverty, over-policing. DaCosta’s film sees hipster artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) strike out of his creative funk after discovering the urban legend for himself.
The Candyman game — dare speak his name five times into the mirror and face a blood-soaked encounter — happily breathes a new life into his work. What Anthony did not expect was what life it would breath into him ... or rather, expose to him.
The inevitable “which is better” question does DaCosta’s film, impressively only her second project, a severe injustice. Rose’s movie was catapulted into history as one of the most enduring and provoking pieces within the horror genre. Beyond the slick power of Tony Todd’s performance, it was the Candyman’s origins — a 19th-century artist lynched after impregnating one of his subjects, a white woman — and their cyclical relevance in the modern world that has kept audiences gnawing at the film.
2021’s “Candyman” features both the continuation and expansion of those themes. It introduces a “hive” of Candymen, a platoon of Black souls whose lives were ended by a white branch of power and who now feed off the perseverance of their legend. The challenge to “say his name” even casts a bigger shadow in its obvious proximity to the Black Lives Matter movement.
But DaCosta also adds an ironic, metatextual element to her film, asking whether the most egregious and painful components of Black life should be preserved in art. And if so, how? Watching the 2021 production, it’s hard not to wonder whether Rose, a white filmmaker, overstepped 30 years ago? Does the first “Candyman,” a revered classic, invoke commodification or exploitation, even if it wasn’t direct? Is DaCosta just as guilty?
The presence of these questions is hardly self-sabotage, nor do they attempt to tackle the legacy of its predecessor. While Rose’s 1992 film is not required to understand or enjoy 2021 “Candyman” — impressive shadow puppets summarize the bulk of the original movie which, in this world, has naturally diffused into the legend — there’s plenty of homage to it here, loud and small. These questions rather serve more as a guide to the real and fictional context at play, as well as the characters.
DaCosta’s script, co-written by Peele and Win Rosenfeld, introduces Anthony as “the great Black hope of the Chicago art scene.” His paintings feature Black pain and their significance is often calculated by white eyes who find a self-excusing pleasure in their existence. His exhibitor girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) is similarly restricted, as most of her cohorts are interested in wading near the legacy of her late father, another artist. And as Anthony blazes further down the Candyman lore, the popularity of his work coinciding with the brutal violence they become associated with, the insipid, animalistic relationship between chaos and reception is further exposed.
After all, Van Gogh wasn’t worth a dime until he died. And though there’s an element of vulgarity in that kind of tragedy, “Candyman” wonders whether fame would’ve come quicker if a paintbrush had found its way into someone’s eyeball.
Another interesting idea at the start of “Candyman” is that the ironies and inconsistencies of both Anthony and his place in the art world are apparent from the jump. Living in his bourgeois apartment with Brianna, both dissecting the gentrification of the since-abandoned Cabrini-Green neighborhood, their high-horse hypocrisy is immediately challenged by a family friend. And the creation of Anthony’s first Candyman exhibit — which is more direct in its violent depictions, even inviting viewers to partake in the five-name ritual for themselves — is as dismissive of the urban legend as it is those who believe it.
So “Candyman” has a lot to juggle, and unfortunately, it’s when the fourth of fifth flying pin is added that the film stumbles. There are characters and relationships introduced, particularly with Anthony and Brianna’s parents, that are more or less abandoned. And particularly with Brianna, having directly witnessed so much pain and violence, a needed exploration is nowhere to be found.
On the topic of investigation, while there are subtle nods to the endurance of Cabrini-Green’s community — Colman Domingo’s William Burke, for instance, opened a laundromat after playing a crucial role in the death of another Candyman outside a laundry room meant to serve a whole neighborhood — there’s also little narrative input from the people victimized in some of “Candyman’s” starkest and most modern themes.
Though absence is an obvious consequence of gentrification, the Cabrini-Green neighborhood’s role in maintaining and upholding the legend played such a significant role in the 1992 film that its more undercurrent, assumed place in 2021 feels empty rather than poignant.
That’s generally how a lot of “Candyman’s” themes play out: unfulfilled. DaCosta’s clear, pleasing ambition to vocalize as many fixtures of racial injustice as she can ultimately underserves her, as “Candyman,” especially in its final acts, stretches itself a bit too thin.
That being said, when it comes to the horror, DaCosta’s Black perspective — a notable first for the “Candyman” franchise, in terms of directors — manifests oddly. Not badly, just differently. In this film, the fables and the nightmares are worn. Just as they are in both the popular and Black cultures, on and off the screen, they’re established. DaCosta wastes hardly any time explaining the creation and function of the Candyman. So, replacing the mystery and ambiguity of the first movie is more gore, more violence, more vengeance.
The result is a mixed bag. Without the background, without Helen’s investigation and her introduction to this world, this “Candyman” movie falls more in line with the meet-and-slash routine of other horror reboots. It’s far less frightening. But DaCosta’s incredible visual style and her work with cinematographer John Guleserian, which persists throughout the film, keep the kills exciting. With “Candyman,” however, the hope is always for something more than exciting.
But, the “Candyman” movie finally put on the big screen is more or less what the trailer promised: a slick, violent thriller with a whole lot to say and an attractive way of saying it. How much it says and how much it doesn’t is another point entirely.
“Candyman,” a Universal Pictures release, is now playing in theaters nationwide.