The oft-discussed paradox of the otherwise revered 1992 horror film “Candyman” is that its titular villain, an apparition born of slave-era white atrocity, exacted his bloody retribution mainly from poor black residents of low-income housing and in a story that revolved around the fate of a white protagonist. Otherwise, the Bernard Rose classic effectively conjured the fear and dread of the genre.
Part sequel and part reimagining, the 2021 revival of “Candyman” from director Nia DaCosta and the writing team of Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfield flips the script. The filmmakers rework Candyman himself from erotic slasher to the grosteque manifestation of racial inhumanity, not a singular baddie but instead both a collective coping mechanism and a lineage of monsters created and contorted by the injustices of their times. “Candyman isn’t a he,” a character says at one point, “he’s the whole damn hive.”
The setting remains the same, Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighborhood, where the towering slums have been razed and the impoverished black residents redlined into obscurity. In their place is a gentrified array of art galleries, fine dining, and luxury apartments occupied by the wine-sipping bourgeoisie, both black and white. They include struggling artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his curator wife, Brianna (Teyonah Parris). Branded “the great black hope of the Chicago art scene,” Anthony is suffering from a creative block until he hears about the urban myth of Candyman from a seeming stranger and neighborhood soothsayer, William (Colman Domingo), and decides to exhume the legend for his next big art project. The last Candyman was a 1970s vagrant who handed hard candy to little Cabrini Green kids until the police brutally killed him for crimes he didn’t commit. The lore goes that if you gaze into a mirror and say “Candyman” five times, he visits and kills you.
When Anthony goes on a fact-gathering visit to Cabrini Green, a bee stings his hand, triggering some gradual mind and body horror that begins to metamorphosize him. Anthony’s grisly art exhibit, titled “Same My Name,” comes equipped with mirror and instructs about the Candyman legend, unleashing his bloody business, first onto a gallery owner and his 20-something intern while they’re in the midst of foreplay (natch).
The catch about Candyman is that the victims fully control his presence. As such, his body count includes an art critic who sees Anthony’s edgy aesthetic as a next big thing and a gaggle of white teenage girls who collectively conjure Candyman for giggles, essentially those guilty of marginalizing a legacy of hate for entertainment or amusement. Meanwhile, minority characters seem to bypass the horror tropes: Brianna’s reaction to the prospect of descending stairs into a dark basement is the film’s biggest guffaw.
It’s all there: police brutality, cultural appropriation, gentrification, redlining, institutional poverty, and a lot more from DaCosta and Peele—”White people built the ghetto,” Brianna tells her brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), “and then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto.” “Candyman” nearly chokes on its ambitions, but there’s exhilaration in its audacity. It is valid to observe that a blistering critique of the commoditization of black culture and tragedy somewhat emulates the very thing it assails. But how else to avoid that besides streaming the film for free on YouTube?
“Candyman” expands its vision while paying homage to the original film. Yet unlike its forerunner, “Candyman” falls short in the fundamental mechanics of its genre. The thematic tension is there in abundance, but the thrills and chills feel bloodless. DaCosta, who debuted with the critical darling “Little Woods,” is keen on hypnotic atmospherics, from Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s haunting score to some heady framing—one murder takes place as the camera zooms out from a high-rise picture window, evoking memories of “Rear Window.” But the director also shows a lack of familiarity with horror pacing and staging, and utterly botches the sometimes indecipherable sound mixing. And the climax veers wildly into the occult, seemingly uncertain how to end the story until it decides to violate its own internal rules.
But this “Candyman” has something to say, even if it sometimes falters in how to say it. It is thought-provoking and ripe for repeat viewing. Who can take a sequel, sprinkle it with blood, cover it with social commentary and a minor misstep or two? The “Candyman” can.
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