Film

Review: At Times Dark and Grotesque, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman Seeks to Give Meaning to the Classic Horror Myth

One of the reasons this combination remake/sequel/reboot of the gets-better-with-age 1992 film Candyman is tough to discuss is because it’s a film that can’t quite decide what it is or wants to be. Not all art needs to be easily understandable or digestible, but it helps when it has a point of view as strong and resolute as director Nia DaCosta’s take on Candyman. Though it tries to be too many things in one, the themes of injustice, racism, and being the agent of one’s own story that rise to the surface are the ones that speak the loudest and have the greatest impact on the viewer.

Candyman

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

DaCosta made a name for herself a few years back with the powerful indie drama Little Woods and she’s on board to helm the Captain Marvel sequel The Marvels, due next year, so any issue with Candyman isn’t about vision or ability; the film is devastatingly beautiful at times, stark and grotesque at other times, and the way she strikes this balance is impressive. I particularly love her use of shadow puppets as a frequent flashback device, in lieu of simply shooting obligatory period material. Some of this was shown in the trailers for the film, but it’s used throughout the movie, and its haunting beauty and simplicity really add to the urban folklore aspects of the film and the Candyman character.

With a screenplay by producers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, as well as DaCosta, Candyman is set in modern-day Chicago, still primarily in the Cabrini Green neighborhood of the first film, but now, the projects have long been torn down, replaced by a highly gentrified group of new residents (mostly millennials) in newly built luxury dwellings. Among these resident is visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from HBO’s Watchmen and Us) and his partner, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Photograph), a gallery director with a promising future and many opportunities for advancement in and out of Chicago. Anthony’s painting career, once vibrant and promising, has largely stalled out, and he’s looking for inspiration among the few remaining artifacts of old Cabrini (one of the many fabrications of the film), including the Candyman myth we’re familiar with from the first film.

Drawing parallels to the most popular Candyman origin story (when alive, he was also a Black painter, mostly of rich white folks who “loved what we made but not who we were,” as one resident puts it). In fact, it’s this resident, William (Colman Domingo, Fear the Walking Dead, Zola, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), who clues Anthony into the fact that Candyman might actually not be just one person, but a collection of wronged Black men from the area, looking for opportunities to get some brand of justice against white oppressors or bullies.

The hallmarks of the original batch of Candyman movies are there: saying his name five times while looking in the mirror to summon him, the hook hand, bees that swarm around his head and torso. But the version of the figure we most often see is not the Tony Todd version from the 1990s, but another, more recent manifestation of a man who was wrongfully killed by police for allegedly putting razors in candy he was giving to children. Anthony is stung by a bee early on, and the stinger seems to have injected something in his blood that slowly takes over his body in a way that destroys his skin and seems to make him more susceptible to the Candyman’s visits, which don’t ever seem to target Anthony, but instead seem to be conditioning him for something down the line. Abdul-Mateen’s performance as a man slowly but steadily breaking down in both body and mind, while a wave of violence is being unleashed in the neighborhood, is exceptional and often heartbreaking as his destiny in all of this becomes clear.

There is a host of supporting players who vary in their level of importance and effectiveness to the story, such as a group of high school girls who simply mess with the Candyman myth just for kicks and pay for their disrespect. Brianna’s boss (Brian King) is a bit one-dimensionally jerky and opportunistic as a gallery owner. My favorite supporting character is Tony (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Brianna’s protective gay brother, who, along with husband Grady (Kyle Kaminsky), brings some much-needed perspective to the strange goings on and also seems to bring the best out in Parris’ performance when they’re around.

Candyman is wildly uneven and not particularly scary, but I’m also fairly certain DaCosta wasn’t primarily going directly for the horror vibe. She wants her characters to matter and stand for something, rather than simply be vehicles to connect to or be dead bodies. Candyman is portrayed as something of a social justice warrior, targeting those who hurt the community, rather than just whomever summons him. While Candyman does display this strong moral core, he’s still a half-realized character in desperate need of some fleshing out, which may be tough when your ribcage is mostly exposed. But the ideas about what this boogeyman stands for and comes out of are beautifully realized on some levels—certainly strong enough to inspire thought and reaction from an audience willing to think about what they’re watching and not just wait for the blood and guts.

The film opens theatrically tonight.

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