I really wanted to like Candyman (dir. Nia DaCosta) more than I did. I’m a big fan of the original film, and after his compelling breakout performance in HBO’s Watchmen miniseries, I was excited to see Yahya Abdul-Mateen II build on that momentum with a major starring role. Unfortunately, while there were elements of the new Candyman that grappled with interesting ideas, and a couple cleverly staged kills, the film as a whole never cohered into a satisfying final product.
Released in 1992, the original Candyman was the story of a white woman, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), simultaneously menaced and seduced by cinema’s first marquee Black Slasher (Tony Todd).
Entire graduate theses have been written about the racial psycho-sexual undertones (barely under, more like tones) of the original Candyman, enough so that I don’t have to cover it in depth here. Plenty more is out there for those interested, but suffice to say that it is an interesting take, and a rich vein to tap in terms of a story teeming with potential for tension and violence.
That story has been told, however, and this movie instead centers the Black perspective. Candyman 2021 is a story about Black men and women, brought to life by a Black director. It’s a new frame of reference for a classic story.
Abdul-Mateen II plays Anthony, an emerging artist who finds inspiration, and then obsession, in the story of Lyle and the Candyman. Anthony and his art curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris) live in a gentrified part of Chicago next to Cabrini-Green, the housing project that served as the setting for the first film. As Anthony explores the area, he awakens the sleeping power, beginning a cycle of violence that has terrible consequences for him and Brianna both.
To the movie’s credit, it plays with some clever ideas during its early scenes set in the art world. After calling out the ill effects of gentrification in its opening scene, it demonstrates the same pattern at work, noting how art these days more prominently features Blackness and Black culture simply because of white appetites. Later on, it’s made clear that white desire for Black cultural products is fickle and fleeting, and cannot be relied on. “They love what we make,” one character says, “But they don’t love us.”
Anthony himself contributes to this system. At the start of the film, his art has stagnated. He talks a good game, but his work is suffering because—despite what he claims—he feels no connection to it. He is simply delivering a product he believes his white audience wants. In a word, he’s a poser. It is only later in the film, as he falls deeper into the story of Candyman, that his work improves. It grows drastically more disturbing, but it has passion.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not live up to its promising early chapters. The biggest sin it commits is that, as an ostensible horror movie, it’s surprisingly boring. The thrills just aren’t there. One or two of the kills feature some interesting staging or shot composition, but there is very little tension leading up to them, and there is little creativity in the kills themselves.
The original film took some hits for being a little pretentious, but it still managed to work by scaring its audience. As Roger Ebert said in his review, “What I liked was a horror movie that was scaring me with ideas and gore, instead of simply with gore.” The unfortunate fact about the new Candyman is that it just doesn’t have the scares, and the ideas it does have are too thin to make up for that.
For those who want to read on, I will explore these ideas more in a Spoiler Section further down, but in the end, I came away from Candyman 2021 disappointed. There were some clever concepts, decent cinematography, and nice performances from Abdul-Mateen II, Parris, and Nathan Stewart-Jarett (playing Parris’s brother), but it just didn’t come together in the end.
Candyman gets 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Candyman is currently out in theaters everywhere.
So, the end of the movie posits Candyman not as a Slasher but more as a sort of violent Black Avenger. (And I mean that in both the general and Marvel™ sense of the word.) He’s not a villain, but rather a Jungian expression of repressed Black anger and grief over acts of injustice spanning hundreds of years, hence there have been many different Candymen over the generations.
This isn’t a bad idea, in a vacuum, and it fits with what I discussed earlier about taking the first film and bringing it more firmly within the Black perspective.
The problem is more how the film arrives at this point. Anthony’s behavior leading up to him becoming the new Candyman is questionable, to say the least. You can say maybe he’s under a spell but… He just seems to accept it a little too readily. Also, the chase through the row houses was ridiculous, as was Anthony’s physical deterioration throughout the movie—I kept silently shouting “Go to the doctor!”
However, the real issue is more that the central idea of the film comes across with all the subtlety of a hook to the skull. Subtle, it is not. While it’s admirable that the film shifts the focus of the first movie in order to center on the Black experience, the new one misses no opportunity to push its conceit, whether it be naming its female protagonist Brianna—presumably in honor of Breonna Taylor—or making the catchphrase of Anthony’s Candyman project “Say his name.”
Most of all, this take on Candyman’s role and purpose retroactively causes one to reflect on his choice of targets—It comes with the suggestion that his victims all had it coming; that they all deserved what they got. I can see it with the dirty cops. The movie makes its case about the parasitic nature of the art community, too, so fair enough. I’m not as sold on the group of teen girls massacred in their high school bathroom. They’re briefly mean to a fellow student of color, sure, but I’m not convinced their behavior called for such a Carrie-level reckoning.
Then again, there are Black victims of the Candyman, as well, so perhaps that is just connecting too many dots. The issue, really, is less that the morality of the film is questionable, and more that it is heavy-handed. Candyman is the rare instance where I wish a film had slowed down and taken its time a bit more, and allowed the building of atmosphere, while at the same time creating space to let the movie’s message come across with a touch more subtlety.
*All credit to Brian for the tagline.