Be my victim. For the many who’ve seen it over the years, 1992’s Candyman remains an unforgettable, almost unforgivably effective grievance: a film whose terrors are sticky, dense, pleasurably warying, and uncomfortable; whose politics feel knowing and rife with intention, just this side of didactic, yet poisoned at the root by a premise that seemed, always, at risk of slipping somewhat beyond the film’s grasp. And yet that uncertainty remains one of its primary thrills, like watching a train careen toward a fork in the tracks with too much speed, too much force for cataclysm not to feel imminent.
The story, you may remember. A curious white graduate student (Virginia Madsen) with an interest in urban legends (pun inescapably intended) wends her way into a corridor of Black American despair by way of Chicago’s ill-fated Cabrini-Green projects, which were once home to 15,000 residents and were, over the years, immortalized in popular culture by the giddy, hard-won vibes of the sitcom Good Times and, more urgently, by Cabrini’s firm foothold, in the public imagination, as a totem of everything wrong with public housing — a conversation that might have morphed into real public concern for the lives at stake in that place, in a city whose yawning history of errors toward race and housing have long been documented, but which instead became the terrain of political jockeying, the kind of bandying-about of blame (toward public-housing efforts, toward working-class Black people) that often left those lives forgotten. In wanders this young, book-smart blonde, with her intentions to understand (she is not a student of anthropology; nevertheless, she bears the stench of one) and her vulnerability to her own curiosity, her compulsion to dig where perhaps she oughtn’t.
What does she find? The Candyman, of course: the American stain manifest. A villain played so memorably, so daringly, by the actor Tony Todd that this hook-handed villain, a monster lurking, literally, within the walls of those Cabrini-Green towers, would emerge more memorable for the things he said, the ways he was, than for the particulars of the murders committed. The movie sets him up, first, like an old-fashioned urban legend, a Bloody Mary-esque dare — Say his name — that would bear the fruit of murder. But there’s that other subtext, too — Sweets for the sweet. The man who above, candies in tow, seemed prone to luring children; that other kind of predator, the kind whose crimes a community reduces to whispers, silently making its way around the unspeakable as if he were a rock in the stream of their lives, better avoided than acknowledged. The terror of the man was that he was so many things at once — and that they all leant themselves to damning silence.
Probably the least surprising thing about Nia DaCosta’s new Candyman is that it avails itself, not only of the legacy of its cinematic predecessor, but of the fate of Cabrini-Green in the interim, the efforts at so-called renewal that instead fell prey to de rigeur urban gentrification. The new Candyman is aware of that failure. It’s also aware that the upwardly mobile Black professional class is not blameless in sustaining it — and that the artists among that class are in a peculiar, double-edged position, trapped in the crosshairs of a predominately white art world that exploits the raw material of their lives while subject, for mobility’s sake, to participating in their own exploitation.
So it goes in — and perhaps in the making of — DaCosta’s film, which stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris as Anthony and Brianna, a gorgeous, well-off, art-world couple living in a condo built on the ashes of what used to be Cabrini-Green. He’s an ambitious artist in a creative rut; she’s a promising gallery director. And they were doing just fine until her brother (played Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) tried to scare them with the story of the Candyman — who isn’t real, of course, who’s just a rumor. Until he isn’t. From there begin terrors, which, in this iteration, co-written by DaCosta with producer Jordan Peele, takes the seed of one of the original movie’s social provocations — the Candyman as communal myth, an explanation for why Cabrini’s residents are so terrorized by the everyday that can also, when the cops show up, become the invisible scapegoat that leaves the actual residents blameless — and embeds it in a set of new, contemporary questions, about Black artists and the economy of white interest, about the egotism of class mobility, about police violence as we, especially over the past year and change, are prone to understanding it today.
Which is to say: The movie’s got a lot going on. Too much, maybe, not least because its 1992 predecessor — which was based on a story by Clive Barker — was already tangled and overstuffed, attractive and repulsive, with ideas ricocheting from scene to scene that can, to this day, lure you in even as you want to hold the film at arm’s length. That movie, it’s worth remembering, used the power of Tony Todd’s singular, cutting figure, towering within the frame, delectably daring, to render the Candyman into not only an effective movie monster — for my money, one of the most disconcertingly charismatic and tempting since Bela Lugosi’s Dracula — but a symbol. Here was the afterlife of an aggravated racial history, a relic of the era of slavery, so uncanny that his mere presence in the present seemed to rip the stitches of a smoothed over, Franken-skinned history. Here was a racialized villain more terrifying for traversing the boundaries of his supposed place in the projects, popping up in white enclaves — outright summoned — as if to say that the problem of Black poverty could hardly be contained to the projects; here he was, luring a white woman into his coven of fear, tapping into that violent history, forcing us all to recognize how cogent and uncomfortable those optics were in the present. The question of whether that movie fully knew what to make of those optics is key to its discomfort.
Also key was its signature visual device, again the stuff of urban legend, but also, obviously, a ready-made social symbol: a mirror. Where do you go from there? What’s initially interesting about DaCosta’s movie is that its hero, Anthony, is a little hard to like, and that the franchise’s signature mirror, for this particular man, is both an opportunity — take a good, hard look at yourself, guy — and a curse. Anthony is complicated: a little full of himself, a little too willing to cop to the wrong demands. He’s an artist whose output has stalled somewhat, who isn’t making good on what white gallery owners see as his potential, until he effectively sells out and gives them what they want: a tour of Black pain, art about “race” — a taste of Cabrini-Green. At base, the film focuses on what begins to happen to Anthony after a visit to the old grounds Cabrini-Green results, partially, in some discoveries, but most notably in a bee sting which — Spiderman-style — begins to morph him into something he would rather not be. Or, perhaps, to expose what he doesn’t yet know that he already is.
The new Candyman is absolutely aware of the ironies tucked into the linen of its premise, but it doesn’t quite make good on the full satirical potential of what’s at stake, even as it nudges its way there in its deliberately sterile, nearly goofy portrait of the white art world, white critics, white consumption, and Anthony’s willingness to play along. Anthony, having gone digging into the history of Cabrini after hearing about the Candyman, makes an installation called “Say His Name,” in which he dares his audience to do precisely this, into a panel of mirrors, behind which lies a cavern of haunts and images and, well, the promise of a bloody payoff.
Anthony doesn’t know, at first, about that last part — it’s just a story, he’s trying to highlight the history of injustice, yadda-yadda. Suffice it to say, he grows hip to the consequences. And DaCosta’s Candyman, at its most conceptually (if not dramatically) intriguing, finds ways to tie those consequences to Anthony’s identity as an artist. There is a price to be paid for the ease with which Anthony exploits Black trauma in his art, and it plays out in so many ways, but most garishly in the transformations that begin to overtake Anthony himself.
The most memorable scenes of DaCosta’s Candyman are the moments of actual, graphic, repulsive horror — the skin-peeling, rotting, dead-yet-alive uncanniness, the gross-out gore, the willingness to mix a conceptual vision with a powerful reliance on the basics: mirrors, negative space in the frame, the essentials of run-of-the-mill human dread. Unfortunately for many of us, the bees — those goddamned bees — are back, and their body horror theatrics are further heightened here, mostly to promising effect. As if taking its cues from The Fly, Anthony’s bite becomes a more vibrant, viscous, tortured sort of wound, and begins to spread, a change to the body that’s reflected in the changes in Anthony’s mind.
What’s scary in Candyman is the stuff that makes any good horror movie scary: simply put, the basics. But Candyman is too aware of the legacy of its predecessor’s premise. In trying to wrestle with that premise, the movie falls right into its own traps where the original toed a curious line; it overreaches, most prominently for relevance, to the point of raising questions about whether the movie understands its own, initially provocative, questions. It sets up quite a rabbit hole for Anthony to leap into, one that leads to flickers of insight — among them, the idea that violence against Black people, such as that which created the Candyman in the first place, can hardly be limited to one man, one spectacular incident of violence.
But the movie persists to get in its own way with each new layer of fabricated revelation. Rough backstories, by way of flashbacks and strained connections, crop up without much satisfaction. Historical echoes grow dimmer with each reverberation. Candyman wants to update its predecessor by moving us back into the realm of Black lives contra the original film’s dependence on white fear. But that wisdom keeps meeting its match in hamfisted plays for relevance, immediacy — flaws that have a ring of familiarity, not to DaCosta’s work, in light of which Candyman plays like a promising step forward, a new bag of tricks from a filmmaker whose talent is well worth keeping an eye on. The movie’s most mitigating flaws instead feel in line with the work of its producer, Jordan Peele, whose Get Out has led to a veritable subgenre of Black-centered horror which, as epitomized by Peele’s own productions, particularly Twilight Zone and Lovecraft Country, has reached a point of diminishing returns, whittling the basic, satisfying schtick of his work down to the bone. Get Out was cleverly marketed as a “social thriller,” knowingly putting itself in conversation with horror movies of the 1992 Candyman’s stripe, movies like Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, which tempered the usual jumpy thrills with a dose of satire. Those influences weren’t unique for mixing horror with the social dilemmas of their time — horror’s entire bag has, for quite some time, been in its ability to move what society relegates to the shadow’s right into the spotlight, making the dreadful, the unspeakable, unignorable.
To capitalize on this tradition with a sense of novelty is already somewhat suspect. But it’s also what has made Peele’s canon the phenomenon that it is. Get Out’s success guaranteed reiteration. And DaCosta’s Candyman, which feels strongest when it feels most hers, is a movie at odds with itself, accordingly, a clash between a solid horror spectacle with some social-dilemma strings attached, on the one hand, and a try-hard grab for too much, on the other. If your response to the phrase “Say my name” is to notice how uncomfortably close it is to the activist slogans of recent memory, the public outcries over police violence against Black people, you’re not alone: The movie is — damningly, to purposes that ultimately undo the movie with a muddle of symbols and an abandonment of coherence — one step ahead of you.
Candyman is more of a mixed bag than a failure, but what’s disappointing isn’t the fact of its ambition: It’s the outcome. Scenes overstuffed with ideas compete for screen time with the moments in which it seems to remember, all of a sudden, that it’s a horror movie. A standout example is a school-bathroom slaughter late in the movie, involving utter non-characters, that amounts to a whole bunch of nothing, just a bit of gore on the way to the next thing. By this point it’s already clear that the film could not possibly resolve itself in a way that makes its ideas as forceful as they’re straining to be. Yet nor can it be denied that the movie goes for broke in its final scenes, anyway, rightly aware that making sense scene by scene may matter less, when you’re already in too deep, than driving home the prevailing point.
But the point becomes something of an unfortunate movie target. And the movie falls apart when the questions on its mind come into dire conflict with its own methods of representation — a police shootout late in the film being a case in point. The Candyman of 2021 — which has an extended cast that includes new faces to the franchise, like the great Colman Domingo, as well as a few returning faces, like Vanessa E. Williams — takes its jumble of ideas, from the art world agita to the Pet Semetary vibe of its gentrification themes, to the pure and simple fact of Anthony’s ego, and pulls at the thread… and keeps pulling… until what emerges largely amounts to something of a mess. What the movie’s effortful attempts at symbolism and meaning do most effectively are undercut what’s smart about the questions it raises — and DaCosta’s fine hand at creeping us out. The movie wants to be more than it is. The result is that it winds up amounting to less than it could have been.