Film Review – Candyman (2021)
Candyman (2021) attempts to be both a direct sequel and course correction of the 1992 film, directed by Bernard Rose (based on Clive Barker’s short story). The first iteration had plenty of slick horror while establishing one of the genre’s long-lasting villains in Tony Todd’s bee infested, hook wielding killer. While it did try to have a social conscious – depicting the economic and racial divide of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood – the film was problematic in that events were experienced through the eyes of a white protagonist (Virginia Madsen). White people being educated on race through black suffering has been a long running issue throughout cinema, and this newest installment looked to address some of that.
However, by reconfiguring the urban legend of Candyman, director Nia DaCosta (who cowrites with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld) creates a few new problems. We are brought to speed in the present, where Cabirini-Green has been gentrified with fancy condos and towering high rises. The community and culture of the past has been stripped away, as one character describes, “White people built the ghetto and then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto.” Within this renovated area is Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a black artist who just moved in with his art curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris).
Despite living in a swanky apartment, Anthony is in search of creative inspiration. He finds it when Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) tells them the story of Helen Lyle – Madsen’s character from the first film. This opens the door for Anthony to discover the Candyman myth. Unwisely, he travels down to the closed off slums Candyman frequented, taking pictures and speaking with an older man, William (Colman Domingo) who supposedly had a run in with him as a youth. The further Anthony’s investigation goes, the deeper the danger becomes. Soon, Anthony realizes that his search for Candyman may have put him in a trap he cannot escape.
The narrative restructures Candyman from a monster that kills anyone who calls his name to a symbol of America’s racist past. His background is expanded so that he becomes the culmination of the anger and tragedy of racial injustice. The film’s tagline, “Say His Name,” is a not too subtle reference to victims of racism and police brutality. However, by doing this, the writing and direction become set with contradictions that are never fully solved. If Candyman is a symbol of racial hate and discrimination, then why is he only known throughout the slums of Cabirini-Green? His legacy lives on through the black community, yet white people know nothing about him and call out his name with morbid curiosity. A flashback sequence shows him terrorizing a young black woman, but why? Shouldn’t he go after those that caused him harm?
These contradictions also continue with Anthony. In the first film, Helen traveled to Cabrini-Green to gather information to write a graduate thesis. She was exploiting the neighborhood for her own gain. It’s strange that Anthony, who seemingly understands the implications of gentrification and cultural exploitation, would do the exact same thing – but instead of writing a paper he was doing it for his art. The narrative attempts to sidestep this by saying that Anthony also grew up in a tough part of Chicago. The problem is that Anthony wants to get his pieces featured in the gallery of a white art dealer (Brian King). He even goes so far as to try to convince a white art critic (Rebecca Spence) over the validity of his work.
Are the seller and critic meant to be satirical? Are they supposed to represent black achievement always being underplayed by the white majority? Perhaps, but the execution is so uneven that the messaging becomes unclear. The debate the film provokes will likely be more engaging than how it goes about handling its themes. The writing doesn’t solidify its ideas well enough to feel cohesive. Too bad, because in terms of tone and atmosphere, DaCosta has done something remarkable here. The nuts and bolts of the visual design create a palatable sense of dread. As an exercise in generating chills, Candyman flies.
DaCosta’s direction – along with John Guleserian’s cinematography and Catrin Hedström’s editing – makes excellent use of space during scare scenes. Mirrors and glass are utilized, with Candyman peering out from the corners of the screen or far in the background. There are sequences in which his appearance is so well placed that we aren’t sure if we saw him or if his presence was merely suggested. DaCosta doesn’t simply rely on jump scares, but by creating uneasy tension. From the opening, the visuals are twisted to knock us off balance. The Universal and MGM logos are backwards, and the opening credit sequence has the foggy Chicago skyline turned upside down so that skyscrapers disappear down into the fog.
The best bit of creative invention comes in the storytelling scenes, depicted through paper cutouts projected through light and shadow. Stories are translated using this technique, which turn the scenes into a kind of macabre puppet show. It calls to mind the early animation of Lotte Reiniger, such as The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). That film also used a cutout/light show style. Here, the effect lingers because it forces our imaginations to visualize the events. The production relies on us making the impression of violence more horrific than the actual onscreen representation of it.
There is a lot to like with this latest iteration of Candyman, yet it fumbles its central premise. It clearly has something important to say but has difficulty articulating it, which could be argued as a strength, not a weakness. I would much rather see a film have the ambition to tackle heavy issues than one that shies away from them. If the goal was to get people talking and providing their own perspective over what is meant to be conveyed here, then DaCosta and her team did that.