REVIEW: Candyman (2021)

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in Nia DaCosta’s CANDYMAN (2021) — Photo: Universal Pictures.

Directed by Nia DaCosta — Screenplay by Nia DaCosta, Win Rosenfeld, & Jordan Peele (Get Out; Us).

Horror remakes, reimaginings, or sequels decades after a popular antagonist’s inception are inevitable. This movie studio trend was especially prevalent in the 2010s, when it was emphasized just how profitable decent-to-good horror films can be. One of the more stylized attempts was Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, while one of the more disappointing attempts was Kölsch & Widmyer’s Pet Sematary remake. Horror remakes are a dime a dozen these days, but the current horror movie trend is the legacyquel — a portmanteau of legacy and sequel — which is a continuation of a previous film but one that takes place a long time after the events of the original film and often with entirely new characters. Another trend is that of ignoring some films in the franchise, for the purpose of taking the franchise in another direction. Such is the case with a legacyquel like David Gordon Green’s Halloween. Another legacyquel that ignores certain chapters in its own cinematic mythology, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, which really ought to have a different title for simplicity’s sake, follows many horror movie trends, but perhaps most notably those kickstarted by her producer and co-writer Jordan Peele.

Jordan Peele’s first two feature films as a director — Get Out and Us — have ushered in an era in which film studios often opt to make horror films that put an emphasis on politics and race. These projects don’t always work as well as Peele’s excellent first two directorial efforts did though, and, indeed, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is one of those films that, even in spite of Peele’s involvement as a producer and co-writer, doesn’t manage to succeed both as a socially conscious film and a genuinely unnerving film at the same time. Though stylish in moments, her legacyquel never got under my skin, and I feel like the film mostly relies on the extent to which it understands and engages in conversation about racial politics, injustice, and police violence. It must be said, however, that the Candyman-franchise is inherently politically engaged, and Bernard Rose’s 1992 film of the same name (which itself was inspired by a Clive Barker story), to which DaCosta’s film is a direct sequel (thus erasing its two other sequels), also worked with similar themes (gentrification, cultural appropriation, and racial politics), though they were much more subtly expressed. Bernard Rose found the balance between the social commentary and horror, but, unfortunately, I’m not sure DaCosta’s sequel, which was one of my most anticipated films of the year, does.

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman takes place several decades after the events of Bernard Rose’s 1992 film of the same name, and it follows Anthony McCoy (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a visual artist who is particularly concerned with Black trauma, and his partner Brianna Cartwright (played by Teyonah Parris), a talented art gallery director. After having been introduced to the horrific modern retelling of Helen Lyle (originally played by Virginia Madsen) and the events of the 1992 film, Anthony becomes obsessed with it, and he soon discovers the seemingly almost forgotten urban legend about ‘the candyman’ (one of the film’s more interesting lines of dialogue states that several incidents involving violence inflicted upon Black bodies may be forgotten, but that the culture will not allow anyone to forget ‘white pain’). But Anthony’s connection to the dangerous urban legend involving the vengeful spirit, who himself was a victim of racist violence, is stronger than he is initially aware of, and soon the legend begins to take over his life and his body, as Anthony starts challenging everyone around him and his art to ‘say his name.’

I think there is a good chance that my review will read as being very critical of the film, but I also want to make it clear that Nia DaCosta’s film is only disappointing because of the potential that the project clearly had, as well as its lofty ambitions. While I can’t say that I am a huge fan of this film, I greatly appreciate horror films that opt to approach and deal with the franchise’s underlying themes, which this film certainly does. Thankfully, this film never feels like a cheaply made horror continuation, and that is, in part, thanks to the strong sound design, which the film relies heavily on, as well as the inventive ways in which the film likens police brutality to the brutal acts of a vengeful spirit (one character describes a group of police officers as a ‘swarm,’ and they, like the titular character, are mostly seen as shadows or via reflections). It may not be subtle, but it is, at least to some extent, effective in slightly reframing and, certainly, updating the film series for a new generation. I also enjoyed the inventive and sometimes quite creepy shadow-puppet light show flashbacks, even though the film returns to them too often. Does the film excessively harp on about gentrification? Yes. Does the film in general feel repetitive? Also, yes. But I like that it, as a film, has a lot on its mind. It has something to say, even though certain scenes communicate the themes clumsily.

Again, writers Nia DaCosta, Win Rosenfeld, and Jordan Peele certainly understood the importance of the subtext of the original film, but, in updating these underlying themes for a modern interpretation of the original film, DaCosta’s thematical portrait is disappointingly unsubtle and its scares feel toned down. Its otherwise well-articulated themes are somewhat superficially examined, and I was thoroughly disappointed by the complete lack of the unsettling atmosphere that helped to make the original film memorable. I don’t think the film is ever as grimy, brutal, or captivating as the original film was. It should also be said that the titular villain is not as transfixing or spellbinding as he has been previously, in part due to the fact that we rarely see the original villain up close. To put it bluntly, the film suffers from a distinct lack of the uneasy and perhaps even chilling charm that Tony Todd, who is mostly absent from this sequel, exuded in the original film.

Without Tony Todd’s unique approach to the character, there was a lot of added weight and pressure on the shoulders of not only DaCosta but also her cast. DaCosta’s approach to the slasher genre is interesting. She seems to have been very inspired by The Invisible Man, since much of the actual violence happens either just off-screen or is being done by someone only visible via reflections or shadows in the background. This leads to some inspired slasher sequences, including one where the camera backs away from the scene of the violence while the titular character is taking someone out. It is a very eerie shot, but it is the only ‘death scene’ in this slasher sequel that is at all memorable. Again, I think the spellbinding and unnerving atmosphere of the original film is absent here, and I think it would’ve helped to actually see the titular character more. Michael Hargrove mostly plays the titular character here, and, while it must be said that his character’s sad story is delivered quite well, he never comes close to capturing what Tony Todd had. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who I quite like, is similarly muted, and it is difficult to really understand his character’s headspace in the film, since he outright becomes overly giddy with excitement over the urban legend at one point. In general, many of the characters feel thinly written, with Colman Domingo’s character perhaps being the most interesting of the bunch, but, on the other hand, I think that his character’s motivation is unclear.

The film almost succeeds in reimagining and reframing the titular character as a vengeful spirit out for justice (which its revenge-fantasy ending emhasizes), but, on the other hand, it undercuts that reframing by also bafflingly including a flashback that reminds us that the titular spirit doesn’t care who he takes out. By the way, it’s also quite strange that Anthony is not questioned by the authorities once bodies start to drop right next to his art — or right next to the title of his art having been written on a wall. The film, at some points, seems to forget the weight of being the person who finds the victims, which was a serious plot-point in the original film. We know who the authorities are going to blame, but the film stops just short of pointing that out in scenes such as the one where several white teenage girls say his name into a mirror, while a young woman of color finds herself stuck in a bathroom stall screaming her lungs out. It’s not much more than a throwaway sequence meant to further call attention to the spread of the urban legend, and that is disappointing precisely because the film seems to forget about the survivors — except for one or two. What will happen to that young girl now? Why isn’t Anthony the prime suspect? The film doesn’t ever really say.

Thanks to the touches of style and the focus on the underlying themes from the first film, I do believe Nia DaCosta’s film is the best sequel that has been made to the original 1992 Bernard Rose film. However, I just think that Nia DaCosta’s Candyman also feels like a film that has a lot of untapped potential. To focus on racial politics and police violence was always the right choice since that approach feels so true to the original film, I just think that this legacyquel is a bit too unsubtle and, unfortunately, the extent to which it puts its subtext front and center appears to have made the uneasy atmosphere of the original film fall by the wayside in the process. It is a socially-conscious film and it probably has its heart in the right place, but the execution does not live up to its own lofty ambitions (Like Roger Ebert stated: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”). When it comes to the actual scares in the film, it is surprisingly subdued for a modern horror film and that may leave audiences disappointed. A mixed bag, Nia DaCosta’s film is therefore ultimately merely a passable continuation of the film series, but what hurts is that it clearly could’ve been something more.

6.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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