There’s something wholly unique about the horror genre. It is often maligned for the genre’s grotesqueness, yet just as often undervalued for what it can say about society and the human psyche. Very few sub-genres can rival its rich history of metaphor mixed with visceral provocation. So when it was announced that producer Jordan Peele, and director Nia DaCosta, were reviving the film icon Candyman for a new era, it represented an opportunity for these visionary filmmakers to say something prescient about how race relations have changed in America, and what (if any) progress has been enacted. The original film, released in 1992, was a terrifying ghost story that aimed to encapsulate the misguided damage that housing projects inflicted on Black communities in the 20th century. DaCosta’s film, armed with an additional 30 years of knowledge about the tendencies of systemic racism, has molded a tale that condemns gentrification, police brutality, and capitalism.
The story takes place 30 years after the events of the original, as we’re thrust back into a Chicago that looks very different than its early 90s counterpart. Gone are the Cabrini-Green housing projects and their crippling poverty, as we’re introduced to down-on-his-luck artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). He lives with, and is financially supported by, his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), as she attempts to use her cache as an art gallery director to aid his career. But Anthony just can’t seem to find the inspiration he needs. Until one day, he hears the story of Helen Lyle, a white woman who was driven mad by the urban legend of Candyman, and in her manic state she terrorized the community of Cabrini-Green.
Except, the story is a lie! Helen, as seen in the original film, discovered that the legend of Candyman was real, as he is who really haunted the community. Anthony, ignorant to the truth, latches on to the story, and his investigation of Chicago’s deep-seeded history of racism fuels his art as he attempts to become a local star. But his dive into history inadvertently re-awakens the spirit of Candyman. What transpires next is essentially the act of 2 different movies smashing together – there’s the movie Candyman promises to be, the movie it wants to be, and the realization that the final project fulfills neither ambition. But more on that later.
Once Candyman returns, he begins a rampage against several victims, many of whom have this in common – they are white and they seem to believe Anthony is a fraud that hasn’t earned his stripes in his career. As the bodies pile up, the media ties the deaths to Anthony’s newest exhibit – a mirror that entices the viewer to say Candyman’s name 5 times, thus summoning his presence. The attention strokes Anthony’s burgeoning ego, as he callously ignores the deaths of his former frenemies, much to the dismay of his horrified family.
What’s striking about Candyman is the gamut of emotions that it causes the viewer to feel, both good and bad. Starting from a visual perspective, DaCosta’s film is emboldened with a watercolor-esque palette that is apropos for the movie’s depiction of artists, as well as the theme of gentrification and seeing hipster ideals inhabit the space of a “cool” urban aestetic. Thus, the images are at once captivating, homely, and formulaic. Hell, Anthony wears the same worn out wool cap in every scene, either a metaphor for the performative/predictive nature of hipster fashion, or a happy accident. However, the movie’s critique of gentrification is layered if a bit messy.
The movie acknowledges how forgotten ghettos are repurposed as cost-effective havens for cash strapped artists and hipsters, of all races. But, the movie briefly calls out these young adults for using this system for their benefit, including the black characters in the film… before doubling back down on condemning systemic racism as the ultimate culprit for gentrification’s soulless destruction of impoverished black families. What DaCosta is saying isn’t inherently wrong, but raises the question of if the right characters are delivering this message. Anthony and Brianna, while far from rich, live comfortably. Their professions are the beneficiaries of the gentrification the movie critiques. Yet, their characters are the most vocal about how these white-washed neighborhoods impact their community, and Anthony himself is attempting to use this historical knowledge purely for monetary gain, regardless of who is harmed in the process.
But then the movie, inexplicably, abandons Anthony’s arc about a well-meaning individual whose ego leads him down a dark path, into a didactic fable about police brutality. This all comes about when we witness a reveal about a key character that completely alters what this movie is trying to communicate. The original Candyman was about a ghost who terrorized his people because they had forgotten his story. The new film repurposes the entire mythology, to act as a power fantasy that helps protect black communities from racial violence.
This, in concept, is a terrific evolution of the Candyman myth, but falls apart in the execution. We’re bombarded with 3rd act twists and turns that make very little sense from the perspective of the characters. One character in particular dives so far into madness in ways that are perplexing – Candyman is directly responsible for violence enacted on their family, yet they seem to be completely OK with this as their scheme becomes apparent to the audience. In addition, what seems like some grand plan that has been brewing the entire film, is actually just a lucky coincidence as this character could not possibly foresee that the movie’s events would so perfectly dial up the opportunity for their scheme to happen in the first place. This screenplay choice is so baffling, that there’s a version of this film that completely jettisons that character and we’d likely be better for it.
This all makes me wonder if the movie is a victim of the editing process. There has to be scenes on the cutting room floor that provide context to the characters’ motivations as well as their arcs. But I can only react to the movie we have before us, and Candyman is frustrating as hell. It’s a movie that expects us to go right along with its bombastic conclusion, when the proceeding 90 minutes did not adequately build up to that. At it’s heart, this should be a simple story about a young boy growing up to fulfill his destiny, but that tenet is obfuscated by a half dozen other story decisions that don’t need to be in the movie, and are just distracting. By the movie’s end, a character pleads with one of our protagonists, and the audience, to “Tell Everyone!” I would love to, but this is going to be one convoluted yarn to pass on.