Candyman ★★½

Bernard Rose’s original Candyman film from 1992, influenced by the ilk of macabre psychological neo-noirs following the success of The Silence of the Lambs, set itself apart from other horror slashers through its intimate psychological exploration of its protagonist and depiction of an American slum. Candyman has survived as a cult classic due to its surrealist narrative, quotable dialogue (including classic lines like “Be my victim” or “What is blood for, if not for shedding?”,) and the titular bogeyman himself. As an antagonist, Candyman is one of the more peculiar tenets of mainstream horror: a rotting corpse housing a colony of bees beneath a fur coat who wields a hook for a hand and speaks with a deep, booming voice. The original film embraced the absurdity of its concept by conjuring a fable-esque story set within the Cabrini-Green projects told with a level of operatic melodrama. Tony Todd’s career-defining turn as Candyman and Philip Glass’ incomparable score have cemented the original as nascent exploration of social issues using horror, or at least as an over-stylized, tongue-in-cheek midnight feature. All this bears note, since Nia DaCosta’s direct sequel borrows heavily from the original, yet marks a significant stylistic departure from it.

While Candyman is only DaCosta’s second directorial feature, following her 2018 mumblecore drama Little Woods, Jordan Peele’s creative force backs the film, where he is credited as both a co-writer and producer. In a sense, Peele is to this film what Clive Barker was to the original, where his name is a selling point and provides an apt indicator of the aesthetic direction. The story is set in the same area of Chicago, where gentrified, upscale apartments now fill the space of the former blocks of Cabrini-Green. The plot follows a couple of artists, Anthony and Brianna (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris), as they showcase new collections of their original work for public and critical scrutiny. Anthony, whose artwork deals with the oppression of African-Americans, becomes intrigued by the history of Cabrini-Green as an inspiration for his next showcase. His exploration sets him on a course towards finding the truth behind the myth of Candyman, whose legend still haunts the area. Stylized puppetry sequences, in which cutouts cast shadows to reenact significant events, refresh viewers on the plot of the first film. Despite being a sequel, these puppetry scenes make this new entry incredibly accessible to newcomers and adopt the themes of oral storytelling and regional folklore from the first film. 

Though the film echoes themes and messages of Peele’s past work, it takes just as much inspiration from other recent films such as another Universal Studios remake, The Invisible Man, from last year. Certain elements of psychological horror, and much of the imagery of the original, are retained in DaCosta’s film, while additional layers of suspense are contributed by the exploration of various social tensions. Several pivotal scenes downplay the threat of the Candyman himself and emphasize instead the inherent suspense of various realistic interactions like those between Black characters and police officers or artists and cynical critics. Appropriately, the script fixates on the troubling history of the Cabrini-Green area, whose residents were severely neglected by the city before the projects were demolished and replaced with upscale apartments in the late 90s. The film’s commentary on gentrification as a means of controlling historical narratives and burying past events adds a sharp message that justifies revisiting the Candyman storyline after thirty years.

Several “scare” sequences, particularly one scene in an elevator, play out similarly to the cinematics that accompany a Universal theme park ride (the idea of a Candyman-themed attraction actually sounds quite fun). Though exciting to view in a theater, these scenes can sometimes feel inconsequential to the main plot. Several scenes of this nature, and a premature final act reveal, cause the film to suffer from uneven pacing. 

The camerawork and set decoration are sleek and befitting of the high-brow art scene depicted throughout. The phenomenal opening credits sequence features iconic buildings in the Chicago skyline surrounded by fog, where the images are rotated 180 degrees so that they appear to be descending from the top of the screen into a murky smog. The score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, while not reaching the same heights as Philip Glass’ accompaniment, recalls some leitmotifs from the original film and stands apart in its own right. The opening theme is particularly unsettling in its use of strings and ominous choirs in a fairly memorable arrangement.

Despite the merits of the film’s message, horror fans will likely come to this movie for the gore and walk away satisfied. The grisly practical effects and brutal death scenes forgive several of the narrative shortcomings. Candyman favors a hybrid body horror/slasher style over the original’s more psychological neo-noir tone. While this style might suggest a skin-deep cultural critique, DaCosta’s film has a much clearer commentary on race relations and economic oppression than its predecessor. Unfortunately, despite this more intent thematic focus, I came away with an unclear sense about the character Candyman’s role as a villain. Some viewers may see this ambiguity as proof of a complex character, though I felt that the film did not offer enough thematic justification to support its relatively sympathetic portrayal of the classic bogeyman. 

DaCosta’s grotesque revisitation to Cabrini-Green will likely sate fans of producer Jordan Peele’s recent output, while those expecting a repeat of the thirty year-old original may leave disappointed. One claim I make with certainty is that this is the best of the Candyman sequels, one which adequately modernizes the story and style to entertain and speak to an audience in the era of BLM advocacy, even when the narrative structure is not all there.

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