Review: “Candyman” (2021)

Sometime last year, in the early throes of quarantine, I watched the 1992 film “Candyman” for the first time, in preparation for Nia DaCosta’s new take on the story, which was delayed multiple times from its original June 2020 release date due to the pandemic. I pressed play sometime after midnight, which was a mistake—something about the combination of the film’s haunting visuals and Tony Todd’s sinister portrayal of the titular character put me immediately on edge. I stopped the film after about 20 minutes and started it again the next morning. It still felt just as scary.

I wish that I could say the same about DaCosta’s “Candyman,” which is the fourth film in the series but serves more as a sequel to the original movie. Having said that, you could likely still watch the new “Candyman” without having seen the first one and still follow it, because goodness knows this movie spends a lot of its scant 91 minute runtime recapping the legend of Candyman. That’s just one of several ways in which “Candyman,” despite its obvious attempts at being progressive, updating the story for the current climate, and righting some of the contradictions that were prevalent in the original film, feels stuck in the past.

“Candyman” is set in Chicago, where artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his art gallery director girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) have recently moved into a luxury apartment building in the now-gentrified Cabrini neighborhood. Anthony, who has built his career up to now painting images of Black suffering that he only seems shallowly connected to, is searching for new inspiration when Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) visits and tells the couple the story of Helen Lyle, a white woman who, in the early 1990s, seemingly went insane after starting to investigate the Cabrini-Green projects, culminating in her death in a bonfire. Anthony gets the other piece of the story from longtime Cabrini resident William Burke (Colman Domingo), who tells him that it was believed Helen was looking for Candyman, a hook-handed Black man who appears whenever someone says his name five times in front of a mirror—and then kills them.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in “Candyman”

Anthony is inspired by this story, and starts developing a series pieces around it. While exploring the remnants of Cabrini-Green, he is stung by a bee, his injury becoming increasingly pronounced as the film progresses. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic, his paintings deviating from the cleaner style we see at the start of the film and becoming something messy and horrifying. And people start dying in brutal slayings after invoking Candyman’s name.

“Candyman” is the rare film that likely might have benefited from a longer runtime, allowing for more of the characters and situations to be fleshed out. As heavily as the film references the events of the 1992 movie, it fails to take advantage of its location, frequently referring to the gentrification of the Cabrini neighborhood without really showing it. Sure, we get a few scenes shot in the actual location, around the original 1942 row houses that are almost all that remains of the failed housing project, but those who aren’t familiar with the original film or Chicago or history are going to be missing a lot of information. The public housing project became a symbol of the problems associated with public housing in the U.S. after neglect led to crime led to poor living conditions; the majority of the residents of Cabrini-Green by the early 1960s were Black. The area has since been redeveloped, with upscale high-rises replacing the original mid-and-high-rises that were all demolished by 2011, the remaining row houses being dilapidated and largely abandoned. The bulk of the original “Candyman” was set there, and even though it may not have been exclusively filmed on location, the film retains a distinct sense of place and a beautifully haunting and grotesque aesthetic. The new film feels mostly detached from Cabrini, taking place mostly in the apartment or ritzy galleries and restaurants where Anthony and Brianna circulate, and contains few visually interesting moments. Maybe this is appropriate, since those are the places this Candyman’s victims inhabit (more on that in a minute), but it also feels like the film doesn’t take advantage of its location the way it should– especially a location as varied and fascinating as Chicago.

There are also several intriguing threads that “Candyman” drops but doesn’t properly integrate into the story. Chief among them is the backstory suggested for Brianna, for whom the trauma associated with the new Candyman murders recalls her own traumatic past. But these revelations have no bearing on the events of the film. Anthony’s family has some past secrets of their own, with Vanessa Estelle Williams appearing briefly as his mother and reprising her role from the original movie. It may have been interesting to place Williams’ character in a more central role, but the connections the film tries to make between this one and its predecessor through Anthony feel a bit forced. William’s backstory also isn’t explored enough to make his character have much of an impact, even though he is arguably the most intriguing, and the most tragic. One of the most genuinely painful moments in the film comes early, when William is first recounting the story of Candyman to Anthony. In a flashback, we see William as a child (played by Rodney L. Jones III), the residents in his Cabrini neighborhood living in obvious apprehension under white police patrols, out looking for a man accused of putting razor blades in a white girl’s candy. William inadvertently leads the police to a man who is actually innocent of the crime, and the pain and fear on both of their faces as they hear the police come ever closer is perhaps the scariest moment in the entire film.

Many of the performances are also lacking, although I have to imagine this is at least partially due to a script (which DaCosta penned along with producer Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfield) that doesn’t give the actors the best material to work with—because I know that Domingo and Abdul-Mateen have got the goods. Anthony goes through quite the transformation over the course of this film, but he’s never given the opportunity to really come into the role.

Teyonah Parris as Brianna in “Candyman”

The character of Candyman also undergoes quite the transformation in this iteration. The Candyman that Todd plays is Daniel Robitaille, a Black man alive in the 19th century who fell in love with a white woman, and was subsequently killed by a white mob, who cut off his hand, smothered him with honey, and set a swarm of bees upon him. But in this movie, Candyman is embodied by many Black men who have been victims of white violence over the years. One of the inconsistencies that existed in the 1992 film is the fact that Candyman preyed on the Black people of Cabrini-Green; there’s no logic behind that within the film, outside of the fact that the movie (directed by Bernard Rose, based on the story by Clive Barker) was made by white people. In DaCosta’s “Candyman,” the titular character is less a vengeful spirit to be feared, and more an avenging hero, one who kills the white people who summon him out of boredom or curiosity, but spares the Black people. It’s an intriguing reimagining of the character, but it comes too little too late in this film, the ending of which feels like it could be setting up a potential sequel. The body horror is abundant, both in Anthony’s physical transformation and the gruesome murders, but the kills lack chills. So many of them, like the undercooked character details, feel thrown in at odd intervals. They are all connected to Anthony’s artwork through which he manifests his obsession with Candyman in some way, but the film fails to draw any real meaning out of these connections. It’s great to see Todd back as Candyman, and his hulking physical presence is as intimidating as ever, but he’s given very little to do.

Police brutality, gentrification, racism, the commodification of Black trauma—all of these are extremely relevant topics that “Candyman” plays with, but doesn’t really explore with any depth, opting instead for bluntness with lines like “White people built the ghetto then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto,” which I can only imagine were designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. It’s neither scary nor insightful. The most unique and interesting parts of the movie are actually the ones told through shadow puppet animation; this is largely used for the flashback scenes recounting the legends of Helen Lyle and the Candyman. The animation is gorgeously creepy, but it’s interspersed at odd moments throughout the film, coming across as a lovely thing that’s really out of place here. I know DaCosta is a talented filmmaker—her debut feature “Little Woods” is fantastic, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does with “The Marvels.” Maybe this is partly an issue with studio interference and existing IP getting in the way of a filmmaker’s vision, and a relatively new filmmaker at that. I don’t know. I just know that while both movies are flawed, the original “Candyman” resonated with me on so many levels. The new “Candyman” is too slight and unsubtle (not to mention not tense or scary) to be anything short of a massive disappointment.

Runtime: 91 minutes. Rated R.

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