2021, R, 91 min. Directed by Nia DaCosta. Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Tony Todd, Vanessa Estelle Williams.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 27, 2021
It’s always intriguing to remember that Candyman, arguably the first great Black American horror monster, was originally neither Black nor American. Clive Barker’s original short story, “The Forbidden,” was set in the dark tenements of Liverpool, four years after the era-defining Toxteth riots marked the last disintegration of the trust between Liverpudlians and the authorities who were supposed to protect them. The residents were abandoned to whatever lurked in the streets and tenements, and Barker – Merseyside born and bred – focused that fear through a Bloody Mary-esque urban legend, the Candyman. It was British filmmaker Bernard Rose who, in 1992’s Candyman, transposed those themes to Chicago, and Tony Todd (the original Candyman) who took that new setting and added in its context of racial injustice.
Nia DaCosta’s sequel, also called simply Candyman, picks up where Rose’s version left off. Inevitably, it moves to new issues that have evolved in the last 30 years, much as has the corner of Chicago once known as Cabrini Green. The former projects have been gentrified, which artist Anthony (Abdul-Mateen) and his partner, Brianna (Parris), like to complain about while at the same time living in an upscale remodeled apartment. It’s Anthony who stirs up the buried memory of Candyman, all in the name of his art. He is, in many ways, the true successor to Virginia Madsen’s academic Helen, who intrudes upon the neighborhood and is swallowed by its legacies. But, as with the original, this Candyman is also about directionless rage. Do any of Candyman’s victims deserve their butchery? Quick answer, no. But does Candyman earn its denouement, a shift into a heavy-handed didacticism that loses much of the complicated nuance of the earlier acts? That’s hard to say, and the final act may be one of the most fiercely debated in horror since the widely misread feel-bad resolution of Midsommar.
The script, by DaCosta, producer Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld (the latter now at work on another classic of 1990s horror by a white director about a Black protagonist, The People Under the Stairs), pulls in a multitude of themes – about the presentation, exploitation, and commodification of violence against Black people in America, about artists as the spear tip of gentrification, of gentrification versus urban renewal – but packs them into a slow-burn supernatural slasher. DaCosta pulls together a series of impressive set pieces, all built around Candyman’s appearance in mirrors, and most especially a grisly bathroom mass murder that manages to be both grotesquely bloody and free of violence.
Yet the golden era of slashers was defined by vicarious, often overblown pleasures, while the mood of Candyman is overwhelmingly dour and gloom-cloaked. No surprise, considering the weightiness of the issues at hand. Yet there are pointed discussions between Anthony and others in the art scene about the relative power of overt depictions of brutality and metaphor, something that somehow eludes this Candyman. At the same time, it opens up the myth, suggesting that Candyman himself is more an expression of the collective unconscious than a ghost with a hook hand, a mutable theme that reflects the world in which the story is set. Maybe that even opens the door to an actual adaptation of “The Forbidden.”