movie review

Candyman Is a Soulless, Didactic Reimagining

Nia Dacosta and Jordan Peele’s horror sequel gravely misunderstands the allure of the original and has nothing meaningful to say on its own. Photo: Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures

It’s a familiar scenario rippling through history: White people turned on, revved up, and outright libidinal in the face of Black suffering and Black death. In this case, the scenario involves a curator and the nominally alternative assistant he’s sleeping with, who speaks in Joy Division lyrics and clichés. They’re in a slick but tinny art gallery, after hours, somewhere in Chicago’s West Loop, although there is nothing here that would cue you to the midwestern location. She buckles him to her belt. They kiss and grind against each other with sloppy hunger in front of a small mirror as the hushed lighting of the gallery flicks between cherry red, icy blue, and the cool gray of projected images. But it isn’t just any mirror. It’s an art piece by Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) that, when opened, reveals paintings representing in blunt terms police violence and lynchings, in which Black people turn into Black bodies to be filed away.

The mirror is an invitation for horror and transformation, potential all mirrors carry. “Candyman,” she says between kisses, speaking the name of an urban legend, bringing it into reality. She repeats the name, the invocation, this spell, a total of five times. It’s then that a figure can be glimpsed in the corner of the mirror. A hulking Black man with a hook for a hand and features that remain in shadow. With a single stroke, seen only in the glass and not in the flesh, this supernatural figure slits the woman’s throat. “Is this real?” her confused partner heaves as he holds onto her body, blood springing from her jugular in a swift arc. He tries to escape the same fate, at the hand of a killer whose visage ripples across reflective surfaces. There’s slit throats, concussed heads, ripped tendons, and copious amounts of blood in the scene, yet it fails to pierce the skin of the viewer. The timing is off. The gore is too deliberately placed to carry the fury necessary. There is no tension, no artistry, no silken grace nor grimy texture to be found. It’s glossy to the point of being featureless. Like the film it’s housed in, this scene glides over intriguing ideas — the white desire born from witnessing Black suffering — but never grapples with the full weight of them.

It’s hard to parse exactly what went so wrong without knowing details about the production of Candyman, the Nia DaCosta–helmed and Jordan Peele–co-written continuance/reimagining of the 1992 film of the same name. The trailers and marketing held so much promise, the tagline “Say His Name” evoking history and communal fury. (We said “Say her name” about Breonna Taylor before her image appeared on glossy magazine covers, fuel for a capitalist system that betrayed her and her memory.) But as the art-gallery scene demonstrates, this Candyman misunderstands the allure of the original and has nothing meaningful to say about the contemporary ideas it observes with all the scrutiny of someone rushing through a Starbucks order on their way to work. Candyman is the most disappointing film of the year so far, limning not only the artistic failures of the individuals who ushered it to life, but the artistic failures of an entire industry that seeks to commodify Blackness to embolden its bottom line.

The ’92 Candyman, written and directed by Bernard Rose, is an unnerving, sometimes outright frightening masterwork. Based on a story by Clive Barker, who also is responsible for the source material of the Hellraiser films, the film effortlessly blends eroticism with the macabre. While Virginia Madsen plays the lead, an ingratiating, ambitious graduate student Helen Lyle, it’s Tony Todd as the titular villain that proves to be a crucial reason for why the film endures. Yes, its interrogation of Chicago’s history with gentrification remains vital and fascinating. Yes, the kills are well-paced and evocative. Yes, the production design is dense and sensual. But Todd’s magnetic performance beckons and beguiles. His Candyman, while brutal, is also seductive. He doesn’t so much say Helen’s name but purrs it, drawing out vowels and consonants until they have a music of their own. He glides as he walks. His gaze is direct. He isn’t a simple slasher or wisecracking murderer — he’s an emblem of all that America loves to forget: the blood and bodies necessary to keep the lie of the American dream alive.

But there’s also a contradiction to this Candyman. He gets his power from the perpetuation of his legend, which requires fresh kills. Yet why would the vengeful spirit of a Black man — Daniel Robitaille, a painter and son of a slave, who fell in love and got a white woman pregnant, and who was then beaten and tortured, his hand sawn off, slathered in honey, stung by bees, and set on fire, all on the land that would become Chicago’s infamous Cabrini–Green projects — choose to terrorize Black people so viciously? Maybe he’s an equal-opportunity killer, but there’s something about this logic that’s always snagged me. DaCosta, Peele, and their collaborators seemingly sought to iron out this contradiction. 2021’s Candyman is not just the spirit of Todd’s Daniel Robitaille but of an entire legion of Black men killed viciously by white, state violence, who act as vengeful spirits more keen to harm white folks than the Black folks whose land their spirits are now tied to. (The film contradicts its own logic, though, when one of the Candymen kills a dark-skinned Black girl in flashback.) Instead of a suave yet brutalizing sole figure haunting your every moment, these Candymen are nowhere to be seen in the flesh, only in the mirrors used to summon them, perhaps a spiritual echo to Ralph Ellison’s work. Something is lost without a figure like Todd, but the ideas here have merit, if only the artists involved had an inkling for what to do with them.

Anthony McCoy (a surprisingly deadened Abdul-Mateen) is the picture of what has been largely marketed as Black excellence. He lives in the slick high-rises that have replaced Cabrini–Green’s projects with his assimilationist art-curator girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). He’s hungry and desperate for new material. He was once considered the “great Black hope of the Chicago art scene,” which he’d like to remain. When he’s told the legend of Helen Lyle — rendered here in cutouts and shadow play that feel more inventive than anything else in the film, but too haphazardly deployed to fully capture the viewer — by Brianna’s brother, Troy (a grating Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Anthony finds himself tumbling down a dark path. He may be an artist, but his story is clearly mapped onto Helen’s. He moves like her — an interloper and anthropologist picking over the remains of other people’s lives. Although the only actual poor character you hear from in this story rooted in the Cabrini–Green community is William (a jittery, arch Colman Domingo), whose younger self appears in flashbacks at different points of the film.

After getting a bee sting at the site of the Cabrini–Green projects, it isn’t just Anthony’s mind that unravels as he descends further and further into the folklore of Candyman, but his body too. The sting becomes a wound that oozes and crackles, traveling up his arm until he’s covered in stings. If you know the original, it becomes clear long before any “twist” that this film isn’t a reimagining so much as a remixed continuation. Sometimes the film dips into Brianna’s point of view as she grapples with the discovery of bodies at the art gallery, reminding her of the trauma of witnessing her schizophrenic father’s death by suicide (a detail that feels copy-and-pasted from an earlier version of the script rather than fully integrated into this story). But such a scattered approach is hemmed in by Parris herself — a stunning woman but a middling actress that DaCosta fails to shape well. (Parris will be directed by DaCosta again in the behemoth Captain Marvel sequel, The Marvels, which is only the director’s third film.)

Candyman lacks energy and inventiveness. Its screenplay is remarkably didactic, showing that it was intended neither for an audience of diehard horror fans nor Black people. Every intriguing plot point — the Candymen, the Invisible Man ethos — is squandered by pedestrian direction, facile thought, and a craven commodification of Blackness. In trying to reckon with the contradictions of the ’92 film, as well as carve out their own work, DaCosta and her collaborators have created a misfire that can’t make its tangle of politics — about gentrification, the Black body (horror), racism, white desire — feel either relevant or provocative. When Blackness is whittled down, this is the kind of poor cultural product we are sold.

Candyman tells you loudly from the jump what it thinks you should hear. “White people built the ghetto then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto,” Brianna says, with all the finesse of a first rehearsal. At another point, William tells Anthony, “They love what we make but not us.” Such lines aren’t only dry as hell, they’re a tell. The film can’t run from the fact that it was created with a white audience in mind, full of explanations and blunt language for things Black people already understand on a molecular level.

There’s another strange line, uttered by a white art critic cruelly and stereotypically judging Anthony’s work at the gallery. “It speaks in didactic media clichés about the ambient violence of the gentrification cycle,” she says. “Your kind are the real pioneers of that cycle.” When Anthony asks who the hell she’s referring to, she counters, “Artists.” It’d be one thing if DaCosta left that commentary there, but it becomes a through-line where Black gentrifiers are equated with white ones, as if they hold the same sort of power to alter their surroundings and flatten the culture of a place and community. In making Anthony’s story so much like Helen’s — to the point that he almost retraces her journey, even listening to her old recordings about the communal need for folklore to explain the violence of their lives in Cabrini–Green — the film treads queasy territory. Helen was a tourist and Anthony is positioned as one too, even though by the end of the film it is evident he isn’t that so much as an unaware prodigal son returning home. This is the molten core of the film — confused politics intertwined with juvenile artistry in which a meaningful conversation about gentrification is imagined without the prominent voices of those harmed by it.

Horror has always been political, best when it lets images and characters and sonic dimensions speak to a certain work’s integral concerns. But Candyman moves in a way that speaks to this moment in both Black filmmaking in Hollywood and the so-called “prestige” horror boom, in which its creators can’t find a political message they won’t hit you over the head with until you’re as bloody and begging for release as the characters onscreen. If the original heaves and breathes with ripe contradictions and precise aesthetic compositions, DaCosta’s sputters and fizzles.

And how in the hell do you make Yahya Abdul-Mateen II uncharismatic? I’ve complained about the lack of potent talent in the younger crop of actors on the come up in Hollywood before, most of whom have graduated from the Go Girl Give Us Nothing School of Acting. Abdul-Mateen isn’t one of them. He’s a force, and not just because he is traffic-stopping fine as hell — a fact the filmmakers realize, granting us a multitude of shots of Yahya rocking little beyond a pair of boxers. On paper, casting Abdul-Mateen makes a lot of sense. His booming voice, physical presence, and training make him a worthy heir to Todd. But the script and direction fail him repeatedly, leading to a remarkably thinly drawn performance showcasing no interior life, which further hobbles the unearned closing of the film. The film postures as if it wants to critique the ways Black trauma is commodified and made successful in the realm of art, then does the very same thing. When it needs to demonstrate Anthony’s mental unraveling, the film calls upon clichés about mad geniuses. Black people are continuously vexed by inner and outer forces, which makes the braiding together of Black madness and horror written upon a Black man’s body so apt. But in Candyman, madness is prosaic. It’s a spectacle — all tongues lolling, eyes wild — not a lived experience. In Candyman, the filmmakers are interested in the Black body but not the soul and mind that animates it.

Specificity, particularly in a film such as this, isn’t just about a people, but a place. And Chicago is essential to the Candyman story. The image of its downtown skyline juxtaposed with the rot of remaining slums is a visual tic the film relies on but doesn’t rightfully build upon. At one point, a haughty Truman Capote–looking art purveyor dubs the city “provincial,” which wouldn’t be so annoying if it were clear the filmmakers disagreed. Candyman’s Chicago is wiped of the down-home rhythms, vernacular, and stylings that make it distinct. The city is rendered here as nowhere, New York lite — all primarily anonymous skyscrapers and interiors. Like so much in the film, geography is hampered by poor framing, pacing, tension, narrative evolution, and color-palette choices by DaCosta, cinematographer John Guleserian, and editor Catrin Hedström. A film such as this should grab hold of your heart, make your skin prickle, cause you to sit at the edge of your seat in panicked fascination. Instead, it glides over you like water rushing over a passing pebble, leaving little mark at all, save for when the didacticism sets in again.

At this point, we need to have a conversation about Jordan Peele’s creative efforts outside of his direction, which I’m admittedly cool on. Between producing the abominable Twilight Zone refashioning and the sloppy and at times offensive Lovecraft Country, and having a hand in writing Candyman, it’s clear that Peele knows a lot about the genres he’s moving through but lacks the ability to bring them to life with the vigor and talent necessary. For her part, DaCosta did indeed demonstrate a steadiness and emotional curiosity in her 2018 debut film Little Woods. It made me eager to see where she would go. But in Candyman, there’s not a trace of DaCosta’s voice, let alone that of any vibrant artist with a sure perspective. It’s perhaps a result of studios catapulting fresh talent from small independent pictures to bigger IP-related projects, skipping the now-nonexistent mid-budget work where stars were traditionally made and directors honed their vision. Candyman augurs Hollywood’s bleak future and what works it will green-light, especially from Black artists. There’s an added edge to how studios seek to commodify Blackness and, in a marked change from previous decades, how Black directors are hired to do it. Here, our feverish desire for change, encouraged by the uprisings of last year, is sanded off and resold as progress for the price of a movie ticket.

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Candyman Is a Soulless, Didactic Reimagining