Candyman (2021)

Candyman ignores the inferior sequels that preceded it and instead acts as a direct sequel to the 1992 movie of the same name.  As in the original, Candyman features a hook-wielding ghost who is brought to life by saying his name five times in a mirror. Director Nia DaCosta and producer Jordan Peele have upgraded the Candyman legend deftly for modern times, contextualizing his gruesome origin story as the starting point of decades of systemic racism and violence.  And instead of having the requisite white woman be the audience surrogate, two African American men take center stage.  The first is a young artist (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) seeking inspiration from the notorious history of the now-gentrified Cabrini-Green projects.  The second is a middle-aged man (Colman Domingo) who never left, still seething from an unjust killing he witnessed as a child.  The end result is riveting, scary, insightful and moving.  The (white) victims are written a bit thinly, but turnabout is fair play, as they say.  Candyman is a horror movie by definition, but it has much more up its sleeve than shocks and gore.  Mind that ending–it’s not the triumph it appears to be.  Highly recommended.

What about me?

If I were the Candyman, that’s what I would have been saying to myself for the past twenty-some years.  Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddie Kruger, the pillars of the slasher movie genre, have appeared in upteen sequels since their original appearances.  Michael Myers (Halloween) will be appearing in his eighth sequel this year, with one more scheduled for 2022.  Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) has appeared in eleven movies, twelve if you count his dream sequence appearance in the original movie.  Last but not least, Freddie Kruger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) has starred in ten movies, the last one coming out in 2010.  Sure, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995) and Candyman: Day of the Dead (1999) under-performed.  But diminishing artistic and financial returns has never stopped another Halloween, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street from being greenlit.

When Candyman was released back in 1992, its use of an African American villain within an urban setting was unique in the slasher genre.  However, the backstory of the Candyman was mentioned only as the justification for why he killed people when summoned.  As was typical for slasher movies, all of the film’s action was filtered through a white female protagonist: graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen).

In Candyman 2021, the legend of the Candyman is reinterpreted with a modern social context.  His murder at the hands of an angry white mob is no longer a horrible-yet-isolated event, but the beginning of a long line violent oppression of African Americans that has continued unabated.  Screenplay writers DaCosta and Peele reimagine the Candyman as the supernatural embodiment of the rage African Americans understandably feel from generations of systemic racism and white supremacy.  If you prefer your horror movies to be free of the topicality contained within Get Out and Us, Candyman 2021 is probably not for you.  However, if you prefer your horror movies to have more than hack-and-slash action, Candyman 2021 is the rare horror movie that will make you jump as well as think.

Screenplay writers DaCosta and Peele successfully break away from horror movie orthodoxy by placing African Americans at the center of the story.  This allows the movie to comment on how  time has elapsed, but things haven’t really changed for African Americans.

In the original movie, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) learns of the Candyman legend while researching urban legends for her graduate thesis.  She initially believes that the African American residents of Cabrini-Green have adopted the Candyman legend as a way of coping with the violence and death in their neighborhoods.  Helen summons the Candyman, and later becomes a vehicle for his revenge.  Ultimately, Helen sacrifices herself by rescuing a baby from a bonfire, an attempt by the Candyman to feed his legend.

Candyman 2021 opens with mirror images of the MGM logo and the movie’s title.  The soundtrack plays Sammy Davis Jr.’s version of “The Candyman”, using what sounds like a warped record.  The camera drifts through Chicago, peering at hi-rises and skyscrapers from street level.  The Steadicam usage produces a trance-like feeling similar to laying flat on a boat and looking up at the sky.

In the bravura flashback that follows, we’re taken back to Cabrini-Green circa 1977.  We meet  Billy, a young resident of the projects with a wariness of the police, depicting a typical interaction using shadow puppets.  The police are on the lookout for Sherman Fields, a man they believe has placed razor blades into candy given a white girl.  Billy encounters Fields in one of the movie’s many striking visual motifs.  Fields casually walks through a hole in the wall to greet Billy, who screams and inadvertently alerts the police.  Billy’s reaction is understandable, given Fields’ towering height and prosthetic hook for a hand.  Fields is all smiles though, and gives Billy a piece of candy.  Within seconds he is swarmed by police who beat him to death.

Fast forward forty-some years later, and Cabrini-Green has been almost completely gentrified, replaced by hi-rise apartment buildings.  Instead of the lower class people who called the projects home, the new towers are populated by artists and other well-off people, including Anthony and Brianna, a young African American couple.  He’s an artist and she’s an art gallery director.  Anthony’s first exhibition (at Brianna’s gallery) brought critical praise and recognition, but he’s taken to living comfortably, and hasn’t created anything of note since then.  After dinner with Brianna’s brother and his boyfriend, the conversation touches on gentrification, then the Candyman.   Anthony is completely unaware of both and, after Googling Cabrini-Green, decides to visit the abandoned buildings that remain.

Anthony takes pictures of what remains of Cabrini-Green, what most would describe as “ruin porn”.  Anthony meets William (formerly Billy), who runs a laundromat in the area. William tells Anthony about Helen Lyle, what happened to her after she summoned the Candyman.  Inspired by what he now knows, Anthony creates an interactive art display with a mirror that invites viewers to “say his name” five times.  Unfortunately, an art critic is not impressed by Anthony’s work, and the gallery owner chides him for creating art that won’t sell.  That night, the gallery owner and his girlfriend say Candyman five times while looking in a mirror and are killed.  The critic is later killed by the Candyman after a visit by Anthony.

Anthony’s obsession with the Candyman inspires him to paint a series of dark portraits.  His  increasingly erratic behavior scares Brianna, who moves out.  Anthony visits William again, who tells him that the portraits he’s been painting are all people who were unjustly murdered by white authority figures.  Anthony then visits his mother, who reveals to him that he was the baby that Helen White rescued from the fire at Cabrini-Green all those years ago.  She never told him about his past because she wanted him to live a normal life.

Brianna is offered a position at a competing gallery, only to learn she isn’t being offered the job based on merit.  The gallery owner wants to hire Brianna because she believes the tragedy in Brianna’s personal history (her father was an artist who committed suicide) coupled with renewed interest in the Candyman will increase interest in her gallery.

Concerned for Anthony’s well-being, Brianna looks for him at William’s laundromat.  William abducts her and tells of his plan to transform Anthony into a vessel for the Candyman to exact  revenge.  Brianna frees herself and kills William, and the police arrive and apparently kill Anthony.  Anthony, now transformed into the Candyman, kills the police officers.

One aspect of Candyman 2021 I admire is how it invites you to think about what you see and hear.  Viewed simplistically, Candyman 2021 appears to espouse an “eye for an eye” philosophy.  Unlike the original movie, all of the Candyman’s victims are white.  Is the movie saying that the only way that African Americans can obtain justice for generations of mistreatment from whites is through violence and bloodshed?  Hardly.  If you think Candyman 2021 is merely a polemic, you’re ignoring the nuances of the story to serve a very superficial interpretation.

Anthony’s character arc is similar to other horror movie protagonists, where his obsession led to his own undoing.  But it’s more complex than that.  His search for inspiration was not driven internally, but by a desire for respect and recognition.  The gallery where his girlfriend works wants the “Anthony of the future”, meaning that nobody wants to buy art that’s a variation of what he made years ago.  Anthony uses the Candyman as inspiration to produce art that will sell, and ends up becoming engulfed in the historical and generational tragedy that fuels the Candyman.  Ultimately, Anthony winds up becoming the Candyman reborn.  Given the events that surrounded him when he was just a baby, was Anthony’s fate a given?  Is Candyman 2021 metaphorically saying that the social injustice experienced by African Americans is  unavoidable?  That someone like Anthony, who never really experienced it firsthand, was  destined to be consumed by it?  Or did his desire for artistic relevance and financial success lead him to the source of his own downfall?

When the police “kill” Anthony, their justification is that he killed seven innocent (white) people, including five teenage girls.  Is the police officer who questions Brianna correct when he implies that their murder of Anthony was justified?  Out of sympathy for Brianna, the Candyman proceeds to kill all of the police officers.  He may have saved Brianna from the grip of the police, but when the bodies of the slaughtered police officers are eventually found, that will force officials in Chicago to effectively put the city under martial law.  Does Candyman’s revenge actually make things even more difficult for Brianna, and other African Americans as well?

William believed that Sherman Fields’ death at the hands of the police was unjust.  His proof was that after Fields was killed, Halloween candy was still being found with razor blades.  But in the scene when Anthony was trapped in the elevator, the Candyman gives him a piece of candy with a razor blade embedded in it.  Does that mean that Fields actually was handing out doctored candy?  That others were inspired to continue Fields’ “tradition”?  If that is true, was William wrong all along?  Did the police actually kill a guilty man?

At the end of the movie, the desire for revenge that fuels the Candyman has consumed both Anthony and William and put Brianna in an extremely precarious position.  Countless slasher movies portray the killer as a mindless killing machine, or an evil being that just enjoys killing.  Candyman 2021 replaces the nihilism of those movies with an intriguing thought: the desire for revenge may be powerful enough to triumph over death, but ultimately it destroys everything it touches.  Is revenge a never ending cycle that kills everyone in the end?

If you’ve seen my profile, you know that as far as my race, I’m a “whiter shade of pale side” kind of guy.  Because of that, I won’t try to state with absolute conviction as to whether Candyman 2021’s exploration of social justice topics is accurate and meaningful for the African American community.  All I can do is say that the exploration of those topics resonated with me.  I appreciated how the filmmakers respected the audience’s intelligence and trusted them to come up with their own conclusions, and resisted explicitly telling us how to interpret what we see.

Even if you don’t give a whit for the subtextual elements in the story, Candyman 2021 still has more than enough to recommend it as a top-notch horror movie.  Just like the original, Candyman 2021’s expressionistic look sets it apart.  Nia DaCosta directs the action with a visual flair atypical of horror movies.  Her use of long shots would have made Stanley Kubrick proud.  Her eye for color and composition gave each scene a unique feel, the combination of them  feeling like pieces of a collage.

Coming in at a lean ninety minutes, the movie is expertly paced, with each scene running just as long as it needs to.  The screenplay (by DaCosta, Peele, and Win Rosenfeld) is an object lesson on how every scene should be essential.  Even though there are no lulls to be found, the action never felt rushed or abbreviated.  John Guleserian’s camera work is excellent.  The initial shots of the office buildings and hi-rise apartment buildings that makeup downtown Chicago were beautiful and haunting.  Robert A. A. Lowe’s score was also noteworthy for its use of human voices as well as electronic rhythms to attenuate the mood.

The acting is terrific, with Abdul-Mateen II leading the way.  Like other young actors who’ve preceded him, most of his early roles are in rebooted properties (The Watchmen, Candyman 2021, The Matrix 4).  I hope he gets the chance to work on something original in the future.  He’s a very charming and engaging actor, and I suspect very funny as well.  The scene where he’s startled by something passing outside a window and nearly jumps out of his own skin is downright hilarious.  Dude is 6’3” tall and still is afraid of ghosts!

My only gripe is that most of the white characters are written a bit superficially.  The art gallery owner is a bit of a clown.  The critic was also a bit arrogant, but what critic isn’t?  To be sure, only the white characters are dumb enough to say Candyman five times, so I get they had it coming.  I can’t blame the filmmakers for settling some old scores in Candyman 2021.  I could say “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” but that wouldn’t sound right.  Maybe “karma is a bitch” is more appropriate.

After seeing Candyman 2021, I understood why writer-director Nia DaCosta and writer-producer Jordan Peele were keen on bringing the Candyman back from the proverbial dead.  In reclaiming the character’s narrative, they created a visually stylish, engrossing, entertaining and socially relevant horror movie.  Given the movie’s overwhelming success, I don’t think I’ll need to say “sequel” five times to get one.

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