Candyman and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by Nia DaCosta
Candyman is an interesting franchise to be sure; Starting off as yet another Clive Barker adaptation but given enough changes when translated to film that it took on a lot of different meanings and ended up speaking to an often underserved audience. Because of this place it holds in popular culture, who Candyman is and what he represents for a lot of people is something that I cannot truly opine on. I’ve only seen the first movie which was a very solid horror film, but it’s in a genre that’s full of great works so it never stood out to me as much as other films in the genre have. I AM however a pretty big fan of Jordan Peele’s work in the genre and while this isn’t directed by him, he did produce and write it which is a pretty good sign in my book! Will this be another classic horror film that Jordan Peele had a hand in, or is trying to bring this franchise back ultimately a doomed prospect like so many other horror rebotos? Let’s find out!!
Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an artist in Chicago who got some popularity early on but has struggled to find success since then; not just because he’s seemingly out of inspiration but due to the limited spaces that the ART WORLD wish to see his work exist in. After hearing a ghost story from his girlfriend’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) about a mysterious string of murders back in the nineties, he decides to investigate the area and runs across William (Colman Domingo) who gives him the story of Candyman (Tony Todd); a menacing figure covered in bees with a hook for a hand who will appear and kill you if you say his name five times in a mirror. With this, Anthony has finally found an idea with exploring despite his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) not seeing much there, and her suspicions only get worse when Anthony becomes more and more obsessed with the legend and the case that happened in the nineties. With Anthony doing the work of spreading the story of Candyman, is he inadvertently bringing him back to resume his reign of terror? With such a dangerous legend that could lead to so much death, why did William even tell Anthony about it, and will learning more about the history of Candyman uncover disturbing answers to that question? If you only say his name four times, how long do you have to say it a fifth time before it counts?
I’m definitely more positive than negative about this movie, but I can’t say I loved it when all was said and done. The movie has a very interesting style to it and some scene compositions that really make the most of its delirious ghost story premise, but there are some issues with pacing and character building that lead to a pretty languid second act as the movie just wanders around its central premise. Where they take the character and what they do with him here is interesting if nothing else and I’m curious where they would want to go if they continue with this vision of the franchise, but for me I just felt too disconnected at too many points to really feel terrified by its scares and engage with its themes all the way through. It’s a movie that tries to do a lot of things and most of it is done very well, but not all the pieces fit together and it was something of an incomplete picture by the end of it.
Where the movie excels at for most of its runtime is its cinematography and its performances which carry this film even when things start to slow down in the middle. The writing is solid with a lot of fun interactions between the characters, and the actors imbue their roles with life and personality that makes them endearing right off the bat; something that’s not a given when it comes to horror films considering how many boil down to archetypes fit only for gruesome death scenes. Anthony in particular played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II comes off as fun and likable with a vulnerability to him that ends up serving the tragedy of the rest of the film, and I got an immense amount of enjoyment out of Colman Domingo who is jovial and helpful at first before slowly peeling back layers of trauma and hardship that makes for what are easily the most compelling scenes in the entire movie. When it’s not giving us fun characters to spend time with, it’s got some of the most interesting and moody imagery we’ve seen in a movie like this. It’s not overly garish or spectacular, but just some interesting tweaks and unique camera angles that create an unsettling atmosphere; and that’s BEFORE we get to the expertly crafted shadow puppets that are breathtaking to watch; leaning heavily on the sense of unreality that goes with Urban Legends as word of mouth strips stories like this of its nuance for straightforward and one dimensional parables. Heck, I’d watch a movie that was made ENTIRELY in that style!
Where the movie starts to stumble and lose its way a bit is whenever Candyman makes his presence known as the horror scenes don’t exactly click and the way he influences our main character sucks a lot of the tension out of the movie. I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of ghost and possession movies in the first place so there is a bit of bias there from the outset, but I don’t find Anthony’s journey all that interesting once things start to get spooky which is a shame considering how much I liked him at the start of this. I’d rather not spend this whole review comparing it to the original film, but in this respect I think there was a lot more going on with Helen’s story in that than we get with Anthony who spends a good chunk of this movie looking completely checked out and in a stupor. Even at her lowest points where she was in the thrall of Candyman’s power, her character was still clearly motivated and reactive to her situation; helped immensely by Tony Todd’s frequent appearances and propositions to drive her further and further to edge. For this movie though, there’s just not much for Anthony to be moving towards; no clear goal or opposition that he’s up against that tells us where he’s headed, and no real reaction to anything that’s happening to him. The rest of the actors end up picking up a lot of the slack here as Teyonah Parris ends up being much more relatable and reactive while Colman Domingo is so much fun whenever he shows up, but they all have to revolve around Anthony who’s just not doing anything with any real urgency and only seems interested in painting more and more paintings.
Now here’s where I venture into possible spoilers because the nature of Candyman as depicted in this film is at the heart of what this movie is trying to accomplish, but because it ties into a lot of the mystery the movie uncovers any discussion of it could reveal some things about the movie that are better left discovered on your own. If you don’t want to risk it, jump right to the end for my final thoughts.
We good? Alright, so before we get started, I know that I’ve been overly literal with my reviews in the past, especially with movies that made me feel bad (*cough* Annihilation *cough*), so I don’t want my analysis here to simply be trying to catch the film in some sort of contradiction, and frankly I don’t feel all that qualified to speak onto the moral implications of what’s going on. What I want to try and get at is whether the themes are well presented, and if combining them with the Candyman that is depicted in this film feels a bit uneasy; to the point that I wonder if this story would have worked better if it wasn’t a Candyman movie at all. Granted, the Candyman license does add a lot of weight and history to it, not to mention giving them an excuse to cast Tony Todd, but I feel like what they want to accomplish with this movie would have been better served with a new character; or if nothing else, they had done even MORE to build him from scratch. We’re not even talking about how THIS Candyman fits with the Candyman of the previous films; just in terms of what they choose to carry over from the franchise and are presenting to us in this movie. The film is recontextualizing and expanding upon his origin (which may or may not have been indicated in the sequels as well) to drag into the light the racial and systemic violence that created him; not that it wasn’t covered in the first film, but it was conveyed much more like a campfire story than something with roots in oppression and state sanctioned violence against marginalized groups. Bringing his story back to that context is where this movie manages to find its strongest thematic elements but it’s also where things start to butt up against what ELSE we know of Candyman that they brought with them into this movie. Candyman in this movie is still the urban legend whose power comes from people knowing his story and at no point in the history that this movie acknowledges is his power used to bring retributive justice. To me that isn’t necessarily a problem because the original movie was the same way; his story is one of tragedy and being a victim, but he is unambiguously the villain of the piece. In here though, the movie is more ambiguous about this; if the Candyman who kills anyone who said his name in a mirror five times, which in this movie includes at least one black girl, is the same Candyman who embodies the justified rage of those people who are victims of a racialized system… a system that often targets black girls as well. How does the movie want us to bridge the gap between the Candyman whose sole interest is to propagate his own malevolent existence with this new dimension to the character and especially with what happens at the end of this movie? To me, the movie never has a great answer for this and so a lot of the scenes in the movie feel disconnected. We are probably NOT supposed to cheer on Candyman when he’s cutting people’s necks open or finding ways to ruin Anthony’s life, but those scenes feel at least somewhat in conflict with the very real and traumatic history that we learn throughout the movie. The ending takes SOME steps to bringing the two ideas together by using that generational trauma to motivate certain characters into despicable acts, and perhaps the movie is implying that the events of this movie will ultimately change Candyman into a figure with a higher purpose than to just spill blood and throw bees at people. Still, it keeps things pretty ambiguous so I can’t say for sure if that’s what the movie wants to say about this particular character and his deeds in relation to the dark history that birthed him.
The issues I have with the movie are not enough to say that it’s bad or even average. There are a lot of good things in here from the acting and themes to its interesting cinematography and artistic flourishes. Putting everything together though feels a bit like having too many cooks in the kitchen; every idea is trying to add something to this stew and so not enough truly stands out or comes together effectively. There is a lot to this movie though that shouldn’t be dismissed or ignored, and the filmmakers have done a lot outside the film to provide context to the themes on display; an admirable gesture to be sure, but for me the movie doesn’t quite reach those lofty expectations. Perhaps the groundwork that this movie lays out can be a solid jumping off point for a more focused sequel, but even if this is all we get out of this new version of Candyman then fair enough. It’s certainly better than a lot of other horror reboots I could name; that’s for sure! This one could have coasted by on its legacy like so many other reboots have in the past, but this one swings for the fences; missing a few hits to be sure, but all the better for the effort.