The stories we tell matter. They carry weight with every word. They are derived from their individual meanings as well as the histories accompanying them. Stories keep people and events alive long after their physical forms are gone, enabling those who remain to remember. But what if remembering is as bad as the story itself? What if, in remembering, we fail to make the changes necessary to prevent it from ever happening again? This seems to be the intent behind writer/director Nia DaCosta’s (Little Woods) spiritual sequel to 1992’s Bernard Rose-directed Candyman, itself an adaptation of author Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden.” Mixing together thematic elements of gentrification, generational trauma, and the reluctance to face that trauma head-on, DaCosta’s Candyman is a horror poem, stylishly composed and performed, but weak in narrative connective tissue.
It’s been years since artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) created something with meaning and his dry spell is bumping up hard against the deadline for an upcoming show his girlfriend, art gallery accountant Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), helped him secure at Grady Cartwright’s (Kyle Kaminsky) gallery. That is until a hangout session with Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) to meet boyfriend Clive (Brian King) results in inspiration, thanks to Troy’s telling of the Candyman myth which was born out of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood of Chicago in which Anthony and Brianna currently live. After the guests leave, Anthony playfully taunts Brianna with the summoning of Candyman. Suddenly, Anthony is moved to create, but it comes with a price as his art fuels a restless spirit whose been forgotten for too long.
Because Candyman is a follow-up to a prior, identically-tilted film, let’s establish the ground rules before moving forward. The film involves the urban legend of a vengeful spirit who appears before anyone who dare say his name, “Candyman,” five times in front of a mirror. Not benevolent by any means, Candyman uses the hook in the place of his right hand to brutally slaughter those who call him forth, the bees which follow him stinging the living and dead alike. In the mythology established by the first 1992 film, Candyman was the son of a slave who grew up to be a painter and found himself in a secret relationship with the daughter of a wealthy white man who hired him to pain their portraits. Upon discovery of their relationship, the father called a mob down on the man who beat him, chopped off his painting hand (the right), smothered him in honey to lure bees to sting him, and finally burned him to death. The man’s crime was merely falling in love with a white woman. All of which occurred in Cabrini-Green.
There is a great deal of racial trauma within that backstory, something which is absent from Barker’s original story, and which is part of the reason so many love the original 1992 film. That, plus actor Tony Todd lent a gravitas to a character that helped put Candyman on the same reverential list as Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers. The script for Candyman (‘21) by Jordan Peele (Get Out), Win Rosenfeld, and DaCosta takes this notion even further, shifting Candyman from a vengeful spirit to a boogeyman that parents could tell their children about in order to keep them in line. Where stories like these appear in most cultures (Baba Yaga in Slavic culture, La Llorona in Mexico, Davy Jones for sea faring folk, Yara-ma-yha-who in Australia) as ways to caution individuals from committing bad behavior for fear that one of these figures will come for them, DaCosta repositions Candyman as the figure that comes because there is no justice or peace for his people. The origin of the original Candyman is a horror, but DaCosta’s repositioning in her film places him up with the man who died at the hands of a White mob during the East St. Louis Massacre of 1917, those that died in the Elaine Massacre of 1919, the victims of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, all the way up to the present. This shift turns the bloody fantasy tale into a supernatural chiller where mirrors aren’t just a portal to your death, but are the containers of the reflection for murderers and victims known and unknown. That each person who looks in the mirror, each one who dares to say his name five times, does so because they think less of the man, think they hold some kind of power which gives them grace or invincibility, when, in fact, their calling him forth speaks to their culpability in the violence he suffered. Candyman is a terrible folk legend who brings violence everywhere he appears, when he should’ve been the final moment which turned public opinion and, maybe, moved the conversation about racial violence in a positive way. Instead, the fictional world of Chicago which the story takes place is about as real as what is on the streets of America today.
DaCosta carries this forward in the visual elements of the film, most of which play with the honeycomb or mirror elements that make up the DNA of Candyman. It’s not just that the opening title cards are backwards, it’s the way she first presents Chicago at night before introducing us to the central characters. The camera angle is psychologically off-putting as the camera slowly pans through the city, a different portion of a tall building coming into frame amid a cloud-filled sky. The kicker here is that the image is flipped, so that we’re looking at a mirrored version of the buildings. This visual twist immediately creates a sense of discomfort because we know the world doesn’t look like this, yet DaCosta persists in the moment so that we have to take it all in. So many of the structures, not just in this scene, are shot and framed to look like variously shaped beehive boxes, as though the people living their everyday lives are nothing but drones awaiting a command. Mirrors are equally prevalent both physically and thematically, whether in regard to their placement within a shot, their aesthetic within the production design of a hallway to appear without beginning or end, or their utilization as a focal point from which DaCosta presents activity. There’s such thoughtfulness in what DaCosta shows in full, in partial, or merely hints at, demonstrating someone who is in full control of her craft.
Additionally, and this may be a smaller thing for me as I’ve never even been to Chicago, but the film doesn’t seem to be as interested in utilizing Chicago as a location; rather, it seems more interested in using the area as a place for the film, while making it seem like anywhere. This may frustrate folks looking for Candyman to take advantage of or more directly connect to the existing tumultuous history of the area, but I found it impressive as it makes the generational aspect of the Candyman legend one which could occur anywhere, not just Chicago or the Cabrini-Green neighborhood.
Despite visual elements conveying the sense of timelessness of perpetual peril, as well as the expected phenomenal performance from both Abdul-Mateen II (Watchmen) and Parris (Chi-Raq), several issues persist within Candyman that cannot be ignored and they come from the narrative itself. As potent and chilling as the thematic elements are in their exploration of unresolved generational trauma due to a country never facing their racial crimes and atoning, there are other elements which are brought up and never really explored, splitting the narrative focus in the process and weakening the whole. The opening of the film introduces Candyman in a form we haven’t seen before, but it’s later when Colman Domino’s Cabrini-Green resident William Burke helps Anthony understand the Candyman mythos. The opening sequence brilliantly sets up the cyclical recurrence of trauma in the Black community, but where it leads is muddy at best when considered for any period of time. Parris’s Brianna is given more than the “concerned girlfriend” role, which is fantastic to see, but it’s a storyline that’s not explored in the slightest. Even Anthony’s connection to Candyman, something which will delight fans of the ’92 film, doesn’t make sense with what we know about Candyman within the scope of this film. It is a spiritual sequel, so it’s not necessarily beholden to the old rules or other films, but there’s a choice made that’s powerful in execution yet makes little sense as presented. Ultimately, these and other narrative issues boil down to being significant in contributing to the poetic elements of Candyman yet fail to express themselves in a clear way beyond the thematic. Art is great for exploring the spaces individuals exist within and Candyman does that wonderfully from a visual and blocking perspective, but its failure to connect the threads of ideas concretely, or at all, frustrates in an otherwise powerful film.
In the end, the way that DaCosta recontextualizes Candyman may be too much for some and pitch-perfect for others. Every shot is a swing for the fence, each performer is game for whatever DaCosta needs. If only the details of the narrative would have upheld these big ideas and grand performances, then Candyman would be a top tier film of 2021. Despite these issues, you should see the film in whichever way you feel most comfortable because it is gorgeous and thoughtful. One can only hope that stories like Candyman’s will finally find rest when audiences take those emotionally-charged reactions from the series and put in the work in to make the necessity of the stories cease.
In theaters August 27th, 2021
For more information, head to the official Candyman website.
If you want to learn how you can assist in making a change to your neighborhood, head to the Social Impact Initiative page of the Candyman website for various available resources.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.