Candyman Review: Horror Movie Update is a Missed Opportunity

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In 1992, I begged my father to take me to see Candyman. He had already turned me into a horror fanatic so he needed to follow through and take me. After the film was over, I was terrified for weeks. My brain would manifest Candyman in the shadows of my room while I slept.

As an adult, I don’t fancy the film as much, but I realized the allure of Candyman was that he was a terror specific to the Black community despite the circumstances of his death. I knew as a child that housing was an issue for poor people and how the main character from the first film, interloper Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), disrupted the lives of the inhabitants in the Cabrini Green housing project. THAT is what scared me. 

Nia DaCosta’s 2021 version of Candyman course corrects some of the problems I had with the first film and creates a new set of issues that, while written with the best of intentions, isn’t executed well enough to become as memorable a staple in the horror genre as the first film.

The original Candyman is 19th century artist Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd) who was horrifically murdered for impregnating a white woman. He is severely beaten, his hand is sawed off and replaced with a rusty hook, he is covered in honey, stung by hundreds of bees, and then burned alive. You would think that would rev up his anger toward white supremacy but in fact, the first movie did the opposite as Candyman kills lots of Black people. While I don’t like that aspect of the 1992 movie, it is fascinating to see how Robitaille relates to the Black community and why the object of his affection is always a white woman. 

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2021’s Candyman opens in the 1970s and Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), dubbed the Candyman, is accused of handing out pieces of candy with razor blades in them. He wears a shearling coat and has a hook on his left hand. Fields cuts a creepy figure with his aloof stare and crooked smile, resembling original Candyman Tony Todd. When a young white child receives a piece of candy with a razor blade inside it, suddenly the local police are interested in finding out the source. Unfortunately, it’s all pinned on Fields who is beaten and killed by the cops. This is a very different origin from what we know about Danielle Robitaille in the first film, but there’s a reason for that.

The real focus of the story is Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a visual artist looking for inspiration who finds it in the desolate shell of Cabrini Green. He’s drawn to the Candyman mythology and has a burning desire to create art based on this urban legend. He meets a local laundromat worker William Burke (Colman Domingo) who gives him the rundown on all the chaos he’s missed.

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As McCoy creates art, he begins seeing visions of Sherman Fields, and a seemingly average bee sting on his hand begins to rot and eat away the living tissue on his arm. His girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) is concerned for him naturally, but working toward achieving her own goal of becoming a gallery curator. Eventually Anthony discovers that his connection to Candyman is deeper than once suspected. As he unravels this hood legend, he begins to understand his place within the Candyman mythos.

Nia DaCosta, Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld did right by creating a new modus operandi for the franchise, giving it a different direction. In this modern retelling, Candyman is less of a terror to the Black community and almost seen as a sort of antihero against white supremacy. The new film takes the Candyman title away from one man and makes it more of a generational curse that exists among Black males abused by a white supremacist system. What’s frustrating is the storytelling is forced to give way to on-the-nose social commentary. DaCosta and Peele’s debut films are great because the subtlety of the commentary isn’t preachy, so much as it’s a new way to create narratives about social injustice. This is why it’s hard to comprehend why they do the complete opposite in this film.

But, just because the writing isn’t subtle, the way DaCosta executes her direction is. She prefers the slow burn which works for this particular horror character and it’s something she’s known to do well. However, in this case, it takes away from the horror elements needed to up the stakes. Death scenes are tame and happen off-screen and are replaced with a social edge. The most effective horror is about creating a healthy balance between the two, but Candyman is one-sided.

The 1992 film was told through the eyes of impoverished people who have no choice but to sit and live with the terror that the legend created. But this new version of the legend spends a lot of time with a bunch of upper middle class yuppies who dismiss Candyman as nothing more than a story poor people made up, because with money you don’t have to pay attention to anything that doesn’t disrupt your livelihood. Why was that necessary? 

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The talented cast is sorely underutilized. Abdul-Mateen II and Parris are excellent actors, but they have zero romantic onscreen chemistry. Domingo’s Burke exists as an excuse for more exposition for much of the film, with his character presenting new information that comes out of nowhere. It’s a shame that’s all he gets to contribute. 

If this review is all over the place, it’s because this movie is all over the place. High expectations may have killed it for me. No one will leave the theater scared or having learned anything new, nor does it add any crucial or fresh social commentary. What it is, is  a cinematic misfire created by a group of extremely talented folks. Everyone’s allowed to have one bad one thing and for Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele, Candyman 2021 is it.

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