Candyman (2021), A Revamped Take on a Classic

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, and it very much is DaCosta’s film rather than producer Jordan Peele’s film despite some people trying to label it as such, is a direct sequel and spiritual successor to Bernard Rose’s 1992 film of the same name. Taking the widely acclaimed classic, that in it’s own right tackled issues of race relations and social class in the infamous housing projects in Chicago; Cabrini-Green, and revamping it for modern audiences. There is a lot to be said about the themes of the original, with it spawning a plethora of analysis and criticism, and with a script co-written by Peele, Win Rosenfeld and DaCosta, it seemed obvious to anyone that this new film was going to be just as biting and interesting as the original. And in many ways it is, the new film expands on the ideas of gentrification, police brutality and the cultural and racial divide within Chicago, but unfortunately this comes at the cost of subtlety. 

The biggest problem, for me, with DaCosta’s version of the film is how heavy-handed it becomes when dealing with its themes. Far too often it feels like the film is holding your hand, overly explaining and labouring the point of the message with frequent exposition dumps and clumsy symbolism. One example is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s character, Anthony McCoy, an artist who begins a series of pieces on the Candyman myth, who gets stung by a bee early on in the film, and as his obsession with the myth deepens, the wound on his hand becomes malignant and starts to encompass his whole arm. While it works initially as an image, it becomes somewhat ridiculous as the film progresses when a character, trying to maintain composure, is going to fancy dinners with an arm that looks half-deceased. The film also uses call-backs to the original film, and to newly introduced urban legends, through the use of shadow puppets, and these sequences do work well, it serves as a creative way to recount the legends in a way that works thematically with the concept of cultural storytelling and myths that the franchise is based on, but at times they also feel cheap and overused as a convenient way to fill in the blanks of the narrative, especially given their unnatural placement in the narrative. 

But these criticisms aside, I still really enjoyed the film and the direction this new entry takes the franchise. In many ways it feels like a return to what made the original film so brilliant, while still feeling fresh and unique. With the real-life destruction of the original Cabrini-Green projects, the focus on gentrification of the area and how it adversely affects the Black population of the area, it adds a very real authenticity to the new film, and while dismantling the idea that gentrification is good for areas and the locals, so to does the film dismantle our expectations and preconceived notions of what Candyman represents. In this new version, Candyman acts out violence on those, mostly white people, who are attempting to profit on the myth, whether it’s art critics writing about Anthony’s work, the gallery owners, and high-schoolers who torment black classmates. There’s an interesting layer of sympathy afforded to Candyman, and while the film still highlights the horror of the attacks and their bloody consequences, it feels purposefully distinct from the impoverished victims of the original film. One of the most important quotes that comes from this franchise is “Say My Name”, it can be seen in the graffiti in the original and is also an important phrase of Tony Todd’s Candyman, and in this updated version it serves as the title of Anthony’s art-piece, a three-panelled mirror that invites viewers to summon the titular killer. While characters like the critic and exhibit owner don’t appreciate the art-piece, they are at the same time, disrespecting the legacy and history of Black people, profiting off the interest and lucrativeness of their artwork, without the necessary appreciation of their suffering. It is in these ideas that DaCosta’s version really hits the mark, and makes a powerful message about the perception of Black artists in society, a message made even more powerful by the accounts of racism that DaCosta faced while working on the film itself. While I certainly agree with other critics that the film bites off more than it can chew in regards to its themes and messages, and does at times feel clumsy in it’s approach, when it does work, as I described above, it also becomes very powerful.

When it comes to any horror film, something people always want to know is how scary it is, and there are a handful of times when Candyman really nails the scares. In the flashback to the story of Sherman Fields, a man falsely accused of killing children, the tension and atmosphere is fantastic, aided superbly by John Guleserian’s camerawork. Similarly there’s a very notable and striking use of body horror in the climax that I think would send a chill down most people’s spines. But alongside these, the film’s overreliance on awkward CGI blood, and a notable example of really awful de-aging technology, the overall quality of the horror is so-so, with a lot of instances not really working and the film’s atmosphere suffering as a result. The real hook for the film ultimately becomes the mystery of where it’s all leading, rather than effectively creating an aura of tension and horror and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, better scares and better utilised horror could have definitely elevated the film.

Overall, I expected worse if I’m honest. With the release of trailers and info in the lead-up to the release I found my hype and excitement decreasing bit by bit, but when I walked out of the film I had been wowed by what I saw and really did enjoy it. There’s a lot of teething problems with it like I’ve said, some of the themes are messy and certain plot points feel pointless (the school girls scene really doesn’t add much narratively, and Teyonnah Parris’s character and her struggles with the death of her father don’t really lead to any satisfying conclusion or substance for me). But the cast all does a phenomenal job, with both Parris and Abdul-Mateen giving wonderful performances and stealing the show, while the supporting cast is mostly great with an exceptionally strong performance from the returning Vanessa Williams, despite her only being in one scene, and Colman Domingo who really excels. While I wished I loved this, I’m glad that I enjoyed it after my trepidation and hesitancy going in, DaCosta shows real prowess and it’ll be interesting to see her work going forward.

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