Dare to Say His Name.
Artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has all the trappings of success in his life, including a beautiful and gifted art curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), and a luxurious condo in a recently gentrified Chicago neighborhood. However, he is creatively blocked, still going over the same themes and visual motifs he utilized in his breakout solo show years ago. Egged on by his white art patron, Clive (Brian King — and that character name cannot be coincidental), Anthony stumbles across the local legend of the Candyman, the hook-handed ghost of a black man unjustly killed by police, and begins to incorporate the story into his paintings. But the Candyman’s story is older and more complex than he suspects, and his own connection to the specter much more intimate.
Directed by Nia DaCosta, Little Woods (2018), who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Jordan Peel and Win Rosenfeld, Candyman is a deeply interesting and challenging film. It is, of course, a long-lead sequel to Bernard Rose’s 1992 horror classic, which I wrote about here, smartly ignoring the (dreadful, on the whole) two prior sequels without entirely dismissing them. Reading DaCosta’s film only on that level, it’s a very satisfying horror movie. But the real meat of the matter requires digging deeper.
The 2021 Candyman is a multifaceted work, but what it is chiefly is a Black film about the challenges facing Black artists in white-dominated spaces. That’s going to anger some viewers but, frankly, fuck ‘em — if ever there was a property ripe for this kind of exploration, it’s Candyman, which began life as “The Forbidden,” a short story with a white cast set in the UK by white British author Clive Barker. Writer and director Bernard Rose, also a white guy, transposed the action to the infamous Chicago housing project of Cabrini-Green, a predominantly black neighborhood, made the supernatural killer black, kept the protagonist, doctoral researcher Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, with Cassie Kramer taking up the role here), and made what is considered an absolute classic of Black horror — even though the behind-the-camera, above-the-line creative team was largely White.
The new Candyman (I have to keep differentiating somehow, and as an aside, can we please stop giving sequels the same name as the originals for this very reason) is a response to that and a fairly angry one — or at least an exasperated one. It feels like the work of Black artists who are tired of being told what kind of art they should make and who are specifically tired of being coerced, actively or not, into exploiting their own pain and trauma for the appreciation of white audiences and tastemakers. Anthony has to contend with the pretentious Clive telling him what kind of art to make, while Brianna is praised, in a weird, back-handed sort of way, by a colleague for having witnessed the suicide of her artist father, the implication being the tragedy informs her own professional choices, making her more sensitive to Black pain.
Again and again, we’re shown instances of White people controlling Black narratives, whether it’s an art critic sniffily telling Anthony what his work is about, or a cop telling a witness to a Blue-on-Black killing what her story will be (her response, “I’ll tell any story you want as long as you let me see myself.” It’s a damning indictment of the compromises artists of color are forced to make in the name of representation).
And then Candyman comes along and slaughters whitey.
Make no mistake, this is still a horror movie, and a very well-mounted one — DaCosta stages her bloody set-pieces carefully and audaciously. Working with cinematographer John Guleserian, An American Pickle (2020), she makes use of every inch of the frame, putting our focus on one element while teasing our senses with what’s going on in the background. I wouldn’t call them “easter eggs” because that’s a term frequently used to pass off trivia as depth, but little bits of business crop up in the back of scenes or at the edge of frame to keep us off balance and paranoid. What was that reflection? Who was that person who just passed from left to right in the deep distance? Is that a bee? By the time the hook starts ripping flesh, you’re already at the end of your nerves.
But this Candyman is not “our” Candyman, for those of us familiar with Tony Todd in the Bernard Rose version, and his drives and actions differ in important ways. The Candyman Anthony is told about by local dry cleaner William (Colman Domingo) was Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), a disabled man who was wrongly accused of hiding razors in the candy he gave out to neighborhood children. But this doesn’t invalidate the earlier iteration of the Candyman legend, which is also invoked in the film, as is Helen’s incorporation into the myth that we saw at the close of Rose’s ’92 effort. The story evolves and changes as the people telling it put it to new purpose, and DaCosta’s Candyman is very much about taking stories of horror and violence inflicted on Black bodies and turning them into tools of resistance — hence this film’s Candyman largely (but not entirely) taking his hook to White oppressors. He’s still a figure of terror, but his predations are in defense of the community, not upon it.
In execution (heh), it’s reminiscent of Alan Moore’s take on the origin of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing, and how while there have been many Swamp Things over the years, there are certain points of the origin that are reiterated: the swamp, the fire, the death, and rebirth. Here it’s the racism, the torture, the amputation, and the hook, the resurrection, and the killing, which Anthony comes to know all too well as he himself is drawn into the story. There’s a reading to be made of the film as a kind of initiatory journey as Anthony uncovers the secrets of the Candyman mystery cult, with William as his guide. Early in the movie, Anthony is stung on the hand by a bee, and as his journey progresses, so too does the infection of the wound, rotting scar tissue climbing up his arm. That’s his initiatory wound right there, and once he’s marked, we have a fair idea of what his fate is. That hand might have to come right off …
Abdul-Mateen, Aquaman (2018), is superb in the central role. Anthony is an interesting character: clearly intelligent and talented, but also somewhat shallow, vain, and self-aggrandizing. He’s not let off the hook (again, heh) for his own participation in cultural systems and processes of oppression and exploitation, at one point being taken to task for the artistic community’s participation in the gentrification process, at another reacting with pride when he’s mentioned by name in a news item about one of the Candyman killings. His arc is one of discovery but also of humbling; as he travels deeper within the Candyman myth, he is stripped, rather painfully, of his hubris. It’s a demanding role that requires complete commitment to the reality of the character and his journey, and he nails it.
Not everything works, however. There’s a gatekeeping art critic character positioned as a career obstacle for Anthony who feels a bit on the nose but then, as a critic, I would say that, wouldn’t I? To be fair, the conceit is handled much better than it was by M. Night Shyamalan in Lady in the Water (2006), but if there are wealthy ivory tower tastemakers giving the thumbs up/thumbs down to artists like spectators at the Coliseum, they move in circles far removed from my own — the reviewers I know mostly have day jobs and night terrors.
Other elements in play suggest a pretty merciless time spent under the editorial knife, such as the business about Brianna’s late father, which feels like the remnants of a more fleshed-out subplot. At 91 minutes, Candyman ’21 is a pretty stripped-down specimen. I wonder if that’s circumstantial evidence of studio interference and, if so, does it actually work for the film on a metatextual level? The idea that this film by Black creatives, which is largely about their struggle, might have suffered on its journey through the production process because of the very things it’s talking about is kind of perfect. But it’s also conjecture on my part, so take it with a grain of salt.
Besides, if that is the case, it hasn’t lost much in terms of impact, engagement, and entertainment. This is a top-tier horror movie, its text, and subtext in near-perfect balance, delivering plenty of shock and gore along with some genuinely challenging thematic material. It works as a continuation of and a response to its predecessor, by turns lauding it and taking it — and us — to task while never failing to deliver a brilliant, bloody, urban folk horror experience.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson