Review: Candyman (2021)

Director: Nia DaCosta

Stars: Teyonah Parris, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Colman Domingo

It’s been nearly 30 years since Bernard Rose’s Candyman sent an ungodly swarm of bees looming over Chicago and, ultimately, much further afield. Being of a (wince) certain age, I can remember the buzz of Candyman in the playground. Kids daring one another to go into the toilets and say his name five times into the mirror. It got so prevalent at our school that we had an entire assembly telling us not to do it. Not because the movie villain was real, but because we were scaring each other witless. Parents were reporting nightmares.

Two limp sequels and years of cultural upheaval later, we arrive in the present, and Nia DaCosta’s long delayed and eagerly awaited new film. Much like David Gordon Greene’s recent Halloween, this isn’t a reboot, but a course-correct. She ignores those unloved second and third movies, and continues the lore of Rose’s first film.

Cabrini Green – the projects that created so much free atmosphere in the first film – has changed. Those poverty-stricken high rises have been torn down and the area has been thoroughly gentrified. DaCosta’s Chicago borough is populated by rich, privileged graduates; artists who can afford to be artists. Her story introduces us to Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), one such painter struggling to find his muse. Learning an appropriately bastardised version of the ‘Candyman’ legend, McCoy starts prying into the low-rise projects for inspiration, inadvertently reawakening the myth and starting a new cycle of terror.

Candyman circa 2021 feels loaded with the weight to do and say so much. Speak to continued racial inequality. Gentrification. Inherited trauma. Racist police brutality. Upper-class gate-keeping. Gamely – and admirably – DaCosta tries to do it all. Unpacking this baggage in the framework of a tight 90-minute horror sequel while also telling a new story is a tall order. And while Candyman displays flashes of ingenuity, it also feels confused, cluttered, chaotic and – most disappointingly of all – cliché.

There are horror tropes we can put to bed, okay?

Top of the list is the infected wound motif, used to express a character’s inner rot. As the picture goes on, the infection – ignored or exacerbated by its bearer – inevitably spreads, takes hold, signifies psychological deterioration. It’s been overplayed. Also, the quick sting of the ‘bad’ reflection; one that moves independently of a character to signify a double, possession, schizophrenia or another form of psychological break. We all saw Black Swan.

In fairness, Candyman has mirrors built into its legacy. DaCosta’s update leans on this angle hard and, it has to be said, creatively. But originality isn’t quite the same. A sequence that warps the Marx Brothers’ classic Duck Soup routine into something more disturbing does impress… but also amounts to the same century-old trick.

The cast offer a mixed report. Teyonah Parris shines brightest as Anthony’s curator/girlfriend Brianna. Indeed, her busy final scenes are the film’s strongest because of her. It’s also wonderful to see Vanessa Williams reprising her standout supporting role from Rose’s original. Abdul-Mateen II does fine. He certainly has screen charisma and the physicality to go far.

Elsewhere results are more varied. Colman Domingo’s folklore-spouting dry-cleaner salivates too much kook and winds up seeming more like a Mel Brooks character, while many of those on the peripheries are poorly drawn and/or simply annoying. One wears a Joy Division t-shirt and speaks in Joy Division song titles and feels like an outcast from an abandoned SNL sketch. DaCosta’s new Candyman (Sherman Fields), meanwhile, has none of the presence or gravitas of Tony Todd.

Switching up the landscape of Candyman affects the atmosphere of the piece in unexpected ways. Rose’s film was – in large part – a reflection of our fear of poverty. It made the heart beat quickest when it made us feel trapped in unsafe spaces. By contrast, this film predominantly features sleek, clean, well-lit spaces. Horror can be disarming when it takes place out in the open. Think The Shining. Think Ju-On: The Grudge. Pressed for time, DaCosta isn’t able to summon the necessary atmosphere to make her scares effective. I’m all for a brisk 90 minute movie. But with so much to cover – and so bluntly – the film rarely affords itself the time to get an audience worked up. It therefore feels beholden to the modern popcorn horror playbook favouring quicker, cheaper jumps.

It is vital that we embrace and encourage broader representation in genre cinema; an arena which, historically, hasn’t served its non-white characters well. It is heartening to see Black voices rising up in this space, and kudos to Jordan Peele for holding the door for others to come through. DaCosta has the clout to go far, and the stronger sequences here display a confidence that impresses. But the whole feels too messy this time. Too busy. Pulled in all directions. These are blueprint level problems with this film that hopefully won’t diminish future projects. And she already has a Marvel lined up, so we’ll certainly be seeing her again once she’s banked one for Disney.

Her Candyman takes the myth to some interesting new places, ultimately retooling it as a kind of supernatural seeker of justice and vengeance (keep an eye on who gets killed in this picture). But it gets to this rather too late, and ends up feeling like the primer for its own sequel. I suppose that’s just emblematic of where we are now.

As a calling card for DaCosta (for now), it’s solid. As a self-contained Candyman film, it’s an admirable hot mess.

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