2021 is the perfect time for a spiritual sequel to the 1992 horror slasher “Candyman,” a movie so frightening that not even sympathetic, well-meaning white women were safe.
That was truly shocking in the 90s, and 2021 seems to be the ideal time to continue this tradition when white women have been repeatedly and publicly called out for the many ways in which they perpetuate racism.
But the 2021 film “Candyman” can’t seem to fully allow its title character to truly play the villain. It’s not exactly difficult to discern the reason why, as Candyman owed his very existence to white supremacy from his film debut. Legend had it that he was Daniel Robitaille, a Black 19th century artist who fell in love with a wealthy young white woman after he was tasked with painting her portrait. Once her father found out, he rounded up a lynch mob, who brutally tortured Robitaille before burning him alive, only for him to return as the vengeful, murderous spirit Candyman. Anyone who summons him by saying his name in the mirror five times is said to experience a painful death shortly thereafter.
In the present day, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects where the 1992 movie was set have apparently been gentrified, and are now mostly populated by well-off artists. One such is Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who was kidnapped by Candyman as an infant in the first film, and who is now unaware of even the existence of the spirit, and especially how his own past is tied to him.
That his mother Anne-Marie (once again played by Vanessa Williams) would withhold this information for the sake of his happiness and normalcy is understandable. That said, at least she could’ve gotten more than a single scene, since a little history probably would’ve prevented Anthony from, say, dedicating his latest work to Candyman, which soon racks up a body count that are mostly a series of cameos with more blood. The art gallery owner and his much younger squeeze who are about to get it on, the critic, the high school students, all of them get offed from a distance until the big finale, which basically doubles as the movie’s thesis.
Why not? The original movie may have been directed by a white British Jewish director who immersed himself in the geography and history of Chicago, but the 2021 update is directed by Nia DaCosta and co-written by Jordan Peele, Black creatives who have lived in a world where fear is not only real, but very much flesh and blood. And usually it has a badge. In “Candyman,” each Black character either has a story about it, or suffers from it. As a Cabrini-Green local (Colman Domingo) who stuck around put it, “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happened. That they’re still happening.”
Yet to fold that fear into the Candyman as a spirit who wreaks revenge on the unjust is to ignore the root of the Candyman’s legend, which is that nothing good came from the brutality visited upon him. He may have returned and taken his anger out on plenty of white people, but anyone foolish enough to summon him can expect to meet that ultimate end, and that included members of his own community. Anthony’s own kidnapping and near death by the very flames that also consumed Candyman is testament to that.
Because there is another, very much unspoken fear that runs through this movie, and that is actually becoming what the system believes you to be. After all, quite a few horror films may base their narrative around the fear that the monster will catch up with you, but there are just as many who question if that monster is you.
That’s the indication anyway. So little is devoted to Anthony’s actual mindset, with the movie preferring to focus on gross out horror as his body slowly becomes infected, and eventually, a source of outright disgust. It’s not like it’s totally devoid of emotion, since Abdul-Mateen is the kind of actor who can indeed reflect an increasingly tortured soul with his eyes, and DaCosta is a talented enough filmmaker to exploit this to the fullest. As the narrative, such as it is, twists, audiences are pulled into an extremely uncomfortable intimacy, complete with the most unsettling angles possible, with a man slowly going out of his mind.
That this psychological unraveling is given so little time in attention is astonishing, since DaCosta’s previous feature Little Woods was a carefully observed study of a bleak, isolated environment and characters who were driven to desperation by it, with the kind of suspense that would make Hitchcock proud.
So why does “Candyman” mostly consist of topics merely touched upon? When Anthony sees visions of Candyman, he’s almost happy as more murders are connected to his art, which could’ve been a fascinating exploration of how violence is sensationalized and exploited by many of us, as well as the media we’re all quick to scapegoat. Not to mention the sexism inherent in how Anthony becomes an increasingly shitty partner to his woefully underdeveloped girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), who gets the opportunities and attention he clearly covets.
Her backstory is in itself a gaping maw of untapped potential, a reflection of the many ideas brought up and quickly discarded. The daughter of an artist father who was more tortured than most, Brianna becomes the sum total of what the men in her life have wrought. It may make a twisted kind of sense for Helen (Virginia Madsen), the woman from the first film, to be reduced to an urban legend of an insane woman who simply snapped, but there’s no reason for such an excellent character like Brianna to get the same treatment while she is fully capable of speaking and acting for herself.
No, there’s no sign of the razor sharp observations from the film that started it all, which meticulously incorporated not just racial but class and gender dynamics, even down to how the construction of Helen’s pricey condo was tied to Chicago’s long history of redlining. Is the 1992 film simply destined to remain an outlier?
Perhaps, given that things don’t occur in the 2021 “Candyman.” They just happen, with seemingly little connection to the plot beyond slasher conventions, or just sheer rage that gentrification drives out the very communities the system chose to abandon in the first place. If there’s any hope that things will change at all in this “Candyman,” it’s that more people will learn enough from history to fear the monsters they created themselves.