CANDYMAN— 4 STARS
Call this a crude cinematic question as well as a question of evolved sensibilities, but how do you make shiny things and places scary? Horror stories typically thrive on the dirty, dingy, and grotesque as instinctual triggers. It’s harder to get that same effect in a setting of clean poshness. The long-distance sequel Candyman has an answer to that and it parallels putting truth to the societal cleansing castigated by the movie itself.
As of 2011, the mid-rise, high-rise, and subsidized Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago’s Near North Side that gave form for haunted setting of the original 1992 movie have been demolished and polished into a trendy area of upscale affluence. Today, after a decades-long reputation as a hotbed of gang-centered crime and minority poverty, only the original and aging two-story rowhouses from the 1940s remain. Nearly 30 years after the events of the first film, a few steadfast residents have weathered the gentrification to remain as the old eyesores decay in order to heal over, little by little, below the gleam and shadows of their new glassy and classy architectural neighbors.
LESSON #1: THE RAMIFICATIONS OF GENTRIFICATION— Tearing down affordable housing does not stamp out the crime found inside them. It removes homes that are not equally or fairly replaced, forcing loyal locals to step aside for opportunistic wealthy migrants taking advantage of the weakness they created and governed from the outside. Pushed out with wallets instead of weapons, the poor and neglected take their unaided problems elsewhere in a cycle that seemingly begins again in another location. That itself is “ambient violence” to a “community’s collective subconscious,” as the script laments.
Meanwhile, the new tenants arrive completely oblivious to the dark former annals of their new swanky digs. Ah yes, reputations can change and improve. Borders and labels can be rebranded. People, buildings, and businesses may evolve, but do you know what you can’t gentrify? Legends and myths. Oral histories live on and documented records are a blow of dust or a mouse-click away from being rediscovered and relearned.
You know another thing that doesn’t go away? Ghosts, and that’s where the ominous folded folklore of Candyman comes into play. All it takes is a remnant, a sliver, or, in this movie’s case, a name repeated five times and a shard or two of glass to rise and reflect the immortal lost soul that never stopped staring back at those who tread this neighborhood, even amid all the pretty changes.
Two of those millennial denizens wiping the proverbial chrome away to see the rusty underside are the cohabitating aspiring painter Anthony McCoy and his art gallery director girlfriend Brianna Cartwright, played respectively by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Teyonah Parris of Chi-Raq. Anthony is floundering professionally and in desperate need of new creative and cognitive inspiration. Spurred by rumors joked around during a party by Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett of TV’s Misfits), a traipse through the nearby rowhouses, a bee sting to the hand, and a striking conversation with an senior local named William Burke (Coleman Domingo of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) ignite that very craven spark.
Paraphrased by dynamic puppeted animation from Manual Cinema accompanying Burke’s narrated tales, the urban legend of “Candyman” and Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is recounted and poured into the dry sponge of Anthony’s fascinations. The man can’t get enough. The rapid obsession comes out on his canvases and in the simultaneous curses, visions, and murders that begin to surround his actions and aura.
LESSON #2: DON’T TAKE DARES— Since it needs to be said, this lesson could also expand to preach not to do whatever are the clearly presented steps that summon whatever bad thing is in play. Don’t push any buttons. Don’t open the wrong book. Don’t play the creepy video tape. Don’t say so-and-so’s name five times in a mirror. Follow the warnings, back away, or keep walking. Stop tempting fate. Who would do that? As the movie likes to say (twice, in fact), “that’s some white people shit.”
Alas, but that’s the conceit of a proper horror movie. You need a few suckers that screw up and awaken the monster. In a clever aural touch, the gentle rapping and buzzing of the CGI bees come first to clench our ears and seated muscles. Synthesizer specialist Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who worked with Denis Villeneuve and the late Johann Johannsson on Sicario and Arrival, then pulses the right dirge to announce the titular specter’s presence with authority.
LESSON #3: REFLECTIVE SURFACES ARE OVER-CONVENIENT-– For one more sidebar, objects and surfaces that can behave like a mirror really are everywhere when you look around. Like the effect of the bees, cinematographer John Guleserian (About Time) plays quite coyly with the on-set items and angles necessary to either shroud or reveal our coated killer in unique ways. The feeling that a certain hook and crimson spray could come from anywhere is established brilliantly.
Yayha Abdul-Mateen II, himself a product of New Orleans’ housing projects, descends this darkness with rattled fear that coalesces to powerful intensity in a striking arc of transformation. Keeping pace with him is the penchant for tough talk that has long made Teyonah Parris forceful on-screen in her leading and supporting roles across WandaVision, If Beale Street Could Talk, and more. The painful split of their coupled performances is very effective.
With a methodical pace and scaffold of suspense, this Candyman is not a pure carnival of barbarity. Borrowing a quote from the great Roger Ebert reviewing the original movie, we now have a second successful “horror movie that was scaring me with ideas and gore, instead of simply with gore.” The macabre violence of Nia Da Costa’s Candyman is rooted in the generational trauma caused by the socioeconomic footholds echoing beyond this movie’s fictional setting and into our own country’s egregious past mistakes and current strife.
Da Costa and her co-writers/producers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfield have chiseled a treatise on the lineage of oppression spanning multiple sources and layers and have done so with a resurrected hook-wielding apparition as its hammer. Not many horror sequels, let alone horror movies, will generate the connective editorials and think pieces this one will. Lurking with evil as piercing as the social commentary, there’s a summer popcorn movie being molded by these heavy and overarching messages. To pull such gravity off and still entertain is a hell of a slick punch coming from not-so-invisible phantasms.