Candyman (2021)

AUGUST 27, 2021

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

In a perfect world, Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele would have been the ones to have the genius idea to change Candyman to a vengeful murdered slave (for non readers, Bernard Rose's film is basically pretty faithful to Barker's story "The Forbidden", but in there Candyman was a white guy and there was next to nothing about race involved or even implied), in a new adaptation/remake where this new approach allowed it to exist on its own without the legacy of the older film being a factor. Instead, they're making a sequel, also named Candyman (I guess this is how followups are gonna be titled now? Thanks a lot, Halloween), adding their different perspective on Black issues after much of the character's history has already been explored. And when it works, it works incredibly well - but the keyword there is "when".

One of my key issues requires me to note something that is apparently a bit of a spoiler with regards to its main character of Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), so be warned. If you're still here, and you're someone who has seen the 1992 Candyman a few times or even once recently, recently, you might recognize that name, Anthony, because that's the name of the baby who Candyman kidnapped and was rescued by Helen Lyle in the film's climax. And anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the film will likely remember hearing the child's mother, played by Vanessa Williams, screaming it over and over again. Thanks to this film having opening credits with Williams' name right there, and Anthony repeatedly dodging calls from his mother, it shouldn't take more than a handful of brain cells to make the connection: Yahya's character is indeed that grown up baby, and Williams is back as his mom.

But for some puzzling reason, the movie treats this like a reveal with only about 25 minutes left in its runtime (during the one scene with Williams, making her up front credit practically something of a spoiler itself). Until then, even with Helen Lyle (represented by photos of Virginia Madsen) being established, it mostly acts more like a remake - complete with a different identity for "The Candyman", the urban legend about a guy who gave out candy to kids but was hunted down by the cops when a piece showed up with a razor blade in it. This idea was alluded to in the original, but everything we are seeing about it conflicts with what we learned in the 1992 movie, making it feel like a total do-over, and in turn the sequel reveal practically comes off as a cheat. As a result, dealing with everything about this character (named Sherman Fields) AND the one we're familiar with (Daniel Robitaille is brought up, though the other reveals from Farewell to the Flesh are ignored - the new team just liked the name I guess), plus the resolution of THIS story all happens in a third act whirlwhind, making it feel like the movie is on fast forward after what was a well structured first hour or so.

Well, mostly well structured. There are a couple of scenes - in particular an attack on a group of high school girls - that don't trigger any alarms at the time, but then the movie reaches its conclusion and you realize that it had no payoff or connection to anything. Did that sequence get butts in seats, since it was heavily featured in the trailer? Most likely, but considering the movie's weighty themes (Black Lives Matter key among them, as both the Fields character and one of our heroes are the victims of racist cops) such exploitation is somewhat ill-fitting. Even if there WAS some kind of payoff it'd feel disconnected (we only briefly met one girl prior, and in a different context; I saw someone noting they didn't even realize it was the same girl), but given how suspicion for the murders eventually lands on Anthony and there are witnesses to his whereabouts at the time, the event is never mentioned again, as if to avoid gummying up the works.

But that could have been great to explore! The cops wouldn't have given a shit if Anthony was on live TV at the time if they wanted him to be their killer just to have a convenient story (a Black man killing five white girls), and it's a shame that they opt to use the sequence for little more than "let's get another kill in here" purposes, as if this was indeed the generic slasher some (including 12 year old me) expected from the original film. I don't want to use the term "window dressing", but something in that ballpark is how some of the film's scenes end up feeling, as it has to function as both "Candyman 4" but also continue the tradition of past Monkeypaw films (Get Out and Us, but also BlacKkKlansman). Those films were free of franchise constraints, something I feel occasionally holds this one back in ways, as DaCosta never fully marries the two. When it's a racially-charged horror movie about how we create boogeymen to forgive ourselves for looking the other way at injustices, it's terrific, but it has to keep going back to being a Candyman movie, seemingly begrudgingly. It's a weird comparison, but I kept thinking of Alien: Covenant, and how Ridley Scott was clearly more interested in the new story of David and Walter, but had to keep tossing in xenomorph scenes to satisfy audiences (or worried producers) and muddying up the waters.

That said, being the fourth entry can help you appreciate that it's the first one to offer anything but a dull white woman as its protagonist (Madsen's performance was fine, she just had to play a stock character). DaCosta wisely opts to split lead character duties between Anthony and his girlfriend Brianna (the always delightful Teyonah Parris, who stole WandaVision away from her MCU legacy co-stars); the former is an artist struggling with a bit of a block, with the Candyman story unleashing his imagination and having him look around the old Cabini Green grounds, while the latter is an art gallery director on the rise. As Anthony becomes obsessed with the Candyman story (he even digs up the unfinished research of Helen Lyle, though in keeping with waiting forever to reveal his past, he somehow doesn't ever see his own mother's name in the news clippings or online articles about the woman who is famous for having "kidnapped" him) Brianna discovers her career upswing is perhaps not due to her own talents but her connection to tabloid fodder, leaving her to question if her relationship with Anthony is a liability or a benefit. And eventually Anthony is kind of sidelined; he is stung by a bee and the pus/raw skin from the bite starts spreading across his body, which along with his increasingly fractured mental state allows Brianna to take center stage as she tries to figure out what is wrong with him and if his stories of the Candyman are true after all.

So basically it feels like a Fly kind of movie, where Anthony is turning into *a* Candyman and Brianna is torn between being frightened by him and wanting to help him. The idea of someone gradually turning into the familiar Candyman figure is an intriguing one, to the extent that I wish it really was just a remake so they could go full force with it instead of coming up with the idea and then reverse engineering how it plays out in order to tie everything back to the original mythos. With Tony Todd as the only Candyman in the previous films (and with him being long dead by the time we met him), the idea of someone being transitioned into the guy we recognize from our Movie Maniacs action figures is something that obviously wouldn't have worked before, so we can't say it's "breaking the rules" (and we did kind of see how Helen became something along those lines), but there's only so far they can go with it when they've established that it's the same canon.

Where it truly shines is in the little moments that speak to the Black experience, something white guys like me can't ever fully understand but can at least appreciate when seeing them happen to the protagonist we're otherwise identifying with. There's a great little moment where Anthony flinches from a cop car despite not doing anything wrong, and an old timer who runs the local laundromat offers the movie's most stinging points about police and the general idea of why we have "boogeymen" characters. It's got occasional bits of humor, mostly courtesy of Brianna (a simple "nope" when confronted with possibly entering a dark basement is an all timer delivery) and her brother Troy, who acts as a voice of reason throughout. He's also the one to introduce the Candyman story in the first place, and if you're familiar enough with the original to remember exactly what Helen did and didn't do, hearing the urban legend about her is not just amusing in its own right, but also offers us a rare occasion where the time passing between entries can be helpful. It's been nearly 30 years since the original film's events, so you quickly get the idea of how a true story can evolve into nonsensical fiction over time as the legend is told and retold by people who weren't there or (certainly in Troy's case) even alive at the time. It's possible someone sitting there who hasn't seen the original film since opening night in 1992 can accept this version (in which Helen runs into the fire with the baby) as what they saw back then, because who can remember details after 30 years?

Those folks will also likely be surprised at Anthony's past, making them (or newcomers entirely) perhaps the ideal audience for the film. Hardcore fans of the series (if any exist for the other sequels) will likely be disappointed by the lack of Tony Todd's presence, but that wasn't a dealbreaker for me - the Sherman Fields character was creepy enough in his own right, as was Anthony's surprise entry into body horror territory. However, the attempt at bridging a sequel and a remake didn't fully work for me; I was too far ahead of the characters to be satisfied with how it worked as, essentially, Candyman 4, but it's those elements were also keeping the movie from fully coming to life as the standalone thing it occasionally seemed to desperately want to be. And by trying to work in so many ideas (police brutality, the effects of gentrification, how people deal with childhood trauma, etc) in a film that has to both function as a reintroduction AND a followup to a classic horror film, it comes off as a bit too crammed and rushed, as if they planned a six episode miniseries and had to turn it into a 90 minute movie instead. It gives you a lot to chew on for sure, but I think I would have walked out more satisfied if DaCosta and crew picked one or two of those ideas and really ran with it/them, instead of overloading with everything and robbing of it of some of its impact as a result. I've been trying to make this review sound less negative (I gave it 3 stars, which by my ratings "code" means it's an enjoyable/average movie), but I just can't get around the fact that a pretty good movie will always seem like a disappointment when it flirts with greatness. I'll probably like it more a second time around when I know it's got some nagging problems - at least it's short enough for a revisit to be more likely.

What say you?

P.S. I hope Clive Barker has a sense of humor about how he is represented in the film; there's a douchey sex predator named Clive and a villain character is seen reading Weave World. Yeesh!

2 comments:

  1. First off, love the blog. I've got to respectfully disagree with your take on the bathroom murder scene though.

    I can never remember the names of characters unless I've seen a movie multiple times, just as a disclaimer!

    Anyway, the laundromat guy's goal was to turn Anthony into a Candyman to take vengeance on white people. This Candyman's victims represented the different ways white supremacy harms Black people.

    The cops - that one's obvious

    The gallery owner and the art critic - white people who exploiting both the art and the pain of Black people

    The girls in the bathroom - They represent the bystanders. White people who are willing to consume Black suffering as entertainment, or just willing to gawk at it, but aren't doing anything to change systems of oppression. It wasn't a coincidence that the Asian girl noped out and escaped the fate of the other girls and the Black girl who was in the stall was not murdered. I didn't see the carnage as random all.

    Even though the movie was filmed before the murder of George Floyd, it calls to mind how the media showed the footage again and again. To an almost sadistic degree. A lot of Black people called it out as exploitative. And they were right. As much as all but the very worst, most racist people were horrified by the video, nothing changed. Cops are still killing and otherwise brutalizing Black Americans just as much while white America has moved on and largely forgotten.

    In fact, as I type this, I'm realizing this is making the white audience of Candyman complicit as well, since we're watching a story of Black suffering for entertainment.

    That's how I interpreted it. I'd be interested to hear what DaCosta's intent with the scene was, see if I'm close to the mark here.

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  2. This movie started off pretty good but ultimately was a disappointment. It was poorly edited and seemed like they had 100 ideas that they just threw in without any foundational support. This movie had so much promise but ultimately fell far short of the mark. The movies dialog felt very preachy, overt, and cliche'd. I agree with the what main character says during the art gallery scene, "...let the art speak for itself."

    I agree with you thought that the first part of the movie was pretty good. Then the final half hour was like watching a train wreck in real time. I don't think I would give it another watch.

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