Be My Victim.
So effective was 1992's Candyman in eliciting the horrors of those three words and the social injustice behind them that even as I found myself writing them I simultaneously looked around inside my three-bedroom, urban dwelling home to see if there were any mirrors within my immediate surroundings.
The original Candyman practically defined the cinematic tapestry of socially aware horror and it marked what was likely the peak performance for a never better Tony Todd, whose grotesque manifestation as a hook-handed menace whose practical melting into the walls of Chicago's real-life Cabrini-Green housing project was part urban legend and bigger part social reality.
The story itself was haunting, a streak of white personified by Virginia Madsen reaching outward throughout the film seeking an understanding it couldn't possibly have. Madsen's seemingly well-meaning graduate student entered a world she was ill-prepared to explore for reasons semi-noble yet remarkably foolish. If you ever looked into the eyes of Madsen, also offering what may have been a career-best performance, you saw as much titillation as concern.
I've seen movies like Candyman before, of course. However, perhaps the true reason I connected so firmly to Candyman was the fact that I've lived those movies in different ways and in different spaces. As a disabled adult male in a society where I am supposed to express nothing but gratitude for even surviving, the social meaning behind Candyman hit me smack dab in the face and practically provided a salve for the open place in my spine from the spina bifida that has long guided, perhaps even determined, nearly every aspect of my life.
I visited Cabrini-Green myself not long before they started the years-long project to tear down Chicago's towering high symbol of violence and inequity. A "Tenderness Tour" took me to Chicago, my own Virginia Madsen-like project that was equal parts social justice and personal exploitation. I was horrified at what I saw, yet I was equally horrified by what would replace it in the years to come.
Nia DaCosta's Candyman, for the most part a sequel tonally and thematically, understands all of this and seeks to balance it all while still immersing itself in traditional horror flick vibes. At times, this is extraordinarily successful. Other times, it's hard not to get the sense that DaCosta's vision for Candyman was more than a little controlled by the white powers to be who cried out for more of precisely what DaCosta and co-writer/producer Jordan Peele were preaching against.
At times, Candyman exploits itself and becomes its own Candyman.
Candyman stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris as an upwardly mobile artsy couple, the kind of couple for which Cabrini-Green was torn down and given new life as something supposedly better that really only served to mask the scars of a culture. We catch on almost immediately that Mateen's Anthony is a man of confidence, though a confidence borne less out of reality and more out of his willingness to play the game needed to get some semblance of success. Anthony is in a bit of a rut, his natural artistic tendencies cold shouldered by the mostly white art world figures who will decide if his is a name we will say. Teyonah Parris's Brianna is equally up-and-coming, perhaps more stably so, as a promising gallery director a little more certain with her place in this world.
But Anthony. Anthony truly wants us to say his name.
It is only when Teyonah's brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) half-jokingly shares the urban legend of Candyman that Anthony's creative juices once again begin flowing and are, not to his surprise, embraced by a white culture entertained by Black suffering disguised as cultural awareness. This updated Candyman tries awfully hard to embrace everything that the 1992 Candyman is yet to also move this Candyman into a world with #MeToo and #GeorgeFloyd and #BlackLivesMatter eliciting familiar yet meaningful chants. This Candyman dangles its cinematic toes into contemporary social justice issues that have changed in the nearly thirty years since the original film while also realizing that those thirty-year-old issues remain just as relevant today.
I must confess that I prefer the original Candyman, an equally stacked and packed motion picture but a film that magnificently brought to life one of cinema's great movie monsters while also serving as a history lesson from 1890 forward. The film danced across cultures in ways I'm not sure it even fully understood and there remains something gloriously uncomfortable about the film even if it will likely live in the shadows of this shinier, prettier, and bigger budgeted sequel.
DaCosta's movie, which may not satisfy me in the way the original did but is still quite often a strong accomplishment, borrows in all the best ways from the original while also laying claim to its own territory. DaCosta beautifully portrays Anthony's transformation once his decision is made to embrace his newfound path, a path that creates the very inequities it preaches against. When Anthony's "Say His Name" exhibit is brought to life, Anthony's willingness to play along begins to have very real-world consequences and it's in creating these consequences that Candyman most shines. There's body horror here that is truly horrifying and, yes, bees that I still haven't forgotten since 1992.
If there's a place where Candyman falls short it's in where it goes in the scenes that follow. Candyman seems so determined to maintain its social relevance that it gets mired and muddled in its messaging and reaches that point where it begins exploiting its own existence. The original film, somewhat magically, never seemed to downward spiral into self-exploitation. This Candyman struggles to find that balance and never quite becomes true horror or truly socially relevant. It's clear that Peele and DaCosta are aiming for some degree of social satire here, though it's for the most part less inspired than it ought to be. The truth is that the horror genre has always been far more socially relevant than it's given credit for being. Peele's Get Out capitalized on this awareness in both cinematic presentation and marketing. Horror, at its best, gives voice to the voiceless and meaning to that which can't be understood.
In these ways, Candyman is not unique yet seems determined to convince us it's unique.
The ensemble cast in Candyman is uniformly strong. However, only days after having watched the film only Colman Domingo's William Burke continues to haunt me as I sit here writing this review and reflecting on this effort that never comes close to achieving the greatness for which it strives. Domingo is rapidly becoming one of the U.S.'s most underrated actors and he takes a relatively bit role here and bathes it in horrifying wonder.
This is not to say that Mateen is weak. Not by any means. The same is true for Parris. Both excel together and apart and Mateen's ability to tap into Anthony's layered complexity without turning into a caricature is admirable. It is, perhaps, simply as written that these characters simply don't always satisfy in the same way that I remember being satisfied in 1992.
Candyman has so much to admire about it that it's frustrating that it never quite reaches the brilliance of which it is convinced it has achieved. Candyman is, instead, a modestly satisfying horror film with a whole lot to say and nary a clue how to say it all while still entertaining us along the way.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic