I wanted to love Candyman. The 1992 original stands as a rare gem in 90s horror – genuinely scary and bursting with theme in a remarkable way not oft seen – and it’s certainly a classic overall. Candyman ’21 acts as a direct sequel to Candyman ’92, continuing this trend of sequels to excellent horrors that show their sequeldom with neither numbers nor subtitles, but rather copy/pasting their predecessor’s title, ala 2018’s Halloween. I guess that’s the state of affairs these days. Regardless, here we are – Candyman, the sequel to Candyman.
Candyman has pros, quite a few in fact, but it has some exceptionally glaring problems, many of which stop the movie right in its tracks. Before anything else, though, the particulars: Cabrini-Green, an affordable housing project in Chicago rife with problems (it has a fascinating history and I encourage you to read into it) and where Candyman ’92 took place, has since been rezoned into upscale living. Artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director, have moved into one of these upscale developments, where Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), regales them on Cabrini-Green’s history. Anthony, struggling to make further headway in the Chicago art scene, meets Billy (Colman Domingo), who teaches him the legend of the Candyman – a hooked supernatural killer who, as you probably already know, can be easily summoned by saying his names five times in a mirror. Inspired by this legend, Anthony imbues the Candyman in his next exhibition, to which he receives decidedly mixed reception. However, Anthony’s exhibit handed out pamphlets inviting naïve visitors to summon the Candyman, and that bit got me particularly excited. Plus, Anthony got stung by a bee prior to meeting Billy, and it’s turning pretty nasty, and Anthony himself is becoming a tad unhinged. Off we go.
Credit where its due, exploring the gentrified neighbourhood where Cabrini-Green once stood is a brilliant idea for a Candyman sequel, and the idea of legends providing purpose – for better and for worse – and how that intersects with one’s capacity for violence is an excellent framework to hang the movie’s themes around. In fact, if you were to just read the entire story on Wikipedia or wherever you’d probably be impressed and think it sounds great.
So how the hell does Candyman drop the ball?
Candyman‘s conspicuously a Message Movie, that’s never not been in question, but it’s perhaps too conspicuous about it. It’s one of the worst types of message movies: patronizing in its inability to trust your sense of nuance, brimmed with expository dialogue that sounds like characters reading out dictionary definitions of the movie’s themes – and believe me, every theme gets its moment in the sun this way – and it’s all to the point where I’m thinking that DeCosta and company had no faith in the story itself to convey the ideas they wanted to express, and so had to add these stilted ‘assurances’ from the characters that, yes, we indeed understand what’s happening and the theme du jour. I get that in the year of our lord 2021 the notion of metaphor’s out the window, but it holds Candyman back quite a bit in that we’re spending more time spelling out these themes than, you know, actually diving into them.
The characters functioning like exposition/plot vessels than people don’t help. They more or less speak in tweets, with a kind of airy wit that sucks the gravity out of most scenes (much of the first half feels more like a Velvet Buzzsaw sequel than anything else). Everyone’s acting at the same register of lightly sassy with the notable exception of Abdul-Mateen II, who greatly succeeds at portraying somebody inching ever closer over a mental cliff, harbouring some primal, violent energy within that manifests in sporadic body movements and facial expressions. So there’s that if little else.
And, of course, one does not see a movie called Candyman without some expectation of hook-related slayings. This iteration has some splendid deaths, particularly one in an apartment window as we pan out on the Chicago skyline, the frame illuminated with a bunch of people going about their high-rise lives while the victim meets their fate, just excellent all around. The other kills are quite good, like a slaying in an art gallery with a brutal bloody throat slash, or a bathroom scene that’s conversely bloodlessly brutal. On top of this, we have Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe’s terrific score guiding us through these moments, playing on dissonance than Philip Glass’ bleak compositions, though Glass’ original theme makes some well-timed appearances. Alas, these kills aren’t perfect – Candyman relies on neon red blood that looks more like juice than actual blood, and some especially artificial-looking prosthetics, that take much away from the shock inherent to these killings and the occasional strides into body horror the movie makes.
Which, frankly, speaks to Candyman‘s broad problem in that its stylistic leanings tend to get in the whole movie’s way. The blood’s a simple example. More so, the polished visuals are too polished to invoke a sense of oppression and danger, something Candyman ’92 accomplished exquisitely well. Make no mistake, Candyman has some beautiful visuals and DeCosta has an eye for assembling very pleasing compositions, many of which play with colour and shadow, usually pushing the Candyman into the back of the frame (there’s a shot of the Candyman imposed in the dark next the soft neon of an art gallery that is simply A+), but these, again, are more pleasing than they are conducive to creating a sense of horror.
Not worst of all, but up there, the editing’s very choppy – surprisingly choppy – often lurching us awkwardly from scene to scene and usually missing the ideal cut points +/- a few seconds. It creates this sense of disjointedness that kills the movie’s momentum, making me feel like I’m watching a collection of scenes the filmmakers liked versus a cohesive story with an organic flow. These problems make it hard to feel arrested by Candyman, which is a deep shame considering there are key scenes, especially the excellent pre-credits scene (and the credits sequence itself, brilliantly toying with the 1992 version’s and reflecting the ominous mystery of a world that stretches well beyond our reach), that really do fire on all cylinders. It feels a bit like fan-fiction overall, like DeCosta, Peele, and company decided they wanted to add to the existing Candyman story but lack that certain zeal for the property their progenitors had.
That, and it feels like a movie for people who already agree to everything it has to say and already know everything it has to say, which makes its efforts to spell out everything particularly artless. It doesn’t pose many questions despite having many ideas; it doesn’t offer much to ponder and consider, and in that sense it isn’t even a landslide triumph over 1995’s Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and 1999’s Candyman: Day of the Dead (neither of which are achievements, to note). Again, the idea of gentrification is such fertile ground for a Candyman film, lending itself to so many plot arcs and visual storytelling tools, but this one barely cracks the surface. The themes are too conspicuous to be thoughtful, the characters too inhuman to be interesting but not so inhuman as to be strangely compelling, the visuals too precise on satisfying colour palettes but not on reflecting our increasingly unhinged protagonist and the horror of his circumstance, the gore plentiful but too stylized to be impactful. It’s all too much and not enough.
P.S. A quick moment to vent: Tony Todd reprising the Candyman role thrilled me much. I was just as deflated to find out he has no speaking lines throughout the film, and when he finally does the filmmakers opt to use wildly unnecessary CGI to de-age him. That is all.