The Scariest Things Review: Candyman (2021)

ATMOSfx! Woo!
Say his name… Candyman… Candyman… OK, stopping while we’re ahead.
A powerful sequel of a beloved classic slasher movie that establishes that this franchise is perhaps the headiest and most nuanced of all the slasher movies. Director Nia DaCosta shows real visionary talent, and with co-writer Jordan Peele, adds updated depth and texture to an already fascinating urban legend.
Directed by Nia DaCosta

The Candyman franchise was always a little different than your standard fare slasher feature. From the literate writing of Clive Barker, to the hypnotic modern-classical music of Phillip Glass, and the memorable performances by Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd, Candyman was always a bit more high minded a film than its peers in the genre.

Conceptually, it borrows on the Bloody Mary trope, or alternately from Japan’s Hanako-san legend. Summon a spirit or a demon by speaking their name into a mirror several times. It’s a classic urban legend practiced by teenagers for decades. A ghost story with the potential to undo you. It’s an “I dare you” moment, so ingrained that I doubt you would go to a mirror and say Candyman five times in front of a mirror right after you finish reading this.

Yeah. Didn’t think you would.

Enter the modern horror taste-maker Jordan Peele, coming off of the well-received hits Get Out and Us, to produce and write an update to this revered movie, and tab the rising star director Nia DaCosta (Little Woods) and you get an opportunity for something potentially special. One of the big criticisms of the original film was that it attempted to provide social commentary about the urban African American experience, but it was written, produced, and directed by two white British men. As revealing a movie as that was, the desire to have some black storytellers attack this story has been tantalizing. The movie’s tagline “Dare to say his name” is a resonant cry for justice in the Black Lives Matter movement, and it carries with it the weight of history, reflected in this story. This is a movie where even the little details matter, and that starts with the opening studio graphics which come in… mirrored. Nice.

In this telling of the Candyman tale, we are introduced to Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) a Chicago painter of great promise, and his partner, gallery director Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) have recently moved into a gentrified luxury condominium in Cabrini Green. Cabrini Green is the location of the notorious real-life low-income housing towers that were symbolic of urban slums from the ’40s to the ’90s and those slum towers were the hunting grounds for the legendary Candyman.

In the not-so-distant past, the Candyman would be summoned and unaccounted for in Cabrini Green, because the City turned a blind eye to the violent fates of the residents. The history of the Candyman is told in paper-puppet flashbacks to bring the audience up to speed and remind everyone of the evil in the neighborhood.

Anthony, in a need to find an artistic muse, hears of the urban legend of the Candyman, from Brianna’s protective brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett… who gives some great levity to an otherwise very serious movie.) Anthony is compelled to travel to what is left of the slums, some abandoned row-houses, and there he encounters a man who as a boy had a run-in with the Candyman, William Burke (Colman Domingo), who gives his interpretation of the same tale. On another ominous encounter on his trip to the projects, Anthony is also stung by a bee. (Uh oh!)

Anthony takes the inspiration of his research on the Candyman to channel into his work. He decides to recount the summoning procedure behind a mirror in his sole contribution to a big gallery exposition that Brianna hosted. The art critics and dealers found the project to be trite and uninspired. But even they could not resist trying the incantation themselves, and the destructive power of the Candyman has been unleashed once again in a series of some very bloody encounters.

As the trail of bodies begins to pile up, and the indications begin to point towards Anthony, the bee sting begins to transform his arm into something horribly infected. He continues to research the Candyman, and it is revealed that he has a very special relationship with the legendary figure and that fate has led him down this path, with his career, and his eventual reconstitution of a vengeful spirit.

Teyonah Parris in Candyman (2021)

Eric’s Review: ★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★

In the same vein that the latest Halloween franchise has taken, this breathes fresh air back into the old warhorse that is Candyman. I actually think this is a superior film to the original, but I have to give a nod to the originality of the 1992 film. And though both are brainy slasher movies, they have taken a stylistically different way to approach the material.

Both films present you with characters with big sweeping story arcs. Both Helen Lyle (Madsen) and Anthony are curious investigators, for different reasons. As they find themselves obsessed with the subject material they find that they cannot extricate themselves from it. They’ve gotten too close. And though they follow a similar arc, one has come at it from the outsider’s perspective (Helen) and the other is from a deeply intimate insider perspective (Anthony).

DaCosta has a tremendous artistic flair to her work, and the set designs and locations are wonderfully shot. Even the old laundromat oozed character. And, the juxtaposition of the new hipster Cabrini Green, and the modern ruins of the old projects are on-point. I also appreciated how she managed to execute the kill shots. Some done in frenetic up-close action shots, and another memorable shot from a wide-angle long shot that was in my mind even creepier than the one up close.

One of the key differences between the films, and one that I think may raise the hackles of fans of the series is that the Candyman here is a secondary player. He is a legendary spirit, oftentimes completely invisible. This is in stark contrast to the menacing presence of Tony Todd, with his intense glare, and all the bees. We do get to see some of the Candyman, and his famous coat and hook, but this is much more the story of Anthony, and for a retelling, I think that it is hugely appropriate to do so.

By making this movie about the protagonists, you don’t have to worry about the recasting of the iconic role. We’ve already seen the folly of trying to re-cast Freddy Krueger. The update of Chucky was not received well. By repositioning the point of view, you still get a richly textured story, with several intricate and carefully woven plot threads that could so easily have felt forced. The way that they tie the story back to Helen Lyle was really neatly done. The way that the movie tackles the actual gentrification of Chicago is also impressive. Is a displaced culture, no matter how downtrodden, in the favor of a more sterile hipster culture really an improvement?

It is interesting in the compare and contrast moments that you can how the horror genre has changed. The 1992 movie gave us a villain who was an over-the-top personality, in a smart movie that wanted to be a franchise. The 2021 movie is a character study of the effects of horror on the protagonists, with the villain being more of a plot vehicle. In that way, this movie is more like The Babadook or Hereditary than it is like A Nightmare on Elm Street. And, honestly, that’s a risk. I like the risk taken, but I’m sure there will be fans who want a charismatic franchise horror villain who can spout memorable one-liners. That’s NOT this movie.

The cast in the movie is fantastic. Each character felt perfectly cast for their roles. This really is Mateen’s movie, and he has the center of gravity to keep your attention. I do love how by using him as a painter, they reach back into the Candyman franchise legacy, as Daniel Robitaille was a painter who was lynched for falling in love with a white woman, and they cut off his painting hand. Callbacks! (nice) Each character had stand-out moments. I loved Coleman Domingo’s Cabrini Green survivor, as his raspy voice has the perfect storyteller’s timbre.

Nathan Stewart Jarett’s performance as the flamboyant gay truthteller stole every scene he was in, providing just enough humor to sneak in a sharp retort, but restrained enough not to be annoying. Vanessa Williams is terrific in her brief scenes as Anthony’s mom. (Recall also that Williams was in the original Candyman.)

This movie feels very much like a smart stand-alone film. I do not know if it has a sequel scheduled, but I don’t think it needs one. Jordan Peele is on a hot streak, and it feels like Nia DaCosta is going to be an emerging star director that I hope stays in the genre.

Mike’s Review:
★★★★ out of ★★★★★

A quizzical composition for sure. Candyman is an exceptionally well constructed film that has a sumptuous and unique visual style. The problem is it’s just not that scary. 

As a hardened horror podcasters we know good film making when we see and Candyman is it. From the reimagining of the original Candyman story to a layered and complex treatment of the Candyman lore, this 2021 joint has it all. 

Most importantly Candyman has exceptional characters played by exceptional actors. There is not a weak link in the bunch. Each brings something unique and special to the table.  The truly impressive thing about Candyman and its collection of characters is that they all fit together in a perfectly symbiotic way. As each character’s trajectory begins to unfold you’ll likely say to yourself “…how are they going to weave this thread through the film”, but by the end you’ll be saying, or rather shouting, “I had no idea…that makes perfect sense!” 

The story told through director Nia DaCosta’s vision is a rather complex tale. Key dates of racial injustice dating back to the 1800s are told through a super-unique shadow puppet device that draws out the lengthy horrors suffered by marginalized communities in America. Throughout it had me thinking of plying the same level of nuanced and socially thoughtful lore to Michael, Jason, Freddy, and Leatherface. Would it work? Could it work? Or is Candyman that truly special arch villain — who may/may not actually be a villain —  that has carved out an origin story so unique that is can’t be lifted and plopped down in the middle of middling slasher fare?

The lore is so compelling and engaging that DaCosta is able to simultaneously tell the seemingly never-ending tale of red-lining, police violence, gentrification, racism within the art community, and even homosexuality within the African American community. Each and everyone of these topics could have been too “on the nose”, but the subtly and care that DaCosta employs is nothing short of brilliant. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum each story will require you to have your thinker fully juiced up and ready look at these societal maladies in a different light. 

Candyman has many gruesome scenes, scenes of horrifying violence, and even some nasty body horror, but, consciously or not, DaCosta stays away from jump scares and many of the elements that make horror well, horror. Make no mistake there is a constant dread in the air, but there is nothing that will have you pulling your feet off the theater’s gum-soaked floor. The impending doom is there, but just not the scares. 

Candyman will surely have audiences applauding this fine craftsmanship, fine acting, and extra-fine story telling. It will also likely have people pining for a Candyman II, III, and IV. Candyman will also have many audiences looking in the mirror and sussing out their role in society’s imbalanced and systemic failures. Some of those people may however be looking in the mirror for entirely different reasons and repeating a well trod mantra. 

Candyman is Rated R for gory violent content, and language. This movie is playing in theaters across the country, as this was its opening weekend.

The Official Trailer:

For those of you not familiar with Horror Noir, check out this video about the impact that Candyman has on Black Culture.

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