The New 'Candyman' Misses the Point Directed by Nia DaCosta
Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Vanessa Williams
Published Aug 31, 2021It's impossible not to compare Candyman to its source material — Bernard Rose's 1992 film of the same name — especially since it's a sequel rather than a remake. Director Nia DaCosta, who co-wrote the film alongside Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, strays far from the genuinely horrific, crawl-under-your-skin tale that Rose painted. The new Candyman falls short of its predecessor in many ways: it adds a satirical undercurrent that distances it from its horror origins, and most importantly, misunderstands myth-making, ultimately making a shallow film out of a story that should inspire visceral unease.
Rose's Candyman was based on "The Forbidden," a short story by Clive Barker, who also penned and directed Hellraiser (a perfect horror movie, in this writer's opinion). DaCosta's Candyman continues the legend laid down by Rose, but also changes it. The story follows painter Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) — who becomes obsessed with the legend of Candyman as he works to create art that lives up to his debut on the Chicago art scene — and his girlfriend and gallery director Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Candyman is, like in the '92 version, summoned by uttering his name five times in front of a mirror, and Anthony incorporates this into his art installation, which consists of a mirrored medicine cabinet opening up to a storage locker in which hang the portraits of all the "Candymen" — Black men murdered by white supremacy.
This is where DaCosta's version begins paving its own mythological path. In this movie, there are many Candymen, unlike the single monster of the 1992 original. These many Candymen swim across reflective surfaces and kill white people who summon him. The film follows Anthony's slow, agonizing transformation into another Candyman.
While Rose's film roiled with a swampy, horrific atmosphere, DaCosta's Candyman fizzles with a sarcasm that takes itself to be satire, first of art criticism and then of mainstream society's expectations of Black artists. This detached irony is a disservice to the legend of Candyman. Myths have always been of the people — they help us to understand our lot in life, to come to terms with inequality and prejudicial violence. The myth of Candyman was once used to explain abject, systemic violence; we feared the Candyman because of how the 1992 film sunk its teeth into our skin and left a mark on our minds.
DaCosta and Peele's Candyman isn't scary and barely qualifies as horror — it's more a straightforward mystery, as Anthony works to figure out the story of Candyman and himself. People die, but in a predictable way, and because only assholes die, it's tough to become invested in characters. The stuffy world of art criticism is mocked through stuffiness itself: big words and monologues. Aside from Anthony and Brianna, the only tragic character is Anthony's mother (Vanessa Williams), and this is only because she's a holdover from the '92 film.
If horror as a genre is defined as a work that inspires revulsion, shock or fear (stemming as it does from the French for "to shudder or bristle"), then DaCosta's Candyman placates by targeting only those who are morally bankrupt. Candyman is just a ghost on our side, not a monster. This Candyman isn't a story of survival, but of punishment.
More than anything this movie is expository (by explaining the legend) and academic (by examining the role of the critic). It takes great pleasure in punishing Anthony's critic, Finley (Rebecca Spence), but rather than exposing the horrors faced by POC communities — particularly Black people — in America, it becomes another Hollywood project that works to teach white people that racism is bad in inaccessible, sanitary, academic terms.
Though visually vibrant, and though it celebrates the original Candyman's story by bringing in some familiar faces, DaCosta's Candyman is sapped of its potency by the fact that it creates a new myth of terror against a group of people who never experience the terror that Candyman represents. The targets here are well-off white people.
That being said, the acting is alright, and certain elements do work. The stories of all the Candymen are told through delicate shadow-puppetry, which does get to the heart of myth-making — these are stories that are passed among a group of people and reproduced within society, rather than for society. And that's the real problem with this movie: it seems to misunderstand the place of myths and for whom they function. The beauty of the first movie was that it critiqued a world by showing us how we are touched by what we learn. DaCosta's Candyman tells by maintaining a distance, and it stays in the lofty upper strata occupied by the pedagogues.
This movie is a side-long wink, with a slick sense of humour that is antithetical to the myth of the Candyman. Candyman brings on dread, fear, and is horror personified. DaCosta's Candyman, though interesting, loses itself in self-awareness. (Universal)