Candyman‘s Compelling, Thoughtful Horror Digs Its Hook In Deep

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Candyman‘s Compelling, Thoughtful Horror Digs Its Hook In Deep

The problem with writing about Candyman is that you will inevitably have to write “Candyman” five times. What if my monitor suddenly craps out, leaving me to see a paranormal entity rocking a full-length shearling behind my dark reflection? Unlike many of the white Chicagoans in writer/director Nia DaCosta’s slasher sequel, I’m not foolish enough to tempt the Bloody Mary of the Near North Side. I am, however, still drawn to her update of the legend, which manages to pick up the original film’s pieces and put them back together in a compelling, reclamatory collage.

Ignoring the rest of the Candyman series in favor of a direct follow-up to Bernard Rose’s allegory-rich 1992 slasher, DaCosta introduces fancy-pants artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to the same urban legend that consumed lookie-loo grad student Helen Lyle. The original story adapted Clive Barker to U.S. racism and wealth inequality—particularly in Chicago, and even more particularly in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects. Now its homes and high-rises have been demolished or abandoned. A massive Target overlooks its northwest border, where you can buy athleisure and grab an in-house Starbucks before heading to Panera Bread. Gentrification may have neatly plastered over history, but that history cannot be so easily erased. “A story like that—a pain like that—lasts forever,” says Colman Domingo’s long-timer laundryman Burke. “That’s Candyman.”

DaCosta makes it clear that Anthony’s pulled by the legend, by history, more intimately than Helen ever was, and updates her scares in turn. The nightmarish apartments and putrid bathrooms Helen crawled through and photographed neatly reflected the entity haunting them; but the projects have been paved over, and Candyman persists. DaCosta shoots the city accordingly, either in dividing straight lines, or fully warped: You never notice how Marina City’s towers look like beehives until they’re flipped upside-down. Spurred on by Anthony’s interest, Candyman’s now an inevitability in every reflective surface. You can’t look away from DaCosta’s inspired compositions and layouts, your eyes led from one dark corner to the next with an Invisible Man-like mastery of negative space. One of these days, you think, she’s going to run out of ideas about how to shoot a mirror kill. Not so, especially in her world of omnipresent, physically and psychically painful self-reflection.

The idea of plumbing one’s history—be it personal or more culturally wide-ranging—permeates Candyman, starting with Anthony’s art. A creative slump is what initially draws him to the legend, which in turn draws a throughline between the horror films involving ambition-driven obsession, with interpersonal relationships pushed to the wayside or completely overrun by careerist selfishness. Why bother becoming more than a cultural tourist when you can turn suffering into your opus? It’s a seductive Devil’s bargain, and Anthony initially takes up Helen’s mantle—Abdul-Mateen II letting a similarly ghoulish smirk play on his lips—mirrored by those critiquing (a cynical and hilariously wealthy art critic) and curating (a wooing NYC power player) that art. It’s a diatribe against exploitation, scorching a creative sector that cares more about pushing a person’s brand than their output.

Anthony’s girlfriend and art curator Brianna (consistent standout Teyonah Parris) is the only one to fully resist this urge. She knows her pain, where she comes from, and isn’t about to sell it out despite there being plenty of bidders. Her self-assurance and sensibility (often the source, along with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, of the movie’s funniest “Uh, no way am I doing that” gags) makes Anthony’s painful psychological journey all the more frightening. The more he understands about himself and about his city, the more he’s corrupted by Candyman. He’s not just bringing hook-handed bloodletting wherever he goes; his pockmarked skin slowly brings this existential anxiety to body horror. Brianna’s potent, levelheaded dismay is matched beat for beat by Abdul-Mateen II’s hypnotized, driven dread.

While the kills, perpetrated by a being mostly just seen in mirrors, are sometimes a bit too obfuscated by their gimmick to be viscerally satisfying, they slot in perfectly with the film’s themes and aesthetic even when they’re not dumping cascades of blood. Stories and flashbacks (including some end credits so good they could probably hang with this year’s Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts on their own) are told through Manual Cinema’s striking cutout shadow puppetry, a stark expression of indefinite but burned-in memory. DaCosta uses shadows and reflections, the faithful companions that burden you throughout your life, as both scare tactic and permanent baggage.

The story unbalances a bit as Anthony’s mental state devolves, as plot points disappear in favor of last-minute character moments, then resolve all at once. After such a smooth, gripping start, the script’s inconsistent third act, less dreamy than disheveled, is a bit of a disappointment—though it certainly knows what it’s doing in its final moment. Like the original, there’s as much to thrill you as there is to make you think, its uneven layers inviting interpretation and deeper reads. Throats get cut and gullets are hooked, all with bloody bittersweet fervor. Death in service of keeping something alive.

Candyman reframes the original’s generative legend for later generations, reframing “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” for those kept from remembering. The power of martyrdom, the cycles of economic exploitation, the blood price expected for progress—even if these ideas are imperfectly engaged with, they’re so compellingly introduced as to solidify Candyman as a must-see horror and a must-discuss tragedy. There is no easy narrative joke to the film, no Get Out humor from co-writer Jordan Peele to help ease the pain. The pain persists. The cops are real and so too, thankfully, is Candyman. I wouldn’t be saying “Candyman” in any Target bathrooms, if I were you.

Director: Nia DaCosta
Writers: Nia DaCosta, Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld
Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Tony Todd, Vanessa Estelle Williams
Release Date: August 27, 2021

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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