IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNNG TIME: 91 mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera
In 1992, Chicago graduate student Helen Lyle went on a killing spree before trying to sacrifice a baby and perishing in a bonfire while investigating the urban legend of Candyman which haunts the deprived African-American neighbourhood of Cabrini Green in Chicago. Well, that was the official story. In 2021, Anthony McCoy is a visual artist also living in Chicago with his girlfriend, art gallery director Brianna Cartwright. He latches onto the story and in Cabrini Green encounters William Burke who once had a scary childhood encounter with Sherman Fields, a hook-handed man who was accused of putting a razor blade in a sweet that ended up in the hands of a white girl. Fields was beaten to death by police but later exonerated when more children received sweets with razor blades. The legend goes that repeating the name “Candyman” five times in front of a mirror invokes Sherman’s spirit, at which point he appears in the reflection and kills whoever spoke his name. Anthony develop an art exhibit around Candyman and becomes obsessed with the subject, while people who dare to say his name five times begin to gruesomely die….
Candyman is quite an unusual horror icon. For a start, nearly everyone seems to know what happens if you call his name five times in front of a mirror” but a surprising number of them haven’t have seen the films. Bernard Rose’s superb 1992 chiller, which I consider to be one of the top ten horror films of the ’90s [for reasons explained in my review which can be read here] does remain relatively well known but many don’t even know the sequels exist, let alone have seen them. Was the Candyman mythos a bit too racially charged to gain widespread popularity in the ’90s, which, despite not seeming that long ago to some of us oldies, was still a decade where, for example, Wesley Snipes almost didn’t get the role of Blade because the studio wanted a white actor to play the character? It’s hard to say. But actually said mythos was pretty subtle and nuanced compared to the polemic of this Candyman where the filmnakers seem to be telling us how much they hate white people. It’s not quite as ugly a hate project as that despicable piece of misandry Black Christmas, but then very few films are. Now of course nobody should ignore how atrocious the African-American experience has been until comparatively recently, but that’s still no excuse for this kind of – well – racism [because that’s what it is]. White characters are generally idiots, caricatures or referred to with hostility and bitterness. We get not one [which may have been okay] but two narratively important scenes of white cops shooting innocent black people – just the addition of one black cop could have helped here. And, most crucially, Candyman is now a folk hero for the aggrieved African-Americans, almost a superhero whom we whites need to fear because he only kills white people, very far removed from the ambiguity and fear factor of the character as he used to be, a character who has now been gutted in the interests of woke politics.
All of this is especially depressing because some aspects are really good. Director Nia DaCosta, whose previous work I haven’t come across but am now going to check out, had crafted a film which is often extremely atmospheric, making excellent use of its [some might say sleek I say hideous] interior design and especially long corridors, not to mention mirrors – yes we’ve all seen loads of creepy scenes involving mirrors but DaCosta somehow manages to infuse nearly all of her mirror scenes with dread even when nothing’s happening, while part of an out of focus Candyman being reflected is one of the most unsettling brief shots we’ve seen this year. The decision to cut away from most of the violence is a bit perplexing seeing how the previous films increased the amount of gore and censors tend to allow more through now, and this may frustrate horror fans who want to see Candyman carve up his victims in loving detail, but it also allows DaCosta to employ a lot of ingenuity in filming these scenes. But this alternates with moments of awkwardness and carelessness, such as a really quite baffling cut from one scene to another where somebody is tied up; it looks like a considerable amount of footage has just been hacked out. Or, despite going on about gentrification in the first act, the film not showing us evidence of such gentrification. Strange, positively trippy shots of very high buildings introduce the present day, but when we revisit Cabrini Green it’s different but still looks very rundown. It’s bizarre that what seems to be a subject very important to screenwriters DaCosta, Win Rosenfiled and Jordan Peele isn’t seen, just spoken of – unless I’m just confused by the muddled sense of geography in this film?
After a certain song called – yes you’ve probably guessed it – plays over the opening credits, slightly distorted to add an unsettling effect, we begin proper with a very effective scene involving the young Burke encountering Candyman, though I’m not sure why we needed to see said scene twice with only a small amount of extra footage added to the second version. But there’s a real feeling of fear here as Candyman climbs out of a crack in the wall moving really creepily and with a really sinister look on his face to tempt Burke with sweets; dare I say it there’s even a slight suggestion of paedophilia [which is fine because we’re supposed to be scared] here. Sadly Candyman is never as scary again. Brianna’s brother Troy shares with Brianna and Anthony the ‘official’ story concerning Helen, the main character of the 1992, and this and some other flashbacks are realised with CGI made to look like shadow puppets, an interesting and mostly successful device, though of course it would be more interesting and successful if they’d made actual shadow puppets. This film, which perhaps wisely ignores Candyman 2 and Candyman: Day Of The Dead, does a good job of filling you in on what previously happened if you haven’t seen the original or don’t remember it much, but it also spends a bit too much time laboriously connecting the two movies while still ignoring some inconsistencies which is some strange achievement and half. I’m not going to delve into that because it would end up giving too much of the later stages of the plot away, but prepare to be confused and puzzled by things like how Helen’s experiences with Candyman now make little sense. And here’s something else that’s weird: Anthony has never heard of Candyman, despite living close to the very neighbourhood where Daniel Robitaille [the original Candyman himself] was murdered and Helen supposedly went mad and suffered her grisly fate.
Our main character is yet another struggling artist which is often the cause for lots of scenes with irritating, pretentious arty types, and which is also the case here; surely they can’t be all like this? They frequently become mouthpieces for the political agenda so that it often feels like we’re being lectured to. Why for example do we need to hear about the undoubtedly shameful way that African-Americans living in impoverished areas were treated by property developers and governments twice, and in nearly identical scenes to boot? Once was fine, not enough people probably know about this, but twice is just hitting us over the head in what is supposed to be a horror film, yet that’s sadly very common in these days of stuff being shoved down our throats by filmmakers. Just think of all those great ’70s horrors which had social commentary but had the taste and respect for cinema-goers to be much more subtle with it and not make it seem like we’re at school. And if viewers didn’t pick up on things, then never mind, unlike today where we clearly have to be educated over and over again, and usually on the same subjects too. Still, we soon get the suggestion, later confirmed, that there have been multiple Candymans which is the first significant expansion of the mythos. The current one seems to be Sherman Fields, killed by brutal cops, but we don’t see much of him for quite a while. At least this film feels able to take its time in building the suspense and the intrigue, and then even when the kills begin Candyman is often invisible, nor does DaCosta go much for the jump scare method which has become so tedious. But good things are always counter balanced by major flaws. Anthony, already obsessed with Candyman, is stung on his hand by a bee, but his wife doesn’t seem to even notice that it creates an infection which spreads. We seem to be drastically missing one or two moments involving the couple towards the end, but by then matters have already virtually gone off the rails for several other reasons anyway and we don’t even get much of a climax, though a final scene generates some belated good will.
There are two major twists; the first is apparent very early on, the second not apparent at all though it’s poorly integrated into the narrative, seeming like an afterthought. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is certainly a charismatic lead but seems to misjudge some of his later scenes, while Colman Domingo has the right look and attitude for Candyman but the character is rarely scary. Tony Todd’s Candyman was able to be sympathetic and tragic yet also frightening and a villain who often misplaced his rage. Domingo’s we mostly just feel sorry for, and unlike Todd’s doesn’t target any one we care about; his victims are either cartoonish art scene stereotypes, cruel high school kids or crooked cops, though of course they’re also white so why would be invited to care about them? Yet one must praise some of the murder set pieces. A multiple killing in a school bathroom is shown from the point of view of someone hiding in a toilet who’s only able to glimpse flashes of blood and a couple of bodies through the gap beneath the toilet door, before the camera moves over to a pocket mirror on the floor of the crime scene so we can see just a few more brief glimpses. We do get a sense of the sheer brutality without seeing it all; whether it’s more effective or less effective will depends on whether you tend to prefer less is more or just more. As I get older I increasingly appreciate the value of things being left to the imagination, though I still enjoy a good bloodbath now and again. In any case, my favourite kill scene, and my favourite scene in the whole film, is when the camera pans away from a character’s apartment and them, when it’s a good distance away, just about lets us see her being murdered until it’s too far away for us to glimpse any more of the action. We get a strange feeling that this block could be full of interesting, nasty things going on that we’ll never know about, even though this was probably purely a stylistic device yet one that’s still very welcome.
John Duleserian deserves a bow for his graceful and very colour balanced cinematography, while Robert A. A. Lowe’s music score is full of dread. Consisting mostly of ambient drones and strange sound effects, it only sometimes attempts to evoke Philip Glass’s brilliant work on the original and even then only slightly. This was probably the right choice even though personally I’d have liked to have heard some of Glass’s mesmerising themes being reprised. But then I didn’t make this film, though if I had I sure as hell wouldn’t have been so hateful. While the intention was clearly to look at how urban legends can often spring from institutionalised racism and be a strong defense against said racism, there’s a real nastiness and a juvenile crassness in the way it does this. Maybe DaCosta and co. didn’t intend to demonise white people, but that’s what it feels like and there’s no excuse for it, while, as a huge fan of the character, I now shudder [in the wrong way] at the thought of any sequels featuring this bastardised version of a creation I like so much I even have a model of him. Not my Candyman, just another once great character simplified and made considerably blander for our age.