CANDYMAN and the Poetic Artistry of Visual Horror

“I am the writing on the wall, the sweet smell of blood. Be my victim.”

It’s not as easy to explain Candyman, the new release from director Nia DaCosta, as some might think. There’s a risk in giving away major plot points in labeling it a sequel, while it becomes clear within the movie’s first act that it doesn’t fit into the category of remake either. The truth is that this new Candyman is a mix of both, a spiritual successor which continues certain plot points from the first film while reinventing the story of Candyman altogether. The question therefore is who will like this Candyman more: the die hard fans of the original, or the ones meeting the man himself for the first time? That’s a question that’s likewise hard to answer since this Candyman has proven itself to be one of the most provocative of horror films of the last few years.

In Candyman, Chicago artist Anthony (Yahya II) lives with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), a successful museum curator in new high rise on the south side. Stuck in a creative crossroads, Anthony becomes intrigued when he hears the legend of Candyman, a mythical man who appears and kills anyone who dares say his name into a mirror five times. As Candyman quickly becomes the subject of Anthony’s latest collection, a strange force and a series of grisly deaths has him convinced that the legend is real.

There’s a twist in Candyman’s third act when a character played by Colman Domingo undergoes a certain…change. It was a change which felt forced and obvious, not to mention phony given how the actor had only appeared two other times before. But that isn’t the movie’s sole flaw. As was the case with the 1992 film, 2021’s Candyman was made against a landscape plagued by countess social issues, which this movie earnestly attempts to explore. The issues themselves are plentiful. There’s racial tension, police brutality, gentrification and the artist’s role in gentrification, to name a few. These are all valid, substantive issues which are more than deserving of exploration. Yet the movie cant help but shortchange them by cramming so many relevant topics into its brief 90 minutes. There are more than a few scenes whose aim is to comment on some aspect of one of the above issues, while indulging in stylish horror sequences. This works up to a point. However, there are times when Candyman all but stands still and has its characters engage in a sort of college classroom debate over one societal issue or another. It’s here when the brilliance and potential of a setup like Candyman is tossed to the side and a feeling of exasperated preachiness takes over.

Where Candyman does succeed and rise to become a film of great importance is in the way it integrates said issues with genre. DaCosta’s film is loaded with plenty of stunning visuals, from the physical environments the characters reside in, to the way she captures Candyman’s horrific killings. The death of a critic in particular feels almost like an art installation piece thanks to the angle from which its shot. Even a seemingly conventional set piece featuring teenage girls in a high school bathroom is made with the kind of cultural tension and flair not seen enough in this genre. While there are plenty of discussions around it, the artwork in the film goes a long way towards explaining the themes of Candyman and his relevance in today’s world. Likewise, the use of shadow puppets to illustrate the character’s origins and their influence on years and years of racial strife is perhaps one of the movie’s most effective touches, while the film’s final sequence (ripped from today’s headlines) is so emotionally visceral, it may indeed be this Candyman’s most compelling scene. What really deepens the piece however is the way the mythos of Candyman is expanded and is shown as an ever-present force that continues to lurk within African-American society, permeating and festering throughout the decades. It’s one of the most devastatingly bold illustrations of a social experience ever seen in a horror film.

Considering he’s the lead in a film with so much social subtext, Abdul-Mateen does fantastic work as Anthony, straddling the two societies and his place in each of them. As Brianna, Parris elevates the girl role and makes the character her own woman, injecting Candyman with some unexpected humanity. Even though Domingo’s character is saddled with such a cliched third act turn, the actor remains the pro that he is and still turns in top level work. Finally, original Candyman actress Vanessa Williams makes a brief, but welcome return in one of the film’s more emotional moments.

I can’t help but find it a little strange and ultimately sad when looking at the timing of both versions of Candyman. The first was made in the middle of the infamous Rodney King beating and subsequent trial before being released six months after the violent riots that resulted in the aftermath. Meanwhile, 2021’s Candyman filmed as the Black Lives Matter movement was already in full swing and is now being released in a post-George Floyd world. These real life events largely stay out of the two films, but their influence cannot help but be felt within both, particularly in the latter. It has been said that sometimes, as an artist, you do more for a cause simply by presenting what the truth is in a non-sugarcoated way through visuals and storytelling rather than getting on any kind of traditional soapbox. Despite the few “let’s talk about this subject” moments within it, DaCosta knows this and it’s ultimately because she does that Candyman emerges as one of the most daring and honest horror films of recent memory.

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