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Nia DaCosta’s ‘Candyman’ unnerves but rarely terrifies

Nia DaCosta’s ‘Candyman’ unnerves but rarely terrifies

Nia DaCosta’s ‘Candyman’ unnerves but rarely terrifies
September 02
18:35 2021

“Candyman ain’t a ‘he.’ Candyman’s the whole damn hive. If you’re out here looking for Candyman, you ask me? Stay away!”

In the upscale areas of Chicago, artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is looking for inspiration to reverse his creative stagnation. After hearing a telling of the legend of Candyman, he heads to the gentrified Cabrini-Green residences to investigate. Learning more, he soon finds himself enraptured by a terrifying supernatural legacy that stretches throughout America’s history and begins to seep into the lives of him and everyone around.

After two decades of dormancy, Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” has resurrected the greatest horror icon of the ‘90s for another spree through Chicago. Ignoring the previous sequels, DaCosta looks to build on Bernard Rose’s original, more meditative spin on the slasher. With producer Jordan Peele co-writing, some solid performing leads and a bold, daring attempt to update the mythology for 2021, does DaCosta spin one memorable campfire story or a bedtime snore?

While “Candyman” is mostly a worthy successor, this urban legend is let down in a few places by how it builds its themes, characters and emotional core. 

One aspect that can’t be faulted, however, is the casting. As Anthony, Mateen is especially watchable as he transforms from a blowhard artist to a haunted mess of a man whose resolve starts to crumble when he realizes just what he’s stumbled into. While Anthony is hard to like, due to him basically being the epitome of the hipster artist looking to exploit others’ pain for “inspiration,” Mateen is magnetic in the role at times. 

Opposite him is Teyonah Parris, fresh off of “WandaVision,” who provides something of a heart to the proceedings as Brianna, Anthony’s fiance and an up-and-coming art curator. In her role, she is able to further prove Parris’ potential as a leading lady. Personal favorite Colman Domingo also brings a wonderfully sinister presence as Burke, a Cabrini-Green local who illuminates some new aspects of the Candyman mythos. 

Her second go as director, DaCosta carries on the Kubrick-style horror Bernard Rose brought to the original while inverting in some aspects. Her cold, almost documentary-like approach, where shots start far out and close in on our characters or vice versa, gives way to closer, intimate work where characters seem almost uncomfortable with how they’re framed. 

The highlight comes when Anthony is in the apartment of a snooty art critic and comes face-to-face with the titular nightmare in a mirror. DaCosta’s close, almost suffocating framing punches hard with the revelations it brings, followed by an excellent kill in which she pans out from the kill. We’re left hanging, far-away, almost as if we’re voyeurs to something intimate. 

Where things start to get muddled is in the story and characters. Written by DaCosta herself, producer Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, the story attempts to deconstruct and modify the original Candyman mythology while also more thoroughly weaving it with the U.S.’s history of racial violence. There is no longer just one Candyman (Tony Todd’s original Daniel Robitaille), but a “hive” of victims of slavery, lynch mobs and police violence. 

This is an excellent idea. Candyman now represents the most tragic legacies of U.S. race relations. Anyone can be Candyman, but DaCosta restricts that idea. There’s a new Candyman, a factory worker murdered in 1977, but that’s mostly it. 

The film also somewhat fails to really say anything new or even specific about gentrification. Yes, these hipster douchebags are moving in and kicking out the old residents, but we’re not really shown how that affects anyone outside of Domingo. The film also largely focuses on the art scene without really tying it thematically — there’s something approaching a concept of how these artists are exploiting this intense, generation pain but nothing much more than painting some targets for Candyman to kill. 

In fact, while Mateen is great as Anthony, Anthony isn’t all that endearing or really compelling as a character. His transformation intrigues due to Mateen’s performance and some great body horror, but the actor is really picking up the scraps of a character who’s not fully formed. 

This is a movie that really needed a few more drafts. Keep the main characters, but do something with the high-art setting. Maybe give more meat to the side characters and how they’re supposedly exploiting Chicago and the housing projects. Give the audience some tasty hypocrisy. If they’re going to die, make it sad because they had depth or cathartic because they’re despicable instead of cardboard cutouts. 

One criticism that’s much more subjective: the movie has a sort of  “void.” There’s no true emotional core. While original director Rose took heavy inspiration from “The Shining,” a movie noted for being emotionally isolating and chilly in every aspect, Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle was more compelling. Her journey was tragic, involving and devastating in its arc. Anthony’s, by contrast, feels cold. 

Now, all that criticism shouldn’t discount what DaCosta and everyone have made here: a mostly well-made horror story with top-shelf leads, slick style and even great music from composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. While its ideas are undeveloped, they do stick. They invite a lot of thought in regard to how Candyman works, with the ending leaving some truly horrific and thought-provoking implications. It’s not a great movie, but it does warrant a lot of thinking.

Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” is alienating, but also bold and shines in many places. While it doesn’t hold up all the way, it is still an impressive show of force from DaCosta and reminds us why some legends, no matter how old or young, are still discussed in the dark with cautious, hushed whispers. 

Will’s final rating: 3/5

Photo courtesy Universal Pictures

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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