Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I can’t claim close memory of the 1992 Candyman, but I liked it, and was impressed by the skill of director Bernard Rose, a classy cast, and music by Philip Glass. So I may have missed some resonance in a few of the revelations of the new film, which provides fan service in a variety of ways. The movie’s being marketed as a “spiritual sequel” or a “contemporary incarnation of a cult classic,” but actually it’s a straight-up sequel, connecting back to the original film in very specific ways.
This Candyman is set in 2019, I assume to sidestep pandemic references. (You will be seeing a lot of this.) We return to Chicago, in the vicinity of the Cabrini-Green housing project, where the Candyman used to lurk. In an incredibly fabulous apartment, an artist named Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and a gallery curator named Brianna (Teyonah Parris) live the lives of upwardly mobile Black 21st-centuryers, materially successful and politically engaged. Then Anthony hears the legend of Candyman, becomes obsessed with making Candyman the center of his new art project, and basically goes off the rails.
Director Nia DaCosta (she wrote the script with Win Rosenfield and producer Jordan Peele) doesn’t soften anything in her approach to this material—this is a horror movie and a pointedly political film, and those two things are not, and never have been, separate. But one of the fun things about Candyman is the way DaCosta works humor into the fabric of the movie; one character says, of Anthony’s post-Candyman art, that it’s become rather literal in its message-mongering, as though anticipating the ways this new Candyman will be criticized for being blunter about its racial material (although the ’92 Candyman was already pretty blunt about that). There’s also an amusing hint that Anthony’s art becomes worse as he becomes more convinced that he has Something To Say.
Along those lines, there’s a barbed scene in which an art critic whitesplains Anthony’s own work to him during a gallery opening. That’s topped by a later moment when Anthony, watching a TV news report about a bloody Candyman killing at the gallery, can’t help but break into an amazed grin when he is mentioned in the broadcast—yes, the murders were awful, but at least they got my name right. There’s an interesting idea in the way Candyman traces Anthony’s derangement, which is mirrored by his decomposing arm, a wound that begins with an innocent hornet sting. At various times there are echoes of Jeff Goldblum’s increasingly maniacal scientist from The Fly, losing his mind and body as he becomes more obsessed, and it reminds you how infrequently, even in horror, movies today are willing to take a main character and make him wildly unsympathetic.
It would be nice to know more about Brianna, in that case. One also wants to spend time with Colman Domingo’s character, a local laundry owner whose brush with the Candyman makes up the film’s prologue. The movie is full of ideas, including the use of shadow-puppets to convey flashback scenes (Domingo’s character, as a youth, is playing with such puppets—in a mirror, no less—as the film begins). And we never get too far from the ominous presence of the police, whose flashing lights are, as in Get Out, a source of terror at least as frightening as the nominal monster. The film has so many ideas, in fact, that I’m not entirely sure I understand everything that goes on, in terms of sheer plot; by the time we get to bloody doings in an old church, you really just have to roll with it. There is the sense that the Candyman has become a Golem for the Black community, to be summoned (the movie gets a lot of mileage out of “Say his name”) when needed—a somewhat murky conclusion here, but huge if true.
August 27, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.