Movie Review: Candyman (2020/2021)

After a few covid-related delays lasting over a year, CANDYMAN has finally arrived at our cinemas. Billed as a “spiritual sequel” to the 1992 slasher classic, as opposed to a reboot or simply a sequel, this version builds upon the original story while adding some new details to the legend of the man who comes to those who look at themselves in a mirror and say his name five times.

Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7; US; AQUAMAN; THE GREATEST SHOWMAN; BAYWATCH) is an up-and-coming artist who lives with his art curator girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK; TV’s WANDAVISION and MAD MEN), in her upscale loft, located in a gentrified part of Chicago that was once home to the Cabrini-Green public housing project. When he hears about the legend of the Candyman from Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, TV’s GENERATION), he’s intrigued and the next day he sets out to see what’s left of the notorious neighbourhood. Though Cabrini-Green’s high rises are gone, amazingly, the row houses still remain. There, he meets William Burke (Colman Domingo, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM; IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK; TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD and EUPHORIA), who runs a dry cleaners there. Burke grew up in the projects in the ’70s and he tells Anthony about his own encounter as a child with a man who had a hook for a hand. Anthony feels a connection to the legend and he paints an installation for a new show that Brianna is curating. Calling it “Say His Name”, it doesn’t impress the art critics but after the art gallery owner and his girlfriend are found the next day slashed to death in front of the piece, Anthony and his work become the talk of Chicago’s art world. Meanwhile, an innocuous bee sting that Anthony received on his right hand starts to spread up his arm.

Directed by Nia DaCosta (LITTLE WOODS), who also co-wrote the screenplay along with producers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, and based on the 1992 CANDYMAN film written by Bernard Rose, which in turn was based on characters Clive Barker’s 1985 short story, “The Forbidden,” this CANDYMAN also deals with many of the same social issues that the original film tried to tackle – urban legends, racism, marginalization and neighbourhood gentrification. DaCosta et al also throw in police brutality, Black Lives Matter and cultural appropriation.

When the original CANDYMAN came out, it was hailed for its use of a Black character as the central figure in a slasher film. This was the time, after all, of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. Unlike those antagonists, though, Candyman was a sympathetic character – someone who was the victim of racial injustice, murdered on a piece of land that became a symbol for social injustice a century later. However, a few problems that existed in the original story exist in this story as well. I never understood why Candyman preys on Black people, and specifically the ones who live in Cabrini-Green. One can argue that the people who were killed by him looked in a mirror and called his name but, if anything, he should be their saviour against oppression and injustice at the hands the White patriarchy. That notion is addressed to some extent in the new film. The bigger story problem, though, has to do with collective memory. In the original film, it is mentioned that Candyman had killed at least 25 people at Cabrini-Green. You’d think people would still remember that tiny detail in 2020. Yet Anthony and most of Chicago, for that matter, has never heard of the man. Do young Bostonians today know who Albert DeSalvo was? Do young New Yorkers today know about David Berkowitz? If they do, and I think they do, I would venture to say that DeSalvo’s and Berkowitz’s reputations have been distorted over the years, which is what happens in CANDYMAN. The climactic scene of the original film is recounted here by one of the characters but fans of the 1992 film will notice that it’s been reshaped ever so slightly. It’s clearly not a continuity error. Twenty-eight years on, the events surrounding Helen Lyle have been passed down to a new generation and urban legends, like novel coronaviruses, need to mutate to stay alive.

Unfortunately, CANDYMAN isn’t anywhere near as scary as its predecessor. Much of the gore takes place just off-screen and, for the most part, all that’s shown are the trails of blood and splatter. DaCosta may have been thinking that leaving the gruesome violence to our imagination would be more frightening than showing it but it just doesn’t have the same gross-out factor here, which is what audiences want when they see a film like this. Equally unfortunate, is her use of Anthony’s mother, Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams, the original CANDYMAN; TV’s DAYS OF OUR LIVES), who makes a brief appearance far too late in the story. Anyone who has seen the original film knows exactly who Anthony is yet he doesn’t learn of his past until well into the film’s second act. DaCosta should have dealt with that plot point upfront and made greater use of Anne-Marie instead of just relegating her to one rather inconsequential scene that seems more like a nod-and-a-wink to the original film than a plot device. The story also hints at a few things but never delves into them. I’m all for watching movies that run between 90 and 100 minutes but CANDYMAN, which clocks in at a very palatable 91 minutes, may be about 15 minutes too short.

Story problems aside, the performances are all very good and the production is slick, which makes CANDYMAN worth watching especially if you’ve already seen the original film. It’s playing now in Hong Kong as well in most major markets around the world.

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