Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Candyman, the story of the boogeyman that haunts Cabrini Green (the former projects on the northside of Chicago), has returned with a new chapter helmed by director Nia DaCosta and written by DaCosta, Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld. It begins with a flashback to the 1970s, where we meet a new iteration of the Candyman before flashing forward to the present day, where we meet artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) struggling to get out of a creative rut. He becomes inspired and obsessed with the Candyman legend and accidentally unleashes the dormant terror upon his bougie, upper-middle-class art circle. As the carnage unfolds, he learns about his deeper connection to the Candyman (and the events of the original movie) but struggles to separate himself from the monster he has become obsessed with.
The new Candyman is visually stunning and lushly shot. DaCosta knows how to make every frame, and every actor in that frame, look gorgeous. (It does help that she was working with an already beautiful cast.) She also deftly deploys haunting shadow puppetry influenced by the cameo portraits and installations of the brilliant visual artist Kara Walker, which conjures up both the primal feeling of sharing ghost stories around the campfire and one of the early precursors to cinema – the shadow play. She wants to take folklore back to its ritualistic roots.
DaCosta also adds a new dimension to the Candyman structure by introducing some classic Cronenbergian body horror. After Anthony is stung by the bee while visiting Cabrini Green, his hand begins to scar and decay, with the rot eventually traveling up his arm and taking over his neck, chest, and face. The burn scars on his face resemble a beehive’s honeycomb, and there’s a scene with his hand (that feels like a direct homage to The Fly) that is truly nauseating. The body horror and Mateen’s performance as the man who can not (and does not want to) stop his transformation into a monster is perhaps the most affecting and successful aspect of the film.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Colman Domingo as Anthony and William are riveting. Mateen captures both the subtlety of the deep menace starting to bubble up within Anthony and the frenetic, eruptive energy when he feels compelled to channel his new inspiration into his paintings. Meanwhile, Domingo can make any monologue sound like Shakespeare. He could read the ingredients off a frozen pizza box, and I would give it a standing ovation. When they face off in their scenes, their chemistry is undeniable and a true pleasure to watch.
But unfortunately, the story of this new Candyman chapter suffers under the weight of too many interesting ideas and not enough time – or even a strong enough throughline to tie them all together. Alongside issues of race, trauma, white supremacy, and police brutality, it also wants to continue the original’s commentary on gentrification and the ways marginalized communities use storytelling and folklore as rituals of protection, AND it also wants to provide meta-commentary on art, film, and the relationship between the artist, the artist’s subject, the artist’s rivals, the critic, and the audience. As a result, the film is often in conflict with itself (the Candyman is an avenging spirit who kills selfish gentrifiers and racist policemen, but also a murderer of innocent children) But it also doesn’t trust the audience to understand what it’s watching. It will periodically stop the action to have Colman Domingo’s character explain what the audience has just themselves witnessed.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing is how little space it provides for its female characters. We learn via flashback that Brianna is stuck in her own cycle of trauma and violence, and yet Teyonah Parris plays her as mostly unbothered by the bloodshed unfolding around her. She is the one who finds her boss and his intern’s remains splashed all over the gallery floor and yet in the next scene, her only concern is for her career. She never comments on, or cares about, Anthony’s rapidly decaying arm. In fact, the most horrified we ever see her (until the climax) is when she sees the new portraits that Anthony has been painting. Which feels baffling because she’s an art curator? Why is she so upset that his painting style has changed? Perhaps if we got to know more of her interior these choices wouldn’t feel so strange.
The same can be said for the return of Vanessa Estelle Williams as Anne-Marie McCoy – the woman whose baby was kidnapped by the Candyman at the end of the first film, and Anthony’s mother. The film establishes that Anthony is constantly ignoring calls from his mother (for unexplained reasons) and treats her appearance (and confirmation of who Anthony really is) at the end as some sort of twist; even if it feels very clear from the first act (when we hear the story of Helen Lyle, the protagonist of the first film, retold) that that is who he must be. And so this movie that very much wants to explore the ripple effects of trauma upon a community, and the ways in which people get stuck in cycles of violence, misses a huge opportunity by neglecting to explore the relationship of Anthony and his mother, and the ways in which it was damaged or altered by the Candyman.
To be frank, though, there is shockingly little Candyman in this Candyman sequel. In this film, the boogeyman is played almost entirely by Michael Hargrove as Sherman Fields, the one-handed man killed by the police in Cabrini Green in the late seventies (though there is a cameo of Tony Todd’s CGI de-aged face at the very end), but because the majority of the plot is focused on Anthony’s transformation, the current one is reduced to the occasional “man in the mirror” set dressing. It also doesn’t help that most of the kills occur off-screen or so far away that it becomes too easy to disconnect from the violence and the horror. By reducing his presence and the violence in such a way, the film also reduces any feeling of horror or suspense. Instead of feeling like the Candyman is inside every wall and behind every mirror just waiting to take his revenge, you know that you are safe as long as you don’t make the very obvious mistake of saying his name in front of a mirror five times.
As such, Candyman the film feels a bit toothless. There’s no razor blade hiding inside its beautiful candy shell.
Candyman is in theaters now.