“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.”
By now, producer/co-writer Jordan Peele has done an extraordinary job crafting his own brand of racially-motivated and unconventional horror that terrifies audiences while getting them to think. Significantly lesser known is director/co-writer Nia DaCosta, unless you’ve seen all the times I’ve raved about Little Woods on this very blog.
(Side note: The film’s third credited writer is Win Rosenfeld, here making his feature writing debut, though he was a producer on BlacKkKlansman and he wrote an episode on the recent “Twilight Zone” remake with Peele.)
We all expected great things for their upcoming take on Candyman, and they did not disappoint. Suit up and get your shovels, everyone — we’ve got a lot to dig through tonight.
Candyman (1992) featured a paranormal slasher played by Tony Todd. In life, he was Daniel Robitaille, a slave who was highly sought after for his prodigious skill with a paintbrush. At some point in the 1890s, legend has it that Robitaille was commissioned to paint a portrait of some wealthy landowner’s daughter, the two of them had an affair, and the young lady got pregnant. Naturally, the landowner responded to this news by hiring a group of thugs to hunt down Robitaille. They beat him, tortured him, stuck a metal hook into the stump of the right hand they cut off, coated him in honey so a swarm of bees would sting him hundreds of times, then they finally set him on fire, all while hundreds of villagers looked on.
Candyman (2021) features a paranormal slasher played by Michael Hargrove. In life, Sherman Fields was a friendly old amputee with a hook for a hand, giving out candy to the neighborhood kids at Cabrini-Green. Legend has it that around 1977, some white girl found a razor blade in a piece of candy. Inevitably, fingers were pointed in Fields’ direction, so the cops descended on Cabrini-Green and straight-up murdered him without even pressing charges, much less convicting him of anything. A couple weeks later, Fields was posthumously proven innocent when more razor blades appeared in candy.
As soon as we heard that revised origin story in the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a hard reboot. It isn’t. I can’t speak to the second and third films (from what I understand, neither one of them has much of any bearing on the events of the first film or the iconic setting of Cabrini-Green), but this was clearly built from the ground up as a direct continuation of the first movie.
Don’t worry if you’re coming in fresh, though — the film helpfully opens with a brief recap of the first movie’s climax, albeit embellished with 30 years’ worth of urban legends. But man oh man, it certainly helps a lot to have some firsthand knowledge of the original movie, or to come in having recently seen the original movie (as I did).
I’m happy to report that Virginia Madsen herself was brought in to reprise Helen Lyle by way of a brief voice-over cameo. Likewise, OG Tony Todd lends his singular presence and sinister voice to the denouement. But the most prominent returning player here is Vanessa Williams (looking like she hasn’t aged a day), reprising her role from the original movie. And if you know the original movie, you should already know what that means for our protagonist.
Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an artist living in Chicago. Desperate for new inspiration, he comes across the legend of Candyman and makes it the subject of his latest series of paintings. Predictably, he goes down the rabbit hole and it doesn’t end well.
Once again, I have to pause to note the parallels with the first movie. Helen Lyle was a grad student writing her thesis on urban legends and their power within the slums, while Anthony McCoy makes artistic statements about the systemic racism that puts black people in the ghetto and keeps them there. I might add that Helen was a grad student in a tenuous marriage with a professor at her college; while Anthony is in a strained long-term relationship with Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), the art gallery director who promotes and showcases Anthony’s work.
Both protagonists discover the Candyman legend, growing obsessed with it to a degree that irreparably damages their souls and psyches, causing harm and heartbreak to everyone around them. Even if they start in different places and approach from different angles, they both end up in the same place. The one major difference is that Anthony is directly linked with Robitaille from the get-go, as the both of them are black men forced to keep to white people’s standards while making a living as painters. With absolutely no other connection between Anthony and the Candyman. (*coughWatchTheFirstMoviecough*)
But what’s easily more important than the similarities are the slight differences. Back in 1992, the towers of Cabrini-Green were such notorious crime-infested hellholes that the makers of Candyman needed the blessings of five different gangs to shoot a movie there, employing actual local gang members as extras for authenticity and security purposes. But the last of those towers was torn down in 2011, and Cabrini-Green is now gentrified beyond recognition.
In the first movie, Helen was an affluent white woman in hostile territory, trying to build some bridge of understanding and empathy without taking advantage of the impoverished native black people or opening herself up to abuse from them. This time, Anthony is a black man reaching back into the past of Cabrini-Green, reckoning with all the systemic pain and suffering at the foundation of his city and struggling to impart those lessons to others (most especially the willfully ignorant white folk).
If it sounds like I’m placing a lot of importance on comparing and contrasting the two movies, that’s because it plays a huge part of a central theme for the more recent film: The cyclical nature of history. Which brings me to the Candyman himself.
One of the things I loved about the first film was that Tony Todd’s Candyman was a seductive monster in the vein of Dracula. Remember, Helen Lyle had been written off by the academic patriarchy as a hysterical young woman overcome with homicidal mania when her delicate little mind couldn’t handle the gruesome topic of her thesis. By the end of the movie, she had lost absolutely everything, and so many people close to her were dead. Candyman offered an escape from all that: The sweet release of death.
But for the black male protagonist of this movie, Candyman’s allure is something very different. Specifically, Candyman is strangely and unnervingly appealing with the knowledge that our protagonist could actually be Candyman.
Remember the two different origin stories for Candyman, and how they seemed to contradict each other? They don’t. They’re both true. Because as portrayed in this movie, Candyman isn’t any one particular man or monster. He’s not just Daniel Robitaille or Sherman Fields. He’s also Emmett Till. He’s Trayvon Martin. He’s George Floyd and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Ahmaud Arbery and Oscar Grant, et cetera, et cetera, et goddamn cetera. He’s this image, this idea, this writhing stew of emotions that boils over with every mention of a black person who was ever unjustly murdered with impunity by the White Man.
By now, we’ve all seen and heard the marches in the streets. Personally, I expect I’ll have “Say his name! GEORGE FLOYD!” ringing in my ears until the day I die. For those tragically taken too soon, cut down in their prime by racism and injustice, their names and their memory are all they have. Saying those names gives them power, more than they ever had in life.
And here’s a slasher built around the very notion of death and rebirth into something infamous and everlasting. An invincible black man with the power to ruthlessly kill anyone, summoned by saying his name five times.
Upon hearing the premise for the film, the first thing any reasonable person would ask is why anyone would look in the mirror and say “Candyman” five times. Why would anyone do that, if the best-case scenario is that nothing happens, and the worst-case scenario is that anyone who does it dies a painful and bloody death?
Well, in the first movie, it was a matter of proof. Helen Lyle summoned Candyman because it was her only means of assuring herself and others that she wasn’t making any of this up and she wasn’t going crazy, though it often had the opposite effect. And that’s still a factor in this movie, but there’s more to it this time.
As alluded to previously, empowering Candyman by saying his name is a means of empowering the name and memory of any black person who ever got lynched. But on a more basic level, the act of summoning Candyman is an act of faith. It’s a statement that the summoner believes in the legends and believes that Candyman is real. And the ensuing act of violence might be considered a statement of some kind as well, depending on the context and the victims and the end results. Put simply, what we’ve got here is a weaponized belief. Any kind of faith is a double-edged sword, but this particular kind can literally kill or be killed without any physical steel or explosives.
As with Clive Barker’s other most famous creations, Candyman defies any simple categorization as “good” or “evil”. Depending on your perspective and motivation, Candyman could be a savior or a slaughterer. In point of fact, he’s not entirely culpable for his gruesome actions — he always plays by the established rules, he never actively goes looking for people to kill, and it’s your own damn fault for summoning him when you knew what might happen.
(Side note: Keep your eyes peeled for the cute little Easter Egg set in tribute to Candyman’s original creator.)
With all of that being said, I don’t know that I’m entirely comfortable comparing the two different portrayals of Candyman. Daniel Robitaille was very specifically built to be seductive and dangerous, while Sherman Fields was just as specifically built to be a well-intentioned and misunderstood old man who got aggressively beaten into a monster. Tony Todd could never have played Sherman Fields, and Michael Hargrove couldn’t have played Daniel Robitaille. So let’s just say the both of them are the best at playing their respective aspects of the character. Even better, this new reinvention of the character makes it exceedingly simple for Candyman to potentially have a long and prosperous life onscreen with other capable actors long after Tony Todd is retired or dead.
(Side note: Note that in the first film, the sound designers took great pains to make sure that Candyman’s footsteps made no sound. Compare that to Candyman’s introduction in this movie, made with great booming footfalls. I think these filmmakers have more than earned the benefit of the doubt, so let’s call this a subtle hint to the well-informed that this isn’t the aspect of Candyman we’ve dealt with before.)
The horror aspect is all aces. Though we do get some brainless cannon fodder, the lead characters all act rationally without making any overtly stupid choices, and I always appreciate the rare horror film that passes the “You fucking idiot!” test. It certainly helps that DaCosta shows a remarkable knack for showing just enough to make the scares and kills effective. What we don’t see is made far more terrifying by what we do see, and I can’t possibly praise that enough.
What’s more, the filmmakers found no end of visually stunning and clever means of using the mirror motif. Mirrors are an inherently dynamic visual tool, and the filmmakers deserve major kudos for utilizing mirrors in any number of spooky and breathtaking ways. What’s more, the filmmakers use the established bee motif in similarly creepy ways. One highlight is the bee sting that turns into a running show of grotesque body horror. But more implicitly, I love how the yellow/black color scheme was utilized in the set design. In particular, the slums and ghettos are all browning and rotten, lit at night by the amber streetlights, all of which dovetail beautifully with the yellow/black coloring.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II does a masterful job of selling his character’s steady descent into madness. Kudos are also due to Teyonnah Parris — her character’s downward slope might be even more tragic, as her grasp on reality is so much stronger yet so much more brittle. Another highlight is Colman Domingo, here playing an older man who serves as keeper of the Candyman lore. His performance in @Zola was proof enough that Domingo can flip from “warm and charismatic” to “frightfully psychotic” on a dime, and that skill set pays huge dividends here.
Alas, I’m on the fence about Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Kyle Kaminsky, respectively playing Troy Cartwright (brother to Brianna) and his boyfriend Grady. On the one hand, I appreciate the presence of a gay couple that’s treated as a simple matter of fact. Nobody calls attention to it, it’s not a huge part of the plot, there’s no huge theme about acceptance of gay marriage… really, the fact that there is no point is itself the point, and I deeply appreciate that.
Moreover, I appreciate the light touch of a comic relief character in a film that so badly needs it. As a blood relative to Brianna with absolutely no connection to any Candyman shenanigans, Troy provides a crucial release valve for a movie that’s otherwise filled to the brim with heavy themes of social justice and mind-warping displays of violence.
On the other hand, Grady is mostly there as a sounding board for Troy and shows close to zero personality of his own. More importantly, the “flamboyantly gay best friend” trope was done to death so long ago that I’m surprised and disappointed to see it crop up here. Sure, Troy and Grady are so far removed from the carnage that they’re never in any danger, and I’m grateful that they weren’t candidates for the victim pool. On the other hand, we’ve known for years that men who are both black and queer are far more likely to be victims of violence than men who are one or the other.
As a reminder, we have a movie built from the ground up to talk about prejudiced acts of violence against black people, it features a black gay character, and the film doesn’t say a single word about hate crimes against LGBTQ black men. I’m at a loss for how the filmmakers could’ve missed such a glaring blind spot. Hell, the film is only 90 minutes long, I’m sure they could’ve found room for it!
On a miscellaneous note, the score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (yes, that’s all one name) was… okay. Sorry, I know the first movie’s score is a tough act to follow, but it’s a noble effort that comes up way short of the standard set by Phillip Glass.
The highest praise I can give to Candyman (2021) is that it retroactively makes the original film even better. Yes, the first film was already a marvelous work of horror that holds up surprisingly well 30 years later, but the more recent film goes above and beyond with superior horror, deeper characters, and chillingly detailed social commentary. Both films are great individually, but viewed together, they paint a haunting picture of history repeating in a cycle of racial violence.
The first movie is built on the assumption that fables and urban legends can offer a kind of immortality that will continue to last after mere facts have crumbled to dust. The more recent film is built on the assumption that our brighter future is built on the atrocities of the past. Each film proves the other true.
If at all possible, I strongly recommend watching the first movie before seeing this one. If that isn’t an option for whatever reason, then go see Candyman (2021) anyway. It’s still a damn fine movie in its own right, scary and intellectual in equal measure, not a film to be missed.