In a brief scene early in the new Candyman film, a supporting character named Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) tells his sister Brianna (Teyonah Parris) a spooky true story about the Chicago area she now lives in. The story involves a crazed woman named Helen Lyle who went mad before trying to throw a newborn baby into a bonfire. The baby is rescued but Helen is engulfed in the flames and is said to still haunt the neighborhood of Cabrini-Green. The anecdote serves a dual purpose: it quickly summarizes the events of the original 1992 Candyman film (which I have not seen), while also establishing this new Candyman‘s substantiation of folkloric storytelling. If movie and comic book franchises are what count as American mythology these days, Candyman is the latest example of that mythology persevering.
The Cabrini-Green of 1992 was a housing project, decrepit and impoverished. In 2019 (not especially important but was this year chosen to avoid realities of COVID-19?), gentrification has transformed it into a trendy locale with sleek high-rises and modern condominiums, much like the one Brianna has just purchased with her boyfriend Anthony McCoy (Yahia Abdul-Mateen II). Anthony is a painter in a bit of a rut. His work gets shown but usually because Brianna herself is a curator climbing the ranks of the Chicago art world. Her reputation is gaining, but she still makes room for Anthony’s work in all her showcases, sometimes to her detriment. When Anthony hears Troy tell the story of Helen Lyle, his interest is peaked. As a Black visual artist, he feels himself being pigeonholed between being asked to display Black culture only to get criticized for a lack of versatility. The Lyle story, and the larger Candyman myth, gives him an avenue for creative exploration.
The film is produced by Jordan Peele, who is also one of the credited screenwriters, along with Win Rosenfeld and director Nia DaCosta. Like Peele’s own features, Candyman has a deft touch with metaphor, blending explicit and more subtle allusions to the Black experience through the phantasmagoria of the horror genre. Unlike Peele, DaCosta is not a satirist, which actually frees Candyman from larger intellectual burdens and allows it to further explore horror concepts that Peele only hints at. It is unflinching in its gruesome violence, and while it has a sense of humor about itself, it does not aspire to be a comedy-horror hybrid. In this way, Candyman is much less self-conscious than Peele’s films, and much more successful.
Of course, Candyman has the benefit of the franchise’s previous films, and the script is smart in how it takes the cult status of the 1992 film and forms the mythology both in and outside of the film itself. This is represented by William Burke (always dependable, always great Colman Domingo), a laundromat owner and longtime Cabrini-Green resident. William is the one who leads Anthony from Helen Lyle to Candyman, and he was also the young boy who watched hook-handed Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove) get murdered by police officers in the 1970’s; the supposed origin story of Candyman. William explains further that Candyman stretches back to the eighteenth century, after a Black artist named Daniel Robitaille was lynched for sleeping with a white woman. Candyman perseveres through generations, he explains.
Anthony’s obsession with Candyman (including his famous summoning: say his name five times in front of the mirror and it will bring your sudden death by his hand… or more likely his hook), becomes all-consuming, literally and figuratively. A bee sting on his wrist turns into a full-body decay. His new paintings become unhinged amalgamations of Sherman Fields, Robataille, and himself. His behavior frightens Brianna. Not only is his erratic behavior troubling, but it is also a threat to her career as an art dealer. On top of it all, people begin coyly saying Candyman’s name in the mirror, arising his spirit, and finding their throats slit and their torsos disembowled. It’s Anthony’s art that inspires people to say his name, and it is he who is most implicated when the murders start occurring.
This combination of Anthony’s body horror and the Candyman’s slashing bloodbaths make the film quite unsettling. The layered ways in which Anthony and Cabrini-Green are terrorized throughout Candyman are representative of the ways gentrification can rot a neighborhood. You don’t have to be impoverished to be effected by it. Abdul-Mateen’s performance is captivating. He’s a man drawn toward darkness, compelled to react against his perceved economic stability in the wake of his creative stagnancy. He knows something’s up, even if he can’t quite put his finger on it. This is perhaps the film’s greatest trait: its ability to depict the intangible things that eat away at you, the unfixable problems of society that are out of our hands. Like all great horror, Candyman manifests these untold feelings in physical, violent ways.
Candyman‘s third act doesn’t live up to all the promise that precedes it. Its first 70 minutes is such a masterful turn of mood and suspense (not to mention the performance of Teyonah Parris, which is powerful and effective, beyond the standard scream queen hyperventalating). Its rush to tie up plot in the end becomes both too tidy and too messy all at the same time. Perhaps it’s proof that the plot was never what DaCosta was interested in to begin with, but instead cementing the aforementioned mythology. Like Peele, DaCosta sees these stories through the prism of the Black American experience, one simultaneously rich with spirit and saddled with trauma. Where Marvel and other superhero films try to craft mythology through our usual American exceptionalism, films like Candyman have a darker, more irreverent take. The root of what makes them more true to life is what makes them so terrifying.
Directed by Nia DaCosta