Nia DaCosta’s sequel to the 1992 horror classic falls into the very trap it attempts to critique.
Sometimes I wonder if the success of Get Out did more harm than good for Black filmmakers. Suddenly you had a rush of interest from studios who were not so much interested in telling Black stories as they were in making the next Get Out. That is, Black-led horror with overtly political themes about discrimination, oppression, slavery, and police brutality. Films that white liberal audiences can go see and pat ourselves on the back for bearing witness to Black suffering. Which really begs the question: who are films like Nia DaCosta’s Candyman really for? Does a Black moviegoer really want to spend 90 minutes being reminded of all the ways their communities are oppressed and brutalized? Is Black art “marketable” if it isn’t steeped in violence and oppression?
This question is raised when Candyman’s artist protagonist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) struggles to gain recognition in the mainstream art world until a pair of grisly murders take place at a gallery showcasing his work. When his name is mentioned in the news reports of the crime, suddenly critics and museum curators are falling over themselves to praise his talent. It’s a fascinating kernel of an idea; an interrogation of the mainstream artistic ecosystem that only validates Black art in its relationship to violence. Unfortunately, the screenplay by DaCosta and co-writers Win Rosenfeld and Get Out’s Jordan Peele himself fails to learn from its own themes and buries this promising idea under a pile of blunt political soundbytes, covering everything from gentrification to police brutality to childhood trauma. Candyman falls into the very trap it attempts to critique, and beautiful visuals plus a strong lead performance only marginally alleviate the story’s mess of genre clichés and limp social commentary.
The upscale Chicago high-rise where Anthony lives with his partner Brianna (Teyonah Parris, wasted in a supporting role) was constructed over the former Cabrini-Green housing project where the 1992 film took place. Seeking inspiration for an upcoming exhibition, Anthony investigates the story of Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, appearing via audio recordings from the first film) seemingly driven to a murderous rampage while researching an urban legend known as the Candyman. The hook-handed boogeyman appears, preceded by a swarm of honeybees, when his name is spoken into a mirror five times. Anthony feels a strange connection to the former housing project, and it’s not long until he begins to display erratic behavior of his own coinciding with a string of gruesome murders in the Chicago art world.
Abdul-Mateen gives an excellent performance as Anthony. While the film itself struggles to build and maintain tension, the anxiety and paranoia of Anthony’s transformation is written clearly on Abdul-Mateen’s face and infused in his physicality. More often than not the quality of his performance is at odds with the film’s impossibly clunky dialogue. Somehow a script co-written by Jordan Peele not only fails to land a single joke but is at times downright cringeworthy in its attempts to satirize pretentious art culture. A bizarrely goofy sequence where Anthony accuses a gallery owner of sleeping with his assistant is so completely out of left field it feels like it was air-dropped in from a different movie.
Candyman is filled with inexplicable scenes like this, such as when a group of teenage girls — which the film is careful to emphasize are all white — are horrifically murdered after summoning Candyman in their school bathroom. It’s an event so maliciously gratuitous and so completely irrelevant to the main plot that even the in-universe news reports are hard-pressed to figure out its connection to the other crimes. A bloody sequence involving a squad of corrupt, murderous cops similarly feels like it belongs in a Django Unchained-style revenge film rather than a paranoid slasher flick.
And then there are the many exposition dumps, most of which are delivered with gravel-voiced gravitas by Colman Domingo (Zola, If Beale Street Could Talk). It’s to DaCosta’s credit that she realized how eye-glazing these monologues could be and therefore enlisted Berkeley theater company Manual Cinema to create dazzlingly intricate shadow puppet sequences to accompany the dialogue. These vignettes are unsettling and gripping in their artistry, and the simple fables they illustrate are far more engaging than the rest of the film’s unwieldy, meandering plot.
Sloppy storytelling aside, DaCosta demonstrates a strong affinity for striking visuals, and if nothing else the film is visually stunning thanks to John Guleserian’s hauntingly beautiful compositions. In a knockout opening credits sequence, skyscrapers appear to hang menacingly from a fog-wreathed sky like unearthly stalactites. Naturally, the film incorporates numerous mirrors (even the opening production logos are shown in mirror-image), and the film’s murderous centerpiece masterfully blends light, screen projection, and hall-of-mirrors disorientation in a way that elevates the otherwise boilerplate horror kills.
I don’t know anything about the production history of this film, but my gut tells me DaCosta’s original script was far more straightforward before succumbing to studio notes to “make it more political.” And while it’s true that horror has always been used to sneak subversive political messages to mainstream audiences, the first rule of great political horror is that it be a horror film first and a political film second. Candyman feels constantly jerked between two poles, one minute a horror film, the next a political film, and back again. The result is a movie that is neither particularly scary nor has much of anything to say beyond “police brutality bad.” The strong visuals and dynamic performances suggest DaCosta was capable of making a moody, atmospheric and, yes, political film had its financiers been more interested in telling complex Black stories than capitalizing on the trendiness of their struggles.