If I remember correctly, and you will have to forgive me if I don’t because when I last read Clive Barker’s The Forbidden people were obsessing over tamagotchi and the Y2K bug, the character of Candyman wasn’t originally tied to any race, nor did it have an origin story of any kind. Only after Barker’s novella was adapted for the screen by Bernard Rose, who moved the setting to America and turned what essentially was a shapeless ghoul into a symbolic manifestation of America’s history coming back to haunt it, complete with a hook for a hand, bees and Tony Todd’s deep voice coming at you from all directions, it became a cultural phenomenon.
In fact, I don’t think Clive Barker ever expected that out of all of his creations, the character of Candyman would engender this much longevity and that it would become an icon of historical and social justice. However, what made the 1992 Candyman such a flash in the pan goes well beyond the social commentary smuggled into the narrative by the adapting filmmakers. I don’t believe the audiences in the early 90s (and countless waves that cultivated a following around the movie afterwards) responded that strongly to the clear political message hidden beneath the narrative. What made Bernard Rose’s film stand out was the fact it was an estuary of tropes, a confluence of inspirations that for one reason or another ended up not only consonant but also self-amplifying.
What made Candyman so memorable was that its horror transcended the boundaries of the cinematic experience. It’s not exactly unheard of and there are some great examples of films that somehow embed themselves in our nightmares and haunt us for years. Candyman did just that. It capitalized on the viscerally affecting idea to create a cross-culturally familiar character – a hook for a hand, a coat, a mirror to invoke him – and made him into the stuff of nightmares for the characters in the film, who would slowly lose their sanity under his influence, which is something quite literally borrowed from Nightmare on Elm Street. Compounded by the ingenious idea to employ the old campfire story about Bloody Mary, whose spirit you’d conjure if you said her name several times in front of a mirror, and the recipe for a lasting cultural icon was complete. In fact, if you ask around, you will most likely find out that some people you know as rational and down-to-earth will downright refuse to say ‘Candyman’ in front of a mirror five times. They wouldn’t want to tempt fate. That’s what the genius of the 1992 Candyman was. It crawled under your skin, poisoned your dreams and would haunt you for the rest of your life.
Therefore, what Jordan Peele, who produced and wrote the film (and he was also briefly intending on directing it too, let’s not forget), together with the young and ambitious Nia DaCosta, who signed on to direct the new rendition of Candyman, faced was a rather difficult task. On one hand, you could maybe say that they stood to benefit from the cultural status of the mythos they were dabbling with, but then again so did the makers behind Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and Candyman: Day of the Dead. On the other hand, they felt they needed to live up to the legacy of the original so as to ensure their work would not end up forgotten or derided by fans.
Hence, they borrowed a page from David Gordon Green’s Halloween and not only did they completely disregard the fact Candyman had spawned sequels and expanded on its rudimentary lore, but they also chose not to commit fully to the notion of treating the original as gospel and reinterpreted some of its key aspects to suit their own plans. Although I do find it liberating when filmmakers take on tired franchises and pledge allegiance to the progenitors of the series alone, it must be admitted this ain’t a new concept either. In fact, in horror it is quite common. Jaws: The Revenge openly disregards the fact Jaws 3 existed and nearly all entries in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series pretend there is one movie they must reference, the 1974 original.
This is what the DaCosta-directed Candyman does: it trims all the fat and removes all the remnants of shoddy storytelling left after the vastly unsuccessful sequels and brings the story back to its humble origins, only a few decades later. The story follows Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a young artist, and his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris). Looking for inspiration, Anthony roams around what used to be Cabrini-Green, a housing development where the bulk of events of the original Candyman took place. With most of the original occupants now gone and most of the high-rise apartment blocks demolished and replaced by swanky gentrified developments aimed to lure the young, cool progressives, what’s left of Cabrini-Green is a ghost town. There he meets William (Colman Domingo) who explains to Anthony that the Candyman legend goes a bit further and deeper than the original text and in fact it has become a living and evolving piece of folklore that feeds from the violence enacted against African Americans who lived in this community. What is more, as Anthony follows down the rabbit hole, not only does he end up summoning the spirit of Candyman, who then restarts the cycle of violent retribution, but he invariably forfeits his own sanity, especially after digging into his own past and finding out he has a unique connection to Candyman.
Now, there are two key aspects this film was supposed to execute upon to even have a shot at living up to the legacy of Bernard Rose’s original Candyman: the horror and the social commentary. When it comes to being not only a successful horror film but precisely a successful horror film that puts strong emphasis on its atmosphere and conjuring persistent reverberating phantasmagoria that will live in the viewers’ minds for a very long time, DaCosta’s film succeeds for the most part. The film is very deliberately paced and carefully designed – even from its opening frames – to make the audience aware of its implied symmetry with the original. Even though most viewers will make a note of the fact the opening studio logos are all back-to-front, they will likely ascribe it to an intended wink from behind the camera, a reminder that mirrors are important to the story and that the screen is a mirror. A Looking glass behind which a different, fantastical world resides. But that’s not the end of it. What follows on, and repeats occasionally throughout the film, is a slow-moving shot of skyscrapers disappearing into the mist. This visage is particularly eerie because it takes a few seconds to realize we are not looking at these buildings from above, but from the street level. The camera is pointing to the sky which makes these images completely unfamiliar. And – this is crucial – it is a symmetrical shot to how the original Candyman opened with a brooding helicopter shot of the streets of Chicago from above.
This is a piece of deliberate messaging intended to make you aware you are not watching a remake, a reboot or even a sequel. You are in a hall of mirrors and what you are watching is a reflected image of the original film, warped by the imperfections in the surface of the mirror left by the filmmakers, most of them on purpose. Like an image in a funhouse mirror, this new rendition of Candyman exaggerates certain aspects of the image it is reflecting, diminishes some others, and some it leaves somewhat blurred. Therefore, it is incredibly hard to assess whether the film successfully lives up to the legacy of the original, as it seemingly purposefully makes alterations to the way its structural makeup is perceived.
How does this cryptic analogy translate into practical examples, you ask? Well, for instance DaCosta’s film places a much heavier burden on its social commentary in comparison to the original. But, just like a funhouse mirror that embellishes one part of your body while shrinking another, the film eventually forgets about cultivating a pervasively dense atmosphere that made the original uniquely placed to infest your dreams with phantasmagorias. As events unfold and the mystery takes shape, Candyman loses its elusive and oneiric qualities and becomes a bit more conventional. It does have its inspired moments, like the gallery killings or a very formidable sequence in a lift, but at some point, the filmmakers decide to make the horror elements work purely in service of building towards a climax where the film’s political message would take the reins, which invariably removes any semblance of dreamlike timelessness, that would tether the film tonally to the original. Consequently, with the entire film in full view, those seemingly inspired elements of atmosphere-building lose a bit of their lustre as they are most likely aesthetic tools, not elements of the narrative; hence they might not be entirely pertinent to the way the film should be analyzed.
Instead – and this is something both DaCosta and Peele placed at the core of their operations in bringing this film to life – Candyman first and foremost lives and dies by its social commentary. It is quite frankly undeniable that the story this film is telling works in service of the themes the filmmakers wanted to explore and not necessarily in service of giving the characters arcs they deserve. They get away with it for the most part as the Candyman lore, reinterpreted and reappropriated for our current socio-political circumstances, lends itself to such treatment. It’s quite easy and initially rewarding to connect these dots and follow down the rabbit hole together with Anthony as he gets in touch with his roots and channels the intergenerational pain of institutionalized and societally sanctioned oppression of his people. This commentary is quite frankly everywhere. The gallery owner is ‘a politely condescending racist’, the critic is a know-it-all opportunist who sees Anthony as a story with click potential. The aloof teenager in the gallery is completely blind to the suffering upon which her country has been built.
Their characters – however short-lived and one-dimensional they might be – serve a purpose. They add fuel to the burning fire of righteous retribution about to spill over onto the unsuspecting world. Yes, they are all white. And yes, they all die because – again – what this film is, is a funhouse mirror reflection of the original. What the 1992 film kept in its subliminal sphere of interpretation, this one takes into the realm of the literal. Consequently, the character of Candyman also goes from being an undefined entity or a demon haunting people’s dreams and consuming their sanity to being made of flesh and blood. He becomes a cross over between Jesus and Superman, with a penchant for violent revenge.
Now, this decision certainly makes sense in the context of how the movie progressively moves away from dreamlike shapelessness, but it feels a bit out of place, especially in the context of how heavy-handed certain aspects of the story end up being handled at the very end. In fact, in the final five minutes, the filmmakers quite literally pummel the viewer with their political messaging, as if to make sure even an inkling of ambiguity was removed from the critical analysis. I am fully aware of what they were trying to achieve and how the imagery and symbolism explored in the film is supposed to reflect on police brutality and very real racism still well-entrenched in the culture of our time, but I am sorry to report that the very ending of the film crosses over into the territory of self-parody that way.
At this point it is impossible to tell who exactly was responsible for how the film’s climax plays out. What is quite fascinating is that it must have been a point of contention, either between the filmmakers themselves or between them and the studio. Why? Well, I am basing this assumption almost entirely upon the fact certain images that surely were lifted from the ending to edit a trailer together did not make it into the final cut and drastic changes to the film were made quite late into the game. This leads me to believe there may have been other ideas of how to resolve this movie and I could only hope at least one of them was more graceful because the way Candyman comes to its well-deserved climax is a clear reminder that Nia DaCosta – visually inspired and bold as she is – has still a few things to learn. By no means do I want to even suggest that the desperately ham-fisted ending ruined the film for me, but it surely tempered my enjoyment.
Alas, nobody’s perfect. However, Candyman – warts and all – is a surprisingly strong film that capitalizes on its visual bravado and most assuredly indicates Nia DaCosta will go places… if she can somehow break out of the Marvel blob into which she has already been sucked in; but I digress. Candyman clearly chooses to champion its social commentary at the expense of its tonal symmetry to the original, almost to a fault. However, the film’s militant tone (which eventually becomes overbearing for a minute or two before the credits roll) is what makes it stand out. It’s an angry horror movie that reflects – again, just like a funhouse mirror – the socio-political anxieties of our time and warps them out of all proportion so as to conjure a piece of entertainment that will leave some viewers vindicated and empowered, some guilt-ridden and confused, and others calcified in their denial. But one thing’s certain: Nia DaCosta’s Candyman won’t leave anyone unaffected.