Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Teyonah Parris (WandaVision), Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Misfits), Colman Domingo (Selma), Kyle Kaminsky, Vanessa Williams (New Jack City)
Director: Nia DaCosta (Little Woods [AKA Crossing the Line])
Writers: Jordan Peele (Get Out) & Win Rosenfield (The Twilight Zone) and Nia DeCosta
Runtime: 1 hour 31 minutes
Release Date: 27th August (US, UK)
1992’s Candyman, as far as I’m concerned, is a modern classic. It was a perfect update of the gothic horror story, transposing it to contemporary urban Chicago and telling an ahead-of-its-time story that touched on gentrification and racial bias. It turned Tony Todd into a horror icon, delivered something fresh to a genre stagnated by mindless slashers, and propagated the classic mirror game still played by easily-scared kids everywhere. However, its legacy somewhat stopped there and its underlying themes never quite stayed in the popular conscience, no doubt muddied by its two direct-to-video sequels that dropped much of the depth that made the original so special. Now thirty years later, who more apt to reboot Candyman and bring those racial messages to the forefront than Jordan Peele? Unfortunately, whilst this reimagining certainly has all the right ideas, the execution is about as messy as the blood-drenched crime scenes Candyman leaves in his wake.
As 2021’s Candyman begins, it seems like it knows exactly what it’s doing. It clearly not only loves the original but fully understands its significance and wants to expand on its ideas. Hearing how the events of the first film have warped over time and become their own legend much like the story of the Candyman, it makes it feel like a true sequel but one that opens the door to new possibilities. The story is metaphorically and, by the end, literally about the recontextualization of the Candyman mythos in the modern era, taking some interesting swings with the material whilst ultimately still being a natural evolution of the original’s intentions. It not only expands upon the racial undertones discussed in the first film but brings in modern ideas too, such as the commodification of Black struggles for the entertainment of predominantly white audiences, which certainly brings a slight meta element to the narrative. The subplot surrounding the modern art world occasionally seem self-indulgent, often distracting from the narrative core so that the filmmakers can air their frustrations about critics, but the overall point it makes is valid and a natural evolution of ideas from the first film.
All of the right pieces are there and it’s easy to see the picture that the filmmakers were trying to create, but great intentions simply aren’t enough to carry it across the line. Its ambition is ultimately cut short by its top-heavy and scatter-brained storytelling, doing a solid job of building tension and intrigue for the first two acts before rushing through its climax so fast that it lacks the desired impact. Character motivations flip on a dime, several subplots and supporting characters are simply forgotten about, all subtlety gets chucked out the window, and the result is a finale that’s more confusing than it is scary or thought-provoking. It reeks of a screenplay in need of major restructuring, dropping certain ideas and focusing in on its core goals. Failing that, simply let the film run longer and flesh out the third act so that it doesn’t feel like such a rush job at the end. It’s such a shame that, for the first two thirds, Candyman was shaping up to be a more-than-worthy successor to the original. Instead, what we’ve ended up is two or three promising but unfinished ideas for a Candyman sequel squashed into ninety minutes whilst Jordan Peele reads aloud a copy of “Media Analysis for Dummies”.
Much of the same issues carry over into the film’s characterisation, but at least the cast they’ve assembled is able to deliver it all with gusto. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for a charismatic but unnerving lead as struggling artist Anthony McCoy, with his descent into obsession mirroring that of Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle but taking it in an unexpected direction. He does a fantastic job of making you like this guy whilst also showing his flaws and more unsettling tendencies; his reaction to the film’s first major kill is an absolutely priceless moment that shows Anthony for who he really is. Unfortunately, where the writing fails him is that he makes some awfully stupid decisions that even his addled mental state can’t really account for. With Helen, the goading and gaslighting Candyman put her through explained her more rash decisions, but with Anthony there isn’t really that driving force. He’s far too passive a protagonist, allowing his situation to get out of hand and yet not fighting back once even as he starts to put the pieces together. By the end, the story just kind of unceremoniously shoves his character development to its obvious conclusion, and yet it ends up feeling vastly unearned.
Teyonah Parris is fantastic as Anthony’s curator girlfriend Brianna and is easily the most relatable character, reacting naturally to the insanity growing around her and keeping us grounded in reality. The only issue is that she’s mostly a supporting player through much of the story, dealing with several subplots about her art career and her deceased father that end up going nowhere, before being pushed into the spotlight of a central plot she had very little impact on prior to that point. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett makes for some fun comic relief as Brianna’s flamboyant brother Troy, and ably balanced out by his more modest boyfriend Grady (Kyle Kaminsky), but the story basically forgets about them once the blood starts really hitting the fan. Colman Domingo is always great, even when simply handled exposition, and he does a fantastic job going deep into the mythos as the perennial neighbourhood resident Burke. It’s hard to discuss the character in depth without getting into spoiler territory, but what happens to him in the third act is one of the greater tragedies of the rushed pacing; it really just comes out of nowhere. Vanessa Williams’ part as Anthony’s mother Anne-Marie, the only significant returning character from the original, is small but pivotal and she delivers it so well; it’s easily where the film comes closest to capturing the emotional heft of the original.
Whilst the script certainly leaves a lot to be desired, the film’s direction and technical prowess certainly do their best to make up for the lacklustre material. Nia DaCosta has a wonderful eye and stages certain sequences in imaginative ways that translate the tone and emotion of a scene with very little dialogue. John Guleserian’s cinematography is haunting in all the right ways, building off of visual ideas from the original whilst giving them a modern twist, and the use of shadow puppets to visualize the various myths surrounding Candyman is an especially welcome touch. The way the film handles its gory moments is also especially refreshing, showing you just enough to satisfy your bloodlust but not revelling in it; like a great horror movie should, it leads the scariest stuff to your imagination. The film visually looks a lot cleaner than the first film, which makes sense considering the gentrification of Cabrini-Green since then, but even the sets that are meant to be rundown don’t have that same level of grime and filth as they should. Also, whilst it’s certainly an unreasonable ask to expect any composer to match up to the iconic Phillip Glass, the film’s score is still pretty unmemorable and lacks that same eerie fairy-tale quality of Glass’ compositions.
There’s nothing worse than seeing a film’s potential so clearly on display and yet failing to make it work, but the new Candyman is an undercooked mistake and easily this summer’s biggest disappointment. The story and themes are brimming with potential, all of the actors put in their best, and DaCosta’s direction elevates the film beyond horror conventions in much the same way as Bernard Rose’s original; I can’t wait to see what she does with The Marvels. Much of the blame here must be put on the narrative itself, which feels overstuffed at best and outright unfinished at worst. It has the flow of an essay that waffles on too much early on, eating up the word count with frivolous tangents, before running out of time and rushing to the conclusion instead of simply going back and cutting out the fluff. Whether this was an issue at script level or something that happening during editing, I can’t say, but it reeks of much the same issues with Peele’s Us: it gets so caught up in its metaphors that it forgets to tell a satisfying story in its own right. In terms of horror sequels and reboots, I’ll certainly take an ambitious but failed new take like this over yet another unimaginative rehash, but it’s squandered potential nonetheless.
FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10