Nia DaCosta’s Candyman Can’t See Past Its Heavy-Handed Messaging

Suffice it to say, there has been a resurgence in black horror in recent years, primarily spearheaded by Jordan Peele. 2017’s Get Out was a bold first outing for the career comedian-turned-horror auteur, garnering universal praise, as well as an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. With this success, Peele has managed to highlight a handful of creatives looking to work within the genre, including Misha Green with Lovecraft Country, and now Nia DaCosta, with an update of the 1992 horror classic, Candyman.

The original film left an indelible mark on the genre, giving audiences one of its most recognizable icons with Tony Todd’s haunting performance as the titular character; an eloquent boogeyman manifested in our world whenever his name is spoken in a mirror five times. The racial subtext of the film cannot be overlooked, touching upon the physical, emotional, and even economical brutality inflicted upon black people. It should come as no surprise that an update of the concept, courtesy of director Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele as producer and co-screenwriter, would have a comparable focus. This new version of Candyman follows struggling artist Anthony McCoy, played by Yahya Abdul Mateen II. Seeking inspiration for his artwork, Anthony decides to investigate the urban legend of Candyman and its connection to the Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago. Unfortunately, his curiosity gives way to a series of grisly murders that may be linked to the rumored supernatural killer.

Conceptually, Candyman showed some degree of promise. There is an earnest attempt to not retread what the original film had done, but rather re-contextualize key elements for the purposes of expanding the overall mythology. For these new characters, Candyman is no longer just the tragic tale of one individual, but a representation of any black man singled out for extreme violence by white people, rooting the horror of the film in this collective trauma. The intersections of gentrification, the art world, and black displacement within urban communities is another fascinating concept that the film presents to the audience, that one would hope could provide a wealth of storytelling ideas to add texture and nuance to the film. Unfortunately, Candyman falls into similar traps as last year’s Antebellum, and to a lesser extent, the Amazon horror series Them.

As black horror continues to carve out a greater niche for itself within the entertainment and pop culture landscape, it has become difficult to overlook its tendency to be debilitatingly didactic at the expense of narrative cohesion and character development. To this end, Candyman moves clunkily from scene to scene, screaming “Message!” at the audience like Keenan Ivory Wayans in the 90s hood movie parody, Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood. White characters who serve as a majority of the hook-wielding entity’s victims, are poorly-written caricatures, beating audiences over the head with the idea that white people are racist, but with no desire to go beyond broad generalizations. Whereas the original Candyman benefited from examining white racism through the perspective of a character oblivious to their privilege and how good intentions can backfire on people of color, DaCosta’s interpretation lacks any kind of effort to present its ideas with actual depth or complexity.

Far too many choices are made by the filmmakers that break logic and sacrifice competent story structure and character development. Characters monologue at one another, more so than they have organic conversations. A rather traumatizing subplot regarding Anthony’s girlfriend Brianna, played by Teyonah Paris, is introduced, seemingly to connect with her concern regarding Anthony’s growing obsession with the legend of Candyman. A shame however, that it never gets mentioned between the characters in any way that could potentially strengthen the story or Brianna specifically. What was the point of making this film’s interpretation of Candyman so overtly terrifying in the past, BEFORE he was beaten to death by police for allegedly giving children candy with razor blades in them? Because innocent or not, a man who slowly sings as he ominously walks out of shadowy holes in the walls of basement laundry rooms, offering children candy, is going out of his way to be inherently creepy. The even bigger question of course, how is this Candyman, whose story places him in the 1970s, not the version that Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle encounters in the original film, taking place in 1992? And an even bigger question than that is how the third act reveal of the film makes any logical sense whatsoever. . . it doesn’t.

Admittedly, Candyman is not without its strengths. The film does an exceptional job of establishing an atmosphere that is equally vibrant and unsettling, with lush cinematography and an unnerving yet hypnotic synth-driven score. The use of mirrors in the film is especially creative, playing with perspective and accentuating a dreamlike quality to the film overall. Some of the performances in the film may ring hollow, but Yahya Abdul Mateen II is incredible as Anthony. He delivers a performance that’s measured and sincere, with the character’s eventual descent into paranoia striking a perfect balance between being manic and subdued. Thankfully, he has support from Teyonah Paris and Colman Domingo, who also turn in effective performances.

I can certainly acknowledge what this version of Candyman is trying to accomplish. The message and commentary ARE important, as we continue to deal with racism in a variety of forms. But there still needs to be a balance and attentiveness to how these new stories are executed, especially within the genre of horror. The realities of racism have always been fertile ground for effective horror tales, but Candyman feels frustratingly single-minded in its goals. It speaks almost exclusively to the “black twitter” crowd to a fault, leaning on sloganism and oversimplification, while only providing only a small handful of genuine scares.

(2.5 out of 5)

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