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Candyman (2021)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Survivor"
3 stars

Released in the fall of 1992, between the conclusion of the straightforward slasher horror cycle and the beginning of the ironic slasher horror cycle, “Candyman,” Bernard Rose’s adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” was a genre rarity for its time (and now, for that matter)—a film that not only had ambitions to be more than just a simple gross-out scare movie but actually delivered. As a straightforward genre exercise, Rose presented an elegantly made, gripping and occasionally quite scary work that didn’t resort to cheap scares or barf-bag visuals to get a rise out of viewers. However, by transplanting the story of a grad student whose investigation of an urban legend about a supernatural killer known as Candyman from England to the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects of Chicago, Rose was able to work in the real-life tragedies of that area into a narrative that effectively tapped into themes of race and class in America as well as the ways that the horrors of our past never truly go away. The result was both spooky and socially conscious and while it may not have hit the box-office stratosphere as other genre film franchises (though it would spawn a pair of sequels, both of which I saw and of which I recall nothing else), it nevertheless went on to become a cult favorite over the years.

Despite the dismal nature of those sequels, it was perhaps inevitable that “Candyman” would one day return to theaters and it was perhaps just as inevitable that the project would fall under the aegis of Jordan Peele, who produced and co-wrote the screenplay for this new iteration and whose own previous horror hits, “Get Out” and “US,” clearly owe the earlier film a debt for the ways in which they blended together scares and social commentary. The one problem with his name in the credits—other than the fact that the heavy leaning on his name threatens to obscure the presence of Nia DaCosta, who actually directed the film in addition to co-writing the script—is that it has raised expectations for the project in ways that the final film is simply unable to quite live up to in the end. The end result is a stylishly made and undeniably ambitious work that unfortunately is more than a little shaky from a narrative standpoint that keeps it from becoming the contemporary classic that the original was and which it is so clearly striving to be.

The film takes place roughly thirty years after the events of the original film and as anyone who lives in Chicago knows, the once-infamous Cabrini-Green projects have long since been razed into oblivion and the neighborhood newly gentrified. One of the residents in the new Cabrini-Green is Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a rising artist in search of a subject for a new set of works that he plans to exhibit at a group show at the influential local gallery where his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), works and thinks that there might be something in the area’s violent and racist past, the kind of thing that cannot simply be replaced forever by the arrival of a Whole Foods. While digging, he uncovers the legend of Candyman and is finally inspired to create works that are vivid and true, to an almost gruesome degree. The key piece is a work entitled “Say My Name,” a mirrored installation that allows viewers to see themselves alongside images of past horrors—provided that they are willing to look closely—and which serves as a dare for them to revive Candyman themselves by reciting his hame five times while looking into a mirror.

Of course, what we already know is the fact that Candyman is no theoretical urban legend but a genuine bloodthirsty killer who slaughters anyone unwise enough to summon him, such as the smarmy gallery owner (Brian King)—whose name, surely coincidentally, just happens to be Clive—and an equally pretentious art critic (Rebecca Spence) who initially lambasts Anthony’s work but then displays more interest in it once it has been connected to a well-publicized murder. As the bodies begin to pile up, Anthony begins to revel in his newfound fame/notoriety, much to the disgust of Brianna, but finds himself increasingly obsessed with creating newer and darker works using the Candyman that has taken up residence in his mind. Then again, it might not be just in his mind after all—early on, he is stung on the hand by a bee (bees playing a key role in the Candyman mythology) and as the film progresses, the wound becomes increasingly gruesome and soon begins to spread all over his body in horrifyingly familiar fashion. More haunted than ever, Anthony tries to dig deeper into what is happening and discovers an unexpectedly personal connection to the Candyman legend that has managed to survive and thrive after all.

As mentioned earlier, although Jordan Peele’s name is clearly driving the publicity for “Candyman,” the film was directed by Nia DeCosta, whose previous feature was the uneven drug thriller “Little Woods,” and while many observers will be looking to “Get Out” and “US” as points of reference in considering it, this film is clearly the product of DeCosta’s own vision and in its best moments, it is one as striking as anyone could possibly hope for. The opening scenes in which she sets up the premise alongside observations of the effects of gentrification are certainly intriguing and the way that she handles the Candyman backstory—retelling it with the use of shadow puppets as a way of transforming the ostensibly real events of the original film into another version of the “myth” that was being investigated in the first place—is eerily effective. DeCosta also demonstrates a flair for staging the inevitable scenes of slaughter in ways that are undeniably inventive and very bloody to boot. Whatever modest promise DeCosta demonstrated in “Little Woods” is more than validated by her work here and I can only hope that she is able to maintain at least some trace of her personal touch with her upcoming project, next year’s superhero sequel behemoth “The Marvels.”

The problem with “Candyman” is that while the film sets things up quite nicely and executes everything with style and flair, that doesn’t quite make up for the fact that the screenplay begins to lose its way about halfway through. Although it tries to continue the element of social commentary angle established by the original, this aspect just comes across as more ham-handed (or hook-handed, if you will) by comparison. Another problem is that while the original film’s notion of having Candyman’s legacy being explored (and ultimately continued) by the well-meaning activities of a white grad student on a tour of the big bad projects introduced additional intriguing tensions into the mix, having the protagonist be just another tortured artist who exploits centuries of bad karma until it decides to return the favor, is just not nearly as interesting, though Abdul-Mateen II certainly gives it all that he can with his performance as Anthony. Another problem is that while the scenes of carnage are well-done from a technical perspective, they are not particularly scary and the film too often presents the victims-to-be in such unflattering ways that it almost seems as if we are meant to be rooting for Candyman instead of fearing him. This is most evident in the film’s most jarring—not in a good way—sequence, in which a group of dopey prep school girls say Candyman’s name into a school bathroom mirror and pay a gory price. Cinematically, the sequence is effectively staged but as it goes on, it feels more gratuitous than terrifying and by the time it ends, you get the sense that the entire sequence was included just to bump up the body count without affecting the main players in the story.

In the end, “Candyman” is ultimately a bit of a miss but at least it is a near-miss and one done with more ambition that most recent horror remakes/reboots have been able to muster. DeCosta demonstrates a directorial touch that is unique enough to make you want to see what she can do with a decently funded movie that is not tied into a previously existing mythology to which she needs to adhere. The problem is that while the film is perfectly willing to see Candyman and his legacy as potent metaphors for the eternal struggles in American regarding race and class, it doesn’t know how to transfer those metaphors into a completely compelling story and it never quite manages to get under your skin to the degree that it wants. I cannot quite recommend the film in the end—certainly not to the degree that I can recommend the brilliant original—but it is just good enough to make you yearn what it could have been with the benefit of a stronger and tighter script.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33006&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/26/21 05:17:38
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USA
  27-Aug-2021 (R)
  DVD: 16-Nov-2021

UK
  N/A

Australia
  27-Aug-2021


Directed by
  Nia DaCosta

Written by
  Jordan Peele
  Win Rosenfeld

Cast
  Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
  Tony Todd
  Teyonah Parris



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