‘Candyman’ Review: The Writing on the Wall

Candyman, Nia DaCosta’s 2021 sequel to Bernard Rose’s acclaimed 1992 film of the same name, boasts three screenwriters — Dacosta herself, Jordan Peele, and Peele’s frequent collaborator Win Rosenfeld — and its script, which jumps back and forth between rushed and overwritten, shows the strain of that redundancy. There’s laundromat owner William Burke (Colman Domingo) with his two completely separate tragic backstories, lazily caricatured art critic Finley Stephen (Rebecca Spence) who seems to despise artists altogether, and countless other whiffs both small and large. Both Domingo and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II deliver strong performances, the latter especially carrying long stretches of the film on his back. The combination of mania, dissociative fugue, and grinning avoidance he digs up makes Anthony McCoy instantly memorable, and DaCosta’s camera winkles all kinds of grotesquery out of his square-jawed, heroic features with low, disorienting shots which make him appear deformed and monstrous. 

The film as a whole is intermittently beautiful. DaCosta’s upside-down shots of the Chicago cityscape are entrancing, her use of mirrors and film-within-film engaging and proficient. Candyman’s set dressers do heroic work creating spaces of squalor and clutter, and the prosthetics used for Anthony’s putrefying hand and arm are genuinely repulsive. Exterior shots capture the abandoned brick apartment buildings of Cabrini Green with exacting symmetry that can’t help but please, but when it comes to horror — the sensation and the genre both — the film frequently falls flat. Perhaps it’s the nearly universal rule that the titular specter kills only nobodies and shitheels, leaving anyone we understand to be good alone, which sucks so much tension out of the movie’s goriest sequences. Nor is Robert A. A. Lowe’s soundtrack up to the job of spinning suspense out of rote instances of figures appearing in the backgrounds of shots.

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Much of DaCosta’s film is concerned with black pain as it exists as a communal experience, as a subject for artistic pursuit, and as a commodity. The script attacks its subject matter head-on, and if its analysis is sometimes hamfisted — I’m almost quoting the film’s straw-woman critic here — it’s just as often clear and punchy, as when Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) skewers Anthony’s monologue about the gentrification of Cabrini Green by pointing out bluntly that his own apartment is part of the trend. A sequence in which Anthony’s girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) attends an informal interview for a position at a Chicago art museum in a display room full of chalk-white humanoid sculptures beneath a tremendous flickering neon sign reading “YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY IN THE WRONG PLACE” likewise nicely complicates her conversation with fellow black curator Danielle Harrington (Christiana Clark), whose calm assurances that the system can be changed “from the inside” are delivered with an almost serpentine cadence. 

Candyman’s real trouble starts when it tries to move this didactic, talky approach back into the realm of actual events, symbols, and motivations. Aside from its standout visual sequences — the slow pullback from the critic’s apartment building really shines — it features very few images of real horror, and its attention to the genre’s rhythms and structures is slipshod at best. There is no suspense to speak of, no real scares, and on a symbolic level the idea of Candyman as a figure of vengeance and freedom undercuts both the film’s strong material about upper-class black people joining whites in preying on and parasitizing the pain of lower-class black americans and the senseless generational trauma and suffering of the original film. To add insult to injury we must then endure the sight of Tony Todd, poorly framed and hideously CGI-smoothed, robbed of both his magnetic presence and astonishing good looks. DaCosta’s sequel is largely a pleasure to watch and has a few ideas under its hood, but it lacks the commitment and insight to make much out of them.

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