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Film Review: “Candyman” May Be Uneven, but the Terror Is Real

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 26th, 2021

Film poster: “Candyman”

Candyman (Nia DaCosta, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.

The original Candyman was released in 1992, followed by two sequels. In that first film, a white Chicago graduate student learns about the legend of the titular spirit, whose name, if said five times into a mirror, will bring him back from the grave to kill you. There was much more to the tale than that, for his story was rooted in the murderous legacy of racial injustice: a Black portrait artist in the late 19th century, he was lynched and killed by a mob sent after him following his affair with the daughter of a wealthy white man. His demise was especially gruesome because it involved his body being covered in honey so he would be stung to death by a swarm of bees; before that happened, they cut off his right hand, and as a result the avenging figure that springs forth from the mirror has a hook, with which he stabs his victims.

Now comes Nia DaCosta’s own Candyman, with a plot updated for our new millennium, though it’s a sequel, not a remake (forget the second and third films). Here, we are once more in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood, where we start in a 1977 prologue set the area occupied by neglected (and soon to be very neglected) housing projects. After that creepy opening, in which a boy encounters what may or may not be the supernatural being of legend, we jump forward to 2019, where the same location is now heavily gentrified. Enter Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, HBO’s Watchmen series) and Brianna (Teyonah Parris, Charm City Kings), he a painter and she an art dealer, both rising stars in their fields who are romantic partners. They’ve just settled into a brand-new apartment in Cabrini-Green, with no knowledge of its history.

Teyonah Parris in CANDYMAN ©Universal Pictures

Not to worry, for Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Mope), comes to dinner with his new boyfriend, and regales everyone with the myth of the Candyman, by way of delivering a post-meal scary story, including lots of details about redlining and other ways that white supremacy have affected the neighborhood. It’s basically the plot of the 1992 movie, catching us up if we’ve never seen it. Soon, Anthony, at a creative impasse ahead of an exhibit for which he needs to deliver some kind of work, goes exploring, finds that housing project from the opener, and there meets a stranger, William (Colman Domingo, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), who adds missing pieces to Troy’s version of events. Along the way, Anthony is stung by a bee. Ouch. How foreboding …

What then ensues is a gruesome meditation on the many ways in which African Americans have suffered at the hands of their white oppressors, with the Candyman (who only occasionally doles out the sweets) exacting revenge for the sins of yesterday … and today. As a creative take on social justice, the movie intrigues. As a horror film, a little less so, though doesn’t mean it’s a bust. Chilling sequences coexist side by side with less effective ones. If one is a fan of body horror, there is plenty of that, too. Throats are slit and blood is shed, though not always in the most visually coherent manner, DaCosta’s mise-en-scène not quite as assured as in her wonderful Little Woods. That said, I absolutely adore every single one of the shadow-puppet sequences used to illustrate the past. Ultimately, the script, by DaCosta, Jordan Peele (Us)—who also produced—and Win Rosenfeld, points us towards a narratively satisfying conclusion, but before we get there we pass over more than a few cinematic bumps. Still, real terror exists just below the surface here, and that is the final takeaway. Wrongs must be righted, no matter the cost.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in CANDYMAN ©Universal Pictures
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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