By Elias Savada.
What started as a Clive Barker story (“The Forbidden”) became a moderately menacing film back in 1992, but the reincarnation is quite the terror I hoped it would be.”
Folklore and urban legends have driven movie audiences wild with horrific glee over the history of the artform. Universal, home to such classic creatures as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, now is poised to add another to its pantheon. With Jordan Peele as a producer and Nia DaCosta as a very astute director, this update of a 30-year old film (that would sponsor two extremely lame sequels) is a franchise re-starter. What started as a Clive Barker story (“The Forbidden”) became a moderately menacing film back in 1992, but the reincarnation is quite the terror I hoped it would be. The eponymous boogeyman has returned in a frightful mood. Prepare to be scared.
Of course, putting Jordan Peele’s name on almost anything that tingles your spine (Get Out, Us, Lovecraft Country) will obviously grab your attention. I said almost – did you forget the wan rethinking of The Twilight Zone? Well, Candyman starts off wildly different, but quite cleverly, especially if you’re familiar with the legend. Say the name Candyman in front of a mirror five times and bad things will happen to you. So, the Universal logo comes up a reflected image of itself. Same for the ensuing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (and other) trademarks – a tangled rights story I won’t bore you with. So, the film leans toward the wink-wink approach…although the dread will follow.
Harkening back to the original movie, the story revolves around the now abandoned Cabrini-Green housing project of Chicago. After a brief, pre-credit journey to 1977, the timeframe morphs to the mask-less, pre-Covid days of 2019. Set up as a new age campfire story, references abound to the earlier film (with a cute shout-out to Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle, the promising grad student who meets her match against you-know-who). Helen circles back several times during the movie, her audio cassette remnants packed away in an acid-free box in a university archive – which amazingly preserved the recorder’s battery life as well!
Replacing Helen at the center of today’s tale is Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an artist in search of inspiration. His partner is Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), a gallery director. They have a luxury apartment, decades removed from the now gentrified remains of Cabrini-Green. This is just the set up you’d expect. Some lovely upper-middleclass Black millennials are about to wonder WTF they have done.
Barely a quarter-hour in, the bees – yeah, they’re part of the story, again. Always have been – start buzzing in one of the several precursory crumbs that the screenplay (by Peele & Win Rosenfeld and DaCosta) tosses your way.
Jump scares and discomforting sounds pound at you, as do slow moving reveals. Colman Domingo, the grown-up version of the kid scared by the sugarcoated monster in the pre-credit sequence, pops up while Anthony is looking for inspiration in the dilapidated, rotting ruins of the project, spinning the legend of a man with a further along, and, sadly for the artist, tweaking his creative interest. Not sadly for those of us expecting a gripping horror film.
As part of a gallery’s installation, Anthony has contributed “Say My Name,” a mirror/aluminum/paint on canvas piece with direct linkage to the tormentor of yesteryear. When a shapely young student shares the artwork’s information sheet, you expect her to be the first victim. Guess again. And don’t wonder too long, as gory death number one arrives just as Candyman rounds its first third. For Anthony, learning his artwork may have inspired a deadly notoriety brings a transformative moment that Abdul-Mateen adorns with a celebratory smile. Creeped out yet?
When the antagonist makes his presence known to Anthony, DaCosta frames the encounter in a neon-lit elevator. It’s just a tease, but it continues the dread and unease that escalate from here on out, coinciding with the artist’s spurt of dark creativity. Later, the director pays homage to the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, molding Groucho’s famous mirror scene into something much more sinister, and then quickly pivots to an external point-of-view focus that reflects on Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The scene, as brief as it is, shifts the film to an even bleaker heartbeat.
The mostly Black cast really brings down the house. For every agonizing death brought on by Anthony’s arousal of the moribund killer, there are naysayers in the crowd, especially from Brianna, who stumbles onto her partner’s gruesome portraits, yet fails to connect the supernatural dots. It’s the same disbelief that made Peele’s Get Out and Us so enjoyable. Entrusting the actors to DaCosta further brings another voice of color to the directors ranks. Even with just a single feature (2018’s Little Woods) in her resume, both films show how she can guide her cast into exceptional performances. We all need to get excited about The Marvels (also featuring Parris), the $180-million sequel to Captain Marvel (2019) currently scheduled for release late next year.
Even Candyman‘s occasional padding outside of the base characters – I’m referring to a 3-minute bathroom scene with a group of prep school girls who dared, five times too late – is a hoot of perceived agony. One of the students sees something in her makeup mirror. Another is abducted out of view, hidden by the stalls, while blood rains down. Not a single dismemberment is shown, but it’s one of the creepiest scenes in the film, with a lovely pièce-de-résistance to top off the master’s work.
There are some hidden secrets that surface during the film’s third act. These revolve around Anthony’s unearthly reaction to a bee sting a few reels earlier. His “normal” life crashes and burns as the truth is dared out. Candyman is quite the tour-de-force for DaCosta, with heaps of praise for her editor, Catrin Hedström, and the film’s makeup effects team, run by Anthony Kosar (Lovecraft Country).
Now, repeat after me. Actually…you go first.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).