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Like the razor blades hidden in the sweets he hands out, the titular villain of “Candyman” offers a surprisingly sharp story about black suffering. Directed by Nia DaCosta as a sequel to the original 1992 cult classic, and produced and co-written, along with DaCosta and Win Rosenfeld, by Jordan Peele –– director of “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019) –– the film follows in the footsteps of Peele’s earlier work as it weaves together horror and racial commentary. Though initially flawed in its unimaginative structure, “Candyman” evolves into a harrowing portrayal of the weaponization of trauma.
Opening with upside-down shots of the Chicago skyline alongside the portentous hum of a beehive, the film starts with the usual horror tropes. Ominous, metaphoric use of animals? Check. Consistently gray Midwestern sky? Check.
The rest of the first act proceeds in a similarly unsurprising fashion: Following a generic prelude in which Candyman presumably terrorizes a young child in the slums of Chicago, the film cuts to the present-day gentrified neighborhood. Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a once brilliant, but now uninspired artist, lives with –– and off of –– his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), an art gallery director who displays his work. Although the dialogue between characters is refreshingly natural and believable –– an exchange between Brianna’s brother Troy and his fiancé is rife with stutters, um’s, and the halting rhythm of real-life conversation –– the scenes feel rehashed, as if they are there only to depict the stereotypical nearly-perfect-life of the nearly-perfect-couple upon which the horror of the film will soon descend.
When Anthony unwittingly invokes Candyman into being by saying his name five times in a mirror, the film finally starts to reveal its intermittent genius. Horror clichés are still present, such as an animated retelling of the legend of Candyman and banal shots of Googled research on a library computer, but they are used more sparingly. Instead, the film’s intelligence shines via cinematographer John Guleserian’s creative and meaningful framing and DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld’s suddenly energetic, allegorical method of storytelling mid-movie.
The latter half of the film visually stuns with inventive shots. A slow, sardonic zoom-out of a multi-windowed Chicago skyscraper shows a victim violently dragged across her room by an invisible Candyman. Startlingly unbalanced compositions depict Anthony resting on –– and simultaneously encaged by –– the modern apartment walls in the buildings that make up his newly developed neighborhood. Finally, still shots of mirrors found in bathrooms, windows, and painting canvases, unify each scene around the film’s themes of self-reflection and self-representation. Purposeful storytelling drives the framing of each shot, and the care and originality Guleserian brings to this department successfully masks the overall staleness of the plot.
As Anthony hears about the origins of Candyman from laundromat owner Billy Burke (Colman Domingo) –– who is the grown-up version of the young boy in the prelude –– the audience learns that the true “face of fear,” as Billy puts it, is not the leering, crucified figure of Candyman, but the white police officer who reacts to young Billy’s screams by beating Candyman to death. Far from narrowly serving as a tragic character hell-bent on revenge in supernatural form, Candyman comes to represent five black, male victims of white/police brutality from the 1800s to the recent past. Those who invoke his name in order to feel self-complacent –– all of whom are white –– suffer a gruesome, bloody, and over-the-top death via Candyman’s hooked arm. Their deaths are an exaggerated brutality that at first comes off as typical eye-roll-inducing slasher content; however, through the script’s masterful, though delayed, movement toward the metaphorical, they transform into reverse punishments inflicted on modern-day, insidious racists.
But is Candyman ultimately a vengeful character? Does he exist solely as a representation of black pain and suffering, a symbol for centuries’ worth of resentment? And are white people the only people who can inflict suffering in a racial context?
The second half of the movie confronts these questions directly as characters’ personal past traumas unravel to complicate the web that the script has slowly spun. Some of the later plot twists may be predictable, but Abdul-Mateen, Parris, and Domingo’s provocative portrayals of pain and terror –– and special mention must also be given here to Vanessa Williams, who delivers a heartbreaking performance as Anthony’s mother –– make the film novel and worthwhile, as it otherwise struggles to break the genre mold of a traditional slasher. Although it takes a while, “Candyman” eventually reveals its latent originality, coming to life and leaving the audience absolutely devastated.
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