By Naomi Roper
For as long as the residents can remember, the housing projects of Chicago’s Cabrini Green neighbourhood were terrorized by an urban legend about supernatural killer Daniel Robitaille, aka the Candyman (Tony Todd), who could be summoned by those daring to repeat his name five times into a mirror.
In the present day, a decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, visual artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend, art gallery director Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) have moved into a luxurious loft condo in Cabrini, now gentrified beyond recognition and inhabited by the upwardly mobile millennials. With Anthony’s painting career on the brink of stalling, a chance encounter with Cabrini Green old-timer William Burke (Colman Domingo) exposes Anthony to the horrific nature of the true story behind the Candyman. Anxious to maintain his status in the Chicago art world, Anthony begins to explore the Candyman legend unknowingly opening a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifyingly viral wave of violence that puts him on a collision course with his destiny…
The original Candyman film (written and directed by Bernard Rose from a short story by Clive Barker) is one of my favourite horror films. Featuring a wonderful performance from Virginia Madsen as the doomed Helen Lyle, packed with indelible imagery and a haunting Phillip Glass score the movie established Candyman as a black horror icon. However, it was only recently while watching the superb documentary Horror Noire (available on Shudder) which charts the rise of black horror that I realised what my very white perspective had missed. In the documentary black film critics and academics openly rolled their eyes at Candyman noting that Candyman wouldn’t have gone after the black residents of Cabrini Green and that his fascination with a white, blonde woman called to mind a number of racist tropes.
All those concerns are eradicated by Nia DaCosta’s searing new take on the film. Alongside Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld as fellow screenwriters DaCosta positions Candyman as both a direct sequel to the original movie and a re-framing of the Candyman mythos from a black perspective. The result is electrifying. Devastating and haunting Candyman is a truly modern urban horror.
DaCosta’s direction is sparse but beautiful. Candyman’s kills are brilliantly staged by DaCosta but much of the violence happens off-screen. One particularly clever sequence pans out to reveal a beautiful city scene at night before we realise that in one of those anonymous windows someone idiotic enough to have summoned Candyman is meeting their fate. DaCosta doesn’t revel in brutality, in the world of Candyman reality is already brutal enough.
There are some very clever inversions of the terrible horror trope that the black person always dies first. A loudly shouted “nope” to a situation that would often have lead to the black character’s death bought the house down at the screening I attended.
I was not expecting the Cronenberg level of body horror that poor Anthony is subjected to and I found myself wincing horribly as a bee sting on his hand brings upon a terrifying degeneration of flesh and spirit. DaCosta’s direction is unflinching and there were multiple times I had to look away from the screen. The special effects make up is impressive although those with trypophobia are going to have a very hard time.
The art direction and costume design are beautiful (Anthony and Brianna are fancy and dress beautifully). The music by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe is used to eerie effect (and yes that Phillip Glass piece is used throughout). The movie also has the best credits I’ve ever seen with the sparse evocative puppet animation by Chicago design company Manual Cinema.
The performances are first-rate. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is soulful and haunting as Anthony. The script doesn’t shy away from making Anthony a glib opportunist using the legend of Candyman and Cabrini Green to jump-start his failing artistic career. His “Say His Name” piece which re-invigorates the Candyman legend is every bit as superficial and trite as Brianna and the snotty art critic think it is. Anthony is more than happy to use the pain and fear of the Cabrini Green residents as window dressing for his art piece. It is only when he falls down the rabbit hole of investigating the legend and meets Burke that he begins to truly understand. Abdul-Mateen is an actor of extraordinary range and sensitivity (please, please see his exceptional performance in Watchmen opposite the goddess Regina King if you haven’t already) and his performance here carves its way into your soul. On a wildly shallow note, he also has the most incredible physique.
Parris, fresh off being one of the best things in WandaVision, takes what could have been a very dull “concerned girlfriend” role and elevates it. Brianna is all heart and passion coupled with an iron will. The sequence where she stands under a glowing neon sign stating “You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place” and sees that for all her talent and ambition she is still only any good to others as a way to connect to a famous man broke my heart. The narrative subtly switches at a certain point to make Brianna the lead and Parris relishes the opportunity.
Nathan Stewart Jarrett gets a sparkling role as Brianna’s brother. Ostensibly the comic relief you can’t be mad at his lack of character development when he’s got killer lines like “Ain’t no dick in the world good enough to ignore a demonology habit” and the already iconic “Black people don’t need to be summoning shit.”
Colman Domingo is on blistering form as Burke, a man drowning in trauma and pain, unable to move forward but unwilling to forget the horrors of the past. Domingo damn near steals the movie out from under everyone.
There will be reviewers who will not be happy with DaCosta’s new spin on Candyman. They will argue that their fun slasher horror movie should not be weighed down with social issues as if you can somehow tell the tale of Candyman without them.
Gentrification is a true villain here just as it was in the original movie. In the original Helen Lyle lived in a spruced-up version of the projects. Here Anthony and Brianna live in an upper-middle-class modern housing development built on the remnants of Cabrini Green. As Anthony notes to the art critic housing developers tear down black neighbourhoods and build shiny new places to be filled by new white homeowners with the promise that “if they stick it out two years you’ll get a Whole Foods”. Anthony and Brianna live in their beautiful new apartment (and seriously it’s pure interior design porn) but their home is still built on a foundation of blood and pain. They tore Cabrini Green down but the stain of what happened there still marks the land.
You cannot tell the story of Candyman, a talented painter without looking at how white people treat black creators. As Burke says “They love what we create but they don’t love us”. Anthony’s “worth” to the white gallery owner is purely measured by how well his work sells. Brianna’s worth to the white curator who sets her up with a job interview is measured by her proximity to Anthony. Anthony is only of any interest to the white critic (who could barely hide her open disdain and not very covert racism when originally speaking to him) when it gains notoriety because of the murders. White people want what Anthony creates, what Brianna curates but they don’t want to give them the respect they deserve for it. (On a side note Anthony’s art is stunning and is by artists Arnold Kemp, Cameron Spratley, and Sherwin Ovid).
But more than anything you cannot tell the story of Candyman, a black man murdered by a white mob for the crime of falling in love with a white woman without examining issues of racial justice. Every frame of this movie is steeped in the fear and hatred and racial trauma that the inhabitants of Cabrini Green felt and all those who came before them. The movie builds and builds and builds to a searing, horrifying climax as Candyman is re-born. Not as a black bogeyman who kills anyone who says his name but as a manifestation of generations of racial injustice. Say His Name and the final words “Tell Everyone” are reclaimed as a rallying cry for justice. The words are both cautionary tale and remembrance, an urban legend ready to be re-told. Say his name and tell everyone what they did. Never ever let anyone forget.
Haunting, devastating, elegant and brutal Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is a spellbinding triumph.
Candyman is in cinemas from Friday.