Review: 'Candyman' pushes for more than horror, comes up short
Reimagining of the 1992 horror tale has a lot to say but isn't sure how to say it.
There's a lot going on — too much going on, in fact — in "Candyman," the challenging and artful but overstuffed and undercooked reboot/ reimagining/ sequel to the 1992 horror thriller of the same name.
This is a film with lots of ideas, ideas about art, its function, its creation and its audience; about gentrification, those who gentrify, who benefits and who comes out on the losing end; about police, particularly the crooked kind, who work the inner-city beat; about the history of horror films and their intent; and about the way Blackness fits into all of the aforementioned topics. It's a racial allegory as boogeyman story, but for a film with so much on its mind, "Candyman" comes off like it's not sure what it's trying to say.
The great Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (go watch him in the "Striking Vipers" episode of "Black Mirror") plays Anthony McCoy, a rising artist in the Chicago art world whose girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris, "WandaVision") is an art director in the same community. Anthony's provocative pieces and artistic vision lead him to inquire about the legend of Candyman, a urban legend figure who once haunted Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects, who has a hook for a hand and is said to appear if his name is said into a mirror five times. (Beetlejuice is just three times and not into a mirror, lest you become confused.)
Anthony's research leads him back to Cabrini-Green where he learns about Helen Lyle, the lead of the 1992 film (played then and voiced here by Virginia Madsen), and eventually leads him to William Burke (Colman Domingo), who fills in the gaps on the Candyman legend and shares his thoughts on the ways Black art is received by non-Black audiences ("they love what we make, but not us," he tells him). Anthony also gets a pretty bad bee sting on his hand, which is left untreated and festers into a nasty wound that slowly overtakes his body.
Anthony is artistically inspired by what he learns and he begins working Candyman into his art. Naturally, the reemergence of the Candyman legend results in a pileup of bodies: A snobby art dealer and his girlfriend, a pretentious art critic and a dopey high school girl are among those who experiment with saying Mr. C's name into a mirror and quickly come to regret it.
They're not necessarily innocent victims. They've all interacted or sought to commodify Anthony's art in some way, and due to their backgrounds, they're not in touch with its roots or the truth of the Black experience. (They're also rather cavalier with and dismissive of Candyman lore.) But did they deserve to die? Or does a slasher film just need some victims, and these people were around? If writer-director Nia DaCosta, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, was more clear in her intent, these questions wouldn't nag.
"Candyman" functions on a different level than most slasher films, and its look and mood — from the eerie upside-down shots of Chicago's skyline that open the film to Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe's downbeat, unsettling score — cast it in a boutique light. When it does lean on the slasher playbook, its scares often play out in the background, and the core of its horror comes from historical wrongdoing. A more immediate problem is that its lack of clear-cut characters make it difficult to find someone to root for, and the film's off-the-rails third act feels unearned and ripped from an earlier version of the script.
There are plenty of eye-grabbing flourishes in the presentation, including a scene that DaCosta stages largely in the reflection of a compact, as well as the use of shadow puppets to re-create past events which give those scenes a folksy, homemade feel. But "Candyman" lacks a center as well as grounding. Revelations about Anthony's character tie him to the original story and its origins, but as a central figure he becomes more cloudy as the film progresses, creating a narrative disconnect.
In the original "Candyman," Tony Todd was such a memorable central presence that it became the actor's signature role, and bought him a career in horror movies. Nothing in this new "Candyman" lingers or registers on as deep a level, despite the film's lofty intentions and high-minded approach. In ends up pointing toward a sequel, which isn't at all surprising, but hopefully by then this "Candyman" will have a better idea of what it wants to be and will give fans a reason to conjure him up again.
Rated R: for bloody horror violence, and language including some sexual references
Running time: 91 minutes