Candyman opened at #1 at the US box office over the weekend, making Nia DaCosta the first Black female director to open a #1 film in North America. That is simultaneously a great accomplishment for her, and sad/embarrassing for the industry at large that it took until 2021 for a Black woman to direct the kind of mainstream film that stood a chance of reaching that milestone. Candyman is both a direct sequel to Bernard Rose’s 1992 film of the same name, and a soft reboot of the Candyman mythos, repurposed for a new generation and grounded more firmly in the Black roots of the story (penned originally by Clive Barker as short story The Forbidden). The original film centered on a white woman, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), an interloper in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green neighborhood who gets embroiled in and eventually consumed by the Candyman, a local urban legend that arose from a 19th century incident involving a Black artist and a white lynch mob.
2020 2021, Candyman, scripted by DaCosta, Jordan Peele & Win Rosenfeld, keeps the trappings of the original film but jettisons the white lady protagonist. Here the story centers on Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an artist searching for new inspiration, and his up-and-coming curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris). They live in a sleek new condo on Chicago’s Near North side, within the area of new development that has nearly obliterated Cabrini-Green from the map. In this new imagining, the Candyman urban legend has largely faded as the once-notorious housing project has mostly been demolished and made way for upscale homes for Millennial yupsters like Anthony and Brianna. But Anthony, struggling with his muse, latches onto the story once it is told to him by Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). The result is a new spate of work centered on Candyman and Black trauma in a ruined neighborhood, which a white art critic, Finley (Rebecca Spence), initially dismisses as shallow and obvious. Meanwhile, a bee sting is causing the flesh to literally rot off Anthony’s body.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in Candyman, but they don’t add up to a consistent whole. It feels like two movies mashed together, one a straightforward update of Candyman, the other a drama about Black art and artists and an industry and highly rarified world that both exploits them and dismisses them as dictated by the zeitgeist. DaCosta brings a lot of style to Candyman, including some really graphic late-stage body horror that would do Cronenberg proud, and the performances from the cast are solid across the board. The script, though, never quite coalesces in a way that brings all the threads together. The horror of Candyman is extrapolated from one murdered Black man to a legacy of murdered Black men, the most recent of which is a victim of police violence in the 1970s. Yet Candyman says nothing specific or interesting about police violence, nor does that connect in any way to Anthony and Brianna now living in luxury in that same neighborhood and what that shift says about gentrification. The murder of Ruthie McCoy is referenced, but left out of the Candyman mythos, nor does it tie into the string of white people who get offed throughout the film, and what the comparative reactions to these deaths says about the state of policing, news reporting, and selective memory.
And there is an added layer for this Chicago-based critic in how uninterested DaCosta seems with the Cabrini-Green setting and what that neighborhood is and represents today, nearly 30 years after the original film. Most of the project housing is gone, all that remain are a few blocks of rowhouses falling into urban decay. The neighborhood is heavily gentrified, with one of the top-rated magnet schools in the country just a few blocks away, and a large urban farm on the south end of the rowhomes. In 1992, Cabrini-Green was the specter of poverty and Blackness knocking on the door of the extremely rich and white Gold Coast neighborhood to the east; today, Cabrini-Green is a nearly-vacant ghost town being subsumed by the Gold Coast’s westward, luxury expansion. It’s only a matter of time before the last rowhouses are either renovated or razed, and the last remaining vacant lots developed. Yet Candyman, a film that wants to say something about the legacy of white violence and Black suffering, has nothing to say about the legacy of Cabrini-Green in this neighborhood beyond a single ghost story. The ideas are there—the continuity of violence, art and commercialism and exploitation, gentrification and haunting—but it doesn’t go anywhere.
But Candyman isn’t a total loss. As a straight horror movie, it works. The body horror is great, the flashbacks utilizing shadow puppets from Chicago’s Manual Cinema are the most visually elegant and interesting element of the film, the performances are good, especially Colman Domingo as the man tasked with tying the then-and-now threads together. That Anthony and Brianna have zero romantic chemistry even works in the film’s favor, as Brianna’s family continually suggests Anthony is coasting on Brianna’s money, so their relationship takes on more of a doomed transactional vibe that works as Anthony starts (literally) falling apart as the Candyman myth consumes him. It just wouldn’t have hurt for this film to have the kind of granular specificity of place that DaCosta brought to her previous film, Little Woods. And I wish that Candyman was stronger thematically, that all those intriguing ideas built to something substantial.