Bernard Rose’s 1992 film Candyman, freely adapted from a Clive Barker short story, is the tale of a white academic who inadvertently summons a murderous ghost, textually a manifestation of racial violence against Black men, but simultaneously a commentary on the fear of their sexuality and the commodification of Black trauma by white artists — a trauma that has been, essentially, gentrified. It’s thorny and complicated and maybe a little dated, but it’s also lush and romantic and gory and genuinely frightening in its horrific images, specifically of the title character, Tony Todd’s hook-handed, bee-infested phantasm. It’s a lot, and would seem the perfect choice for a remake (or sequel, or reimagining, or what have you). Horror films, of course, have always been excellent political vehicles, and politics of late — especially the politics of race in this country, to say the least — are certainly fertile ground. Unfortunately, Nia DaCosta’s newest iteration of Candyman (co-written by Get Out’s Jordan Peele) is ultimately incoherent, despite her excellent eye.
Chicago’s Cabrini Green, the original’s setting, has itself been gentrified, and now is full of expensive condos populated by ambitious millennials, like artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend/manager Brianna (Teyonah Parris). Anthony hasn’t produced a piece in a few years, and when he hears about the tale of Helen Lyle (the original’s interloping academic, consumed by a fire and blamed for Candyman’s murders), he becomes obsessed, tracking down former residents of the projects who seem to have their own versions of the Candyman legend. All of which, of course, include the detail that in order to summon this particular boogeyman, you must say his name into the mirror five times. Guess what Anthony does next.
This Candyman is a more direct representation of Black anger and an indictment of racial violence (especially by law enforcement). The folkloric aspect of the character and concept has been somewhat reconfigured to be a reminder of both the frequency and tragedy of that continued assault; it’s certainly no coincidence that the characters repeatedly intone, “Say his name.” But this is at once both too pat and pedantic and too plainly incoherent, with Candyman’s victims primarily being dismissive white critics. Where the original made its protagonist complicit in — even aroused by — the destruction that followed her, this Candyman is framed as a justified vengeance, even while it pays extremely didactic lip service (literally, in the form of multiple monologues) to the aforementioned issues of gentrification, redlining, white privilege, and their attendant poverty and violence. Candyman contorts itself to fit its virtuous but ultimately shallow politics, as if the audience might not get it if it’s not spelled out. Worse, it makes sure its dead all have it coming.
And yet, the film isn’t without its genuine frights. DaCosta barely lets a single scene by without one or two truly arresting images: a gout of blood pouring onto bathroom tile peered at from beneath a stall door; the maze-like patter of blue painter’s tape on Anthony’s studio floor; an invisible hook shredding a projector screen filled with images of cowering children. She would have absolutely slayed a more coherent, less expository, less anxious to be accepted story. Her powers are hardly wasted here — she entirely elevates the material with her confident direction — but she’s unfortunately only able to make merely gorgeous and weird what is also intrinsically disorganized and overstuffed.