Candyman provokes an intriguing question: Is a gory slasher flick the appropriate vessel for important socio-cultural commentary? I grappled with the answer for much of the movie’s runtime, tumbling its message over and over in my brain. And then it hit me: Racial tensions are still boiling in this country. Attempts to disenfranchise black voters have grown especially ugly and belligerent. Democracy is being garroted with piano wire. So, let’s ask a better question: In this tense, dour moment in history, is any genre not an appropriate vessel for socio-cultural commentary?
First off, co-writer Jordan Peele (who also co-produces) and director Nia DaCosta deserve praise for bringing such a message to this particular medium. As the most unsubtle style of cinema, horror turns out to be the perfect place to hide a sweepingly ambitious statement on the frustrating inertia that hobbles the pursuit of racial equality.
We’ll unpack more of that in a bit. First, let’s touch on the movie’s background. Much like John Carpenter’s soft reboot of Halloween, DaCosta ignores the increasingly ragged Candyman sequels and builds this one as a direct followup to the superior original. She even reassembles several members of that cast to help underline the connection.
For those who don’t know, or don’t remember, that film featured Tony Todd as Daniel Robitaille/Candyman, a supernatural slasher who magically appears whenever someone says his name five times to a mirror. (I know you’re about to try it. Trust me–don’t.) We learn that Daniel was once a black 19th century artist who was lynched for daring to love a white woman. Afterward, he was transformed into the Candyman, a deadly ghost driven by grief-stricken rage.
Cut to the present day. The Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago, setting for the events in the first film, have now become a gentrified haven for freewheeling artists and hipsters. This includes Anthony (Yahoo Abdul Mateen II), a celebrated young painter. He lives with Brianna (Teyonah), his girlfriend, who also runs an art gallery. One night, Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) visits with Grady (Kyle Kaminsky), his new boyfriend. Troy dims the lights and recounts the horrific events of the first film. This has a profound effect on Anthony, who soon embarks on an obsessive investigation that uncovers some ugly truths about social injustice, along with his very personal connection to them.
It’s here that the filmmakers begin to stitch social commentary into the fabric of the story. The original Candyman had been a victim of bigoted brutality, and his continued presence serves as an intermittent reminder for a society that evolves, but never learns. Through flashbacks, we meet Sherman (Michael Hargrove), an innocent man who was killed by the police in 1977. By virtue of his tragic death, Sherman inherits the mantle of Candyman.
Candyman also has a few things to say about gentrification. We see Cabrini-Green as a tabula rasa for millennials, who live blissfully unaware of the neighborhood before its slate was wiped clean. For Peele and DaCosta, redecorating the ghetto with fresh paint and a shiny new Starbucks is a handy way to conceal its history and inhabitants. The filmmakers aren’t so much about finding solutions as delivering new perspective. Indeed, the opening credits are a reverse of the original Candyman: That film showed the mean streets from the sky; here, we see the sky from the streets. DaCosta and company are all about showing us old problems from a different angle.
As expected, all this social criticism is intelligent and well-executed. The actors have big, impassioned speeches that hammer the message home, which is great because subtlety hasn’t worked well thus far. Abdul-Mateen II brings real fire to Anthony, a thoughtful young man who lets the truth consume him. Parris plays Brianna as smart, savvy, but exasperated at her boyfriend’s jarring transformation. Stewart-Jarrett brings a smidge of comic relief, because somebody has to in this relentlessly bleak film.
If there’s a problem with Candyman, it’s…well, it’s not terribly scary. Seasoned horror fans will spot the thrills and chills as they pop out of nowhere. A twist in the final act is unsettling, but the movie has lost a lot of its momentum as a horror story by then.
That brings forth the flip of my opening question: Can a horror movie cover important social issues and still function as a horror movie? The answer is, well, kind of. Candyman evokes very real tragedies in a such a way they actually distract from the film’s more fantastical horror elements. Horror flicks are generally an easy way to escape, but this has one foot firmly planted in reality. Candyman tries to do two things at once, but it only does one really well.
91 min. In theaters and VoD.