It’s not often I approach reviews in the first person. I, more often than not, come at the review from above, writing while facing downward: the objective plot summary and the opinion-based analysis. But sitting here, shivering even after running a lap, I can’t fathom discussing this feature without highlighting this emotional response. More than once, I wanted to puke. More than once, I shed tears. More than once, I screamed. For who? I don’t dare say his name.
This horror feature opens to the sound of buzzing bees laid atop a slightly modified version of “The Candyman Can.” It perfectly sets the scene for a movie that will capitalize off of original feature nostalgia while dragging the tale into the 21st century. First, it’s the 70’s in Cabrini Green, the Chicago public hosing project that’s the focus in 1992’s Candyman.
There, a gentle man with a hook for an appendage and a handful of candy scares a child who accidentally summons the police. Soon, it flashes forward to present day where an artist, Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Watchmen) and his girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris, If Beale Street Could Talk, WandaVision), are getting settled into their new apartment in a complex built where projects used to stand. Over wine, the pair, along with Breanna’s brother and his boyfriend, discuss the complex history of gentrification in a way that updates the conversation and highlights its continued relevance.
Anthony is an artist, Brianna, a gallery director which gives him access to premier his work at her shows. Inspired by a haunting tale of the Candyman, Anthony creates an art piece from a bathroom mirror. A piece deemed unappealing by attendees. Scorned by the gallery staff, Anthony leaves, but the haunting tale of Candyman is left in the space without him and the name is said five times into Anthony’s reflective piece. Bloody deaths come next and while their being reported on the news, a flustered Anthony is thrilled to hear the reporter say his name.
Feeling closer than ever to the myth, Anthony slowly begins to lose himself to the tale. His art becomes macabre, his relationships begin to crumble, and he slips deeper into obsession with the shell of a human he sees reflected in the mirror. Can he be saved or will he be a victim?
“Scorned by the gallery staff, Anthony leaves, but the haunting tale of Candyman is left in the space without him and the name is said five times into Anthony’s reflective piece.”
Director, Nia DaCosta (who shares writing credit with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld) brings both the necessary sensibilities and the capacity to craft a perfect scare. Her visual style is stunning and her lighting and mirror tricks had me scrunching my face to solve the mystery of the hidden camera. Scenes are reminiscent of Velvet Buzzsaw but are a monster of their own, awash in reds and blues. Each death takes a completely different approach to the scare, though there’s never a shortage of blood (and some truly grotesque practical gore).
Staring head on, reflected in a mirror, from outside a window, or inside a bathroom stall, you’ll see blood spilled in multiple ways. It’s a cruel joke and beautiful irony to lay conversations about gentrification atop stunning architecture. But then, DaCosta covers it all in blood.
There’s a compulsion throughout to wonder what’s happening to Anthony. Is this another tale of horror as an allegory for an unraveling mind? It might be. But the tale is more of the brutal affects of intergenerational trauma paired with the stark reality of new traumatization. Anthony visits a man he meets while investigating the projects named William (Colman Domingo) who regales him with the legend.
As Anthony slips deeper into its grasp, William explains the entire history of the apparition and how he’s a stand-in for the Black men killed for their race. Gesturing to the faces of many men, he laments their losses, painting a straight line from the inherited trauma and it’s continued rolling through generations. The police in the 1977 scenes are as menacing as those in 2021, and if the sounds of sirens induced vomit then, they still do now.
If the film loses itself anywhere, it’s in its desire to strap itself to the original a bit too much. But it shows its cards early enough and has beautiful implications about canon. There’s an on-the-nose ending that will drag you through the muck but it pays off in a way that makes the ordeal worthwhile. I don’t think I exhaled for about three full minutes until the closing of the finale, and I spent time consciously telling my body not to shatter.
Nia DaCosta’s take on this rich tale is nothing short of brilliant. Dare I say, a work of art that might slip off the fingers of Anthony? “Masterpiece” gets thrown around often, but it’s worth slapping on DaCosta’s opus. The combination of tragedy and scares is an assault on the emotions that left my own sensibilities completely obliterated. As the credits rolled beside a paper puppet show that further developed the myth, I struggled to avoid grabbing my phone to #TellEveryone about what I’d just seen, before remembering I’d said his name four times and deciding I better not.