Candyman begins with inversion, as the studio logos of Universal, Monkeypaw Productions and MGM are presented in reverse. From here, we move into low-angled shots of the Chicago skyline. These imposing buildings express wealth, power and privilege, but rather towering over the viewer, they are inverted, viewed from above. Clouds wreath the building crests but at the bottom of the frame, as though rising out of mist rather than reaching into the sky.
Inversion and mirroring permeate Candyman, as reflections prove untrustworthy and become the source of fear, and the film as a whole reflects an array of social and political tensions. Director and co-writer Nia DaCosta, along with fellow writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, perform a remarkable reclaiming of discourse and the cinematic space, with an unveiled marrying of social and supernatural horrors. In doing so, this film more than equals the challenge of following on from Bernard Rose’s “Candyman,” a deserved classic of 90s horror.
Unique in its tale of an urban legend bogeyman of sheepskin coat, hook hand and covered in bees, Rose’s adaptation of Clive Barker’s tale “The Forbidden” spawned two sequels and made an iconic figure out of Tony Todd. Despite this, the original has some problematic elements, most especially the appropriation of Cabrini Green, an African American district of Chicago, by a white filmmaker. DaCosta embeds her film in the black community, incorporating class, stratification and even artistry into an insightful treatise that also engages with myth, voices and the power of stories.
Beginning in 1977, we are introduced to Cabrini Green and its people, including a grinning yet sinister man who steps out of the walls, and the far more menacing police who utilize excessive force at the possibility of a possibly dangerous black man. Sounds familiar. From there we jump forwards to the present day and our main characters, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”) and Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, “If Beale Street Could Talk”), a couple who have very much benefited from gentrification. Living in an opulent apartment where they entertain Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, “The Argument”) and his partner Grady Greenberg (Kyle Kaminsky, “DriverX”), Anthony paints bold and provocative art while Brianna manages a gallery that exhibits his work alongside other socially active artists. Troy’s story of Helen Lyle’s (Virginia Madsen) investigation into the urban legend of Candyman inspires Anthony to research Cabrini Green. Further information from locals, especially William Burke (Colman Domingo, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), sparks Anthony’s creativity as well as eerie images in the mirror, before violent death comes a-calling.
DaCosta deftly handles the escalating horror. Wide-angled shots allow for uncanny figures to enter domestic space, from Anthony and Brianna’s home to that of art critic Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence, “Saint Frances”). Space is further disrupted as the murders begin — a sequence in an art gallery begins with glimpses in the various mirrors before bodily harm takes place. A murder is observed through a long shot of an apartment window, the camera steadily moving back to capture the indifferent expanse of plate glass as a life is brutally snuffed out. A sequence in a high school bathroom is largely expressed audibly, the audience’s perspective is restricted to that of a girl in a cubicle, privy only to screams, pleas and the sound of ripping flesh, and a brief glimpse in a compact mirror.
Despite being largely restricted to glimpses such as this, the iconography of Candyman is unmistakable. The figure, complete with coat and hook are all present, as are the bees, that bump against both sides of the glass as well as provoking the mutilation of flesh. An early sting develops into an infected wound and an entire body becomes corrupted along with a mind. DaCosta maintains an element of ambiguity — how much of what we see is Anthony becoming delusional, and how much is supernatural?
While this ambiguity is ultimately resolved, it allows for an interesting consideration on artistic creation. Artists are often presented on screen as tortured geniuses, isolated from the world because of the worlds that struggle to escape their own heads. Anthony is a committed artist, but his art is placed within a social context which makes him more engaging. The sequences where he paints are dynamic but not romanticized — painting is important to him and the work is shown to be impactful, but the viewer is not expected to suspend other concerns, a point we are reminded of by Brianna’s critique of Anthony’s paintings as well as his response to news reports that mention his name. Later, as his work becomes darker and his mind distracted, we may well side with Brianna as she becomes quite reasonably afraid of Anthony’s increasing obsession. Anthony’s journey through the film is certainly compelling, but it is not one we necessarily approve of. Brianna serves as the viewer’s surrogate to the increasingly horrific acts, while also displaying the common sense so often lacking in horror films. In one very witty moment, she looks down a flight of steps into a dark basement and quickly decides “Nope,” as we all would. A minor flaw in the film is that her backstory is underdeveloped, hinted at with a couple of flashbacks that could have been expanded.
This treatment of gender also extends to the visuals. Anthony is repeatedly shown shirtless, his physique presented as a visual spectacle in another nice inversion of the standard male gaze of cinema. Combined with the narrative shift in the final act, Candyman is as much Brianna’s story as Anthony’s, exploring the conceit of bearing witness and spreading the word. On a related note, DaCosta also brings in the unique element of shadow puppetry, a visual storytelling technique that beautifully expresses hideous racial violence, from the various incarnations of Candyman to actual events such as Emmett Till and George Stinney.
The inclusion of such history, as well as the various characters referring to racial segregation and oppression as well as gentrification, raises the specter of the politics overwhelming the story. Black lives certainly matter in this story, but there is a clear indication that to polite American society they do not, as the true face of fear is all too human (and white). But this is what makes Candyman an important black film. For a community who are eternally reminded of being lower tier, it makes perfect sense that their story is interweaved with bloody supernatural horror. Within the film, Candyman serves as a reminder that racial violence is ongoing. As a film, Candyman insists that the viewer take note, remember and spread the word. Say his name indeed.