Movie Review: ‘CANDYMAN’s spooky brand of folklore pays respects to the horrors of the past

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James Clay // Film Critic

CANDYMAN (2021)

Rated R, 91 minutes.
Director: Nia DaCosta
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo, Kyle Kaminsky, Brian King, Vanessa Williams, and Michael Hargrove

Opens Friday in theaters nationwide.

The curse of the Candyman dates back generations like a festering wound upon the folks of the gentrified Chicago neighborhood of Cabrini-Green. A man with a hook for a hand and a sinister smile surrounded by bees will appear if you say his name five times in a mirror…Candyman…Candy-nope. This type of dare plagues and challenges many of the characters inside the frame of Nia DaCosta’s (LITTLE WOODS, CAPTAIN MARVEL 2) excellent lega-sequel titled CANDYMAN. However, take a step onto the internet and you will find many people in the real world who refuse to toy with such folklore. The prospect of getting one’s throat slashed for the sake of a dare isn’t worth the clout that survival may bring. 

DaCosta’s film, produced by Jordan Peele’s (GET OUT) production company Monkeypaw Productions, is ushering in a wave of new and legendary voices. It’s great to see sketch comedian turned prestige director to completely open the doors for Black artists to continue carrying these stories across the finish line. We’re approaching an age where one creator can provide an outlet to make wholly unique stories with a hip Black cinema aesthetic that tells their stories on-screen without pandering to the audience. Think what Steven Speilberg did for Robert Zemekis, but this time for the culture.

DaCosta’s vision is a fully realized continuation of the ’90s cult classic CANDYMAN with a haunting meta-message about what it means to be an artist, what it means to be an artist of color and the true horror that has covered African Americans for 400 years in this country. DaCosta, Peele, and Win Rosenfeld’s screenplay penned is a hauntingly dimensional piece that plays its hand slyly for the audience, only dropping hints and leading the plot. 

Several characters provide exposition, yet the 90-minute film never feels bogged down by folklore. The screenplay allows for its star, the beautifully dynamic Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (AQUAMAN, THE WATCHMEN tv series), to play with his character choices without ever tipping his hand. Together with Teyonah Parris (WANDAVISION) and Colman Domingo (MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM), these actors bring in a novel way to tell a spooky story while relying on conventions audiences will recognize and love. 

After CANDYMAN opens coldly with an old-school story of the Cabrini Green district in the 1970s, we follow a young boy who leaves his friends for home only to be screaming in horror. Then, cut to Brianna Cartwright (Parris), a successful art gallery director girlfriend hosting a dinner with Anthony McCoy (Mateen), her not as successful visual artist boyfriend. When Brianna’s brother (Nathan Stewart Jarrett) and his partner tell a haunting story about Helen Lyle’s (Virginia Madsen from the original film) disturbing demise, this intrigues Anthony to do some digging of his own. From there, curiosity opens Anthony’s artistic vision into something he could never have bargained for, even if his artistry is more 20/20 than ever before. 

DaCosta’s film unravels unconventionally as we follow McCoy down the rabbit hole that takes him inside the walls of what has gone down in the Cabrini Green district for generations. He does some detective work before creating an interactive piece of work that brings the Candyman back into the modern age. 

The film’s brilliance comes at the hands of the ultra-slick camera work and filmmaking tricks used within the frame, especially mirrors. It’s as if DaCosta and her director of photography John Gulesarian were taking a look directly at the audience members, daring them to look inward. But not to “fix” their emotions, but to “fix” the system that has oppressed our country for centuries. CANDYMAN never feels in service to its own themes; every plot detail happens organically and warrants multiple viewings. CANDYMAN critiques the studio system and the art world as a whole by lashing out at the gatekeepers that decide who’s sitting at the table this week. 

DaCosta made a film that’s eerie, well-acted, and is made for experiencing either on the big-screen or on a spooky night curled up into a blanket. The best thing about DaCosta’s filmmaking is her innate ability to connect with her subjects and audience simultaneously. Warning for the horrors that have yet to come and respecting the horrors that are in our past. 

Grade: A-

About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.