By Nicole Veneto
Why bother giving big-budget Hollywood projects to up-and-coming Black filmmakers if they’re just going to be neutered and cut to shit before release?
Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta. Now in theaters.
For me, the horror genre is at its best when filmmakers use its signature tropes, narrative conventions, and abject spectacles of violence to mount a social commentary on the very real horrors that have manifested themselves throughout our everyday lives. From Night of the Living Dead to It Follows, postmodern horror films have reconfigured the psycho-killer or monster into a metaphor for real life societal ills and anxieties. None of these efforts have been quite as direct and thematically potent as Candyman. Reckoning with the horrific legacy of chattel slavery and the ghettoization of black communities, Candyman sees its titular monster — a hook-handed lynch mob victim stung to death by bees — as tragic figure bequeathed eternal life, an urban legend haunting the residents of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects for generations. It’s a scathing indictment of anti-black racism, particularly those who seek to intellectually profit from it for personal gain; a cautionary tale against triggering anti-black violence while ignoring the dehumanizing brutality that animates it. All things considered, it’s a wonder that a white filmmaker was able to forge such a critique in a mainstream horror feature mere months after the Rodney King Uprisings in LA brought racial tension to the forefront of American public consciousness once again.
If you haven’t caught onto the bit I’m pulling yet, I’m talking about the original 1992 film Candyman, directed by Bernard Rose and adapted from horror maestro Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden.” I am not referring to the 2021 retread I wasted nearly twenty bucks to see on the big screen. Reboots and remakes seem to make up the majority of Hollywood releases nowadays, a few of which are very good, most of which aren’t. Despite being co-written and produced by none other than Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and made with a majority-black creative team, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman unfortunately falls into the latter category. I’ll grant that white filmmakers aren’t usually equipped to tackle black stories and perspectives compared to Black creatives who can speak from lived experience and identity, but the notion that art needs to adhere to the parameters of identity politics in order to be considered “good” representation is something I’ve always found misguided. After two terrible sequels made by two terrible white directors over twenty-years ago, Candyman was ripe for a corrective re-treatment. But it whatever new insights the creative team brought to DaCosta’s movie either wound up on the cutting room floor or got lost in translation. Or maybe it’s the unfocused execution, underdeveloped subplots, muddy character motivations, and all the bad CGI bees?
Credit where credit is due, DaCosta’s Candyman builds off of the lore presented in Rose’s original film (which took liberties with Barker’s short story, particularly injecting the racial angle by moving the setting from a poor white neighborhood in Liverpool to the now demolished Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago). Candyman is not a singular man, but rather a composite ghost of numerous innocent black men brutally killed by racial violence around the Cabrini-Green area. The film opens in the late-’70s in what’s supposed to be Cabrini-Green, which was demolished in 2011. Yet rather than, say, using VFX to recreate the towering apartment complex, DaCosta opts to shoot the entirely unfamiliar ground-level houses that still remain at the site. (I guess the VFX team was too busy rendering the two or three CGI bees that actually show up in the movie to bother.) A young black boy witnesses the violent police killing of a local man falsely believed to be Candyman, tying yet another tragedy to the urban legend. Location issues aside, it’s an effective opening scene as far as building atmosphere, subverting expectations, and mirroring contemporary issues of racial violence (police brutality). Sadly this ends up being the only sequence that has any lasting emotional resonance.
Flash forward to the pre-COVID present and baby Anthony, who was spirited away by Candyman in the 1992 film, is now a thirty year-old artist (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) living with his curator girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) in a luxury condo built near the gentrified remains of Cabrini-Green. If white women’s complicity in anti-black racial violence was the critical backbone of Rose’s Candyman, then DaCosta’s main target is the peril that is hipster gentrification. (Police brutality is saved for the very beginning and end.) “Urban renewal” is well worthy of attack, but it difficult to take a critique of gentrification seriously when it’s being made in front of art fixtures presumably costing tens of thousands of dollars. Muddied criticism isn’t DaCosta’s only problem here: the film can’t seem to make up its mind about whether its protagonist is Anthony — whose art and identity become consumed by Candyman — or Brianna — who’s mostly just there to be the concerned/aggrieved girlfriend, at least until the last ten minutes. Add to this a forgettable score (though matching Phillip Glass’ 1992 score is a tall order), tension-breaking humor, a lack of scares, and a subplot about a white teenage girl invoking Candyman in her high school bathroom that goes absolutely nowhere, and there’s nothing left for fans of the original. Except wishing you were home watching it.
Originally slated for release in June 2020, DaCosta’s Candyman seems to have been cut down from a two-hour runtime to just 91 minutes at some point during the COVID delay. Whether this was at the behest of DaCosta and Peele or yet another case of needless studio intervention is unclear. But damage was done: the film as it is now plays like a movie that was hacked to pieces and reworked in post-production. Why bother giving big-budget Hollywood projects to up-and-coming Black filmmakers if they’re just going to be neutered and cut to shit before release?
And I feel especially bad for Manual Cinema, a design studio whose beautiful shadow puppetry is prominently featured in the film’s trailers and teaser material. (Editor’s Note: The Arts Fuse has admired the company’s stage productions, here and here.) The puppets are the most visually arresting thing in the movie but, aside from a scene in which laundromat-owner William Burke (revealed to be the boy from the opening scene, admirably performed by 2021 MVP Colman Domingo) recaps the events of the first film for Anthony, all of Manual Cinema’s painstaking work is unceremoniously shoved to the end credits.
All things considered, perhaps Candyman didn’t need to be remade or rebooted to begin with? The impulse behind the effort is admirable but, as the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.