starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo
screenplay by Jordan Peele & Win Rosenfeld and Nia DaCosta
directed by Nia DaCosta
by Walter Chaw An old urban legend, it goes like this: an amorous pair of youths spirit themselves away to a remote Lovers Lane when, lo, the girl hears something lurking about. With thoughts of the recently-escaped murderer on her mind, she convinces her boyfriend to leave and, frustrated, he takes her home. Recovering himself on the ride back, he thinks to come around to open the door for his beloved, and there he blanches, for dangling from the door's handle is a razor-sharp hook, the bloodied stump to which it's fused still attached. I have to think Clive Barker had heard some version of this tale before conceiving of his short story "The Forbidden." It's collected in the fifth volume of his "Books of Blood" series--the one that, with Stephen King's shining endorsement ("I have seen the future of horror, and its name is Clive Barker"), propelled Barker into the upper strata of horror authors in the mid-Eighties. When I was 13, I devoured every word of Barker's six-volume anthology with a white, hot fury. Thirty-five years on, I still remember them all vividly.
"The Forbidden" takes place in a London project called the "Spector Street Estate," fallen into extreme neglect and disrepair and covered--every inch of it--with filth and graffiti. It's that graffiti that interests grad-student Helen Buchanon, who one day while taking pictures there happens on elaborate vandalism in an abandoned flat promising "Sweets for the Sweet" and depicting a giant face, the doorway its mouth. A resident of the slum, Anne-Marie, tells Helen that terrible things happen at Spector Street--such as the murder of an old man next door to her, with a hook. His eyes were put out. At a dinner party for intellectuals, Barker speaks his thesis: that the stories concerning the atrocities in this place may be collective falsehoods turned into the glue that binds a community against a shared pestilence. That there is maybe a sport to the addition of gory details from one teller to the next--the transmission of cautionary tales our new mythologies. Horror is a virus. Our country is divided now into a not-insignificant number of people who believe a cabal of famous and powerful people drink children's blood.
Helen's first meeting with the "Candyman" in Barker's story finds him with a "waxy yellow" pallor and dressed in patchwork clothes, kept at bay by the impoverished residents of the tenement with offerings of sweets, razor blades, and, occasionally, children. In a struggle, his jacket falls open to reveal a body cavity filled with bees. He says he is a rumour, and that it's "a blessed condition." He tells Helen that if she truly believes in him, he can't fathom why she would want to live. There's a little of the Rose Poet's Gawain and the Green Knight in this Candyman: complementary myths about supernatural foes designed to test a group's moral purity and spiritual fidelity to a code of behaviours. The story's ending is much like the ending of Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man, and Barker will often return in his work to its images of natural fecundity and matriarchies. It's brilliant.
So are Bernard Rose and, as a consequence, Rose's adaptation of "The Forbidden," 1992's Candyman. I saw it first at a buzzy, packed screening in the Chem 140 lecture hall on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. I knew the story immediately. I had not known before it started that it was an adaptation of the story. Rose's other work includes an emotional, kinetic biopic of Beethoven (Immortal Beloved), a genuinely great coming-of-age horror/fantasy (Paperhouse), and a trilogy of Tolstoy adaptations. He recently learned Japanese to make a light, beautiful jidaigeki called Samurai Marathon. I once spent an evening with him talking about Tolstoy's short stories. He's brilliant, did I mention that? What he did with "The Forbidden," this British director, is transplant it from the UK to Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects. He preserved the story's girl-detective core, complete with her tempestuous marriage to unctuous academic Trevor (Xander Berkeley), her interest in graffiti, and her desire to be taken seriously in the halls of the Ivory Tower--an ambition that drives her to make reckless decisions. She suspects college professor Trevor's being unfaithful with one of his students, knows she's getting old (she comments to her buddy Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) how college kids keep getting younger), and, well, her self-esteem has taken a few hits lately. Virginia Madsen plays Helen in, without hyperbole, one of the great performances of the '90s. She is achingly complex. Legend has it that Rose hypnotized her for some of her scenes. Madsen does not deny it.
That first screening was packed with CU's bound-for-national-glory football team. The majority of them Black, they screamed their disapproval when a pair of Black woman janitors at Helen's cropped up to elucidate the urban legend of Candyman, who has been claiming some victims in Cabrini-Green. It was probably the first moment I understood representation on a visceral level. The next education came later that year when, in the same room, I watched a midnight showing of a degraded, dubbed, transformatively-glorious print of John Woo's The Killer. Then it was my turn. This night was a lesson in empathy for me. I learned how Black people felt about being portrayed as servants, still--still--in the movies. Rose marries Barker's Lover's Lane Candyman to the Bloody Mary Urban Legend/party game wherein participants are warned that if they say "Bloody Mary" five times while looking into a mirror, Bloody Mary herself will appear and, in most versions of the myth, that's bad news for the person who called for her. He gives Candyman a backstory whereby a slave, Daniel, falls in love with a white woman and is mutilated and murdered for his troubles: his hand sawed off and replaced with a hook, his skin smeared with royal jelly to attract bees--more to the point, bee stings. Tony Todd's performance as the title character is terrifying, sexy, mesmeric, like some travelling carnival's burlap tent fakir. He is a sexual threat--a consensual sexual threat. Barker wrote the words "be my victim" but, as spoken by Todd, the invitation is...fucking hot.
Helen says "Candyman" into a mirror five times, and for the rest of the film she's in a trance. The first visitation is in a parking garage during the day, of all places and times. It's not inherently threatening, but Rose makes it so. Madsen and Todd make it so. Candyman blurs the line between the mundane and the horrible, and it is an all-time masterpiece of socially-aware, socially-conscious filmmaking. It is as important in its way as Night of the Living Dead. Candyman's concern is that Helen doubts him. There is an idea with currency that gods only exist for as long as they are worshipped. They are thus jealous for adulation, gods are, jockeying with one another for space in our collective memory. Candyman says that he is the "writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom," and without these things he needs to "shed innocent blood" to remind his acolytes what he is capable of. That he's real so that he can remain real. And in the process of being real, he can cohere a punished community in decline. Rose transforms Barker's musing about folklore and class into a devastating essay on race, redlining, gentrification, and white privilege and their attendant poverty and class issues. He imagines a creation story for his monster that tells our loathsome history of sexualizing Black men and then punishing them for their attributed prowess and the imagined threat they represent to white women. Rose even indicts the degree to which white women are complicit in this while recognizing how women can be called "crazy" and robbed of their autonomy and volition. The threat of arbitrary execution under the disinterested gaze of a police force created two hundred years ago as a slave-hunting cooperative is the horror that binds. America's ugliness is largely invisible to Americans. It takes a Brit to lay us open like a frog in anatomy class.
Along comes Nia DaCosta's Candyman (hereafter Candyman 4), a "reappropriation" of Rose's film told through a Black creator's lens, which would be more clearly a cause for celebration had Barker's source material not been a white, gay man writing about a London slum. As an intellectual exercise, DaCosta's picture reminds me of that old SNL skit where a lounge singer played by Nora Dunn sings "Send in the Clowns" as translated from English to French and back into English. As a practical exercise, it plays like that, too--that is, as sometimes-hilarious gibberish. Were that it only gibberish: Candyman 4 is clumsy and self-important, too, dragging the subtext out of Rose's film into the light, where it loses its resonance along with its gravity, the full weight of its depth. While it's true that all films are in some way political, it's also true that films shouldn't be artless lectures ventriloquized through a series of hapless dupes. Gone is the heavy atmosphere of Rose's film, plus most of Philip Glass's extraordinary organ and vocal score. Imagine a Jaws movie without the Jaws theme. In its place, the standard notes and electronic fuzz. Changes, if they're not improvements, should at least be innovations.
Don't take this as a rejection of new takes. I love remakes. I love sequels. The horror genre, in particular, is a welcoming space for these things because each generation spawns new reasons to tell the old campfire tales. Taken on its own merits, Candyman 4 is a disaster. Start with the introduction of the idea that this Candyman throws candy at children before attacking them. He's become a joke monster. The new creation story has it that an intellectually-disabled man with a razor-sharp hook for a hand is murdered by cops when razor blades are found in some Halloween candy. Falsely accused, he hides out in...um...the walls? From which he leaps out to try to give candy to kids? Since his murder, if you say his name--or, rather, if you say "Candyman"--five times in a mirror, this guy appears and guts you like a fish. Making your villain an intellectually-disabled man murdered by the cops is a genuinely awful, destructive choice that does great harm to a community that is already extremely vulnerable to attack from both law enforcement and society at large. DaCosta's Candyman, you see, is Black rage seeking vengeance for the wrongs done through history. The film should be called "Candymen," owing to its idea that every time a Black man is slain through racial violence, they turn into a child-killing monster--except in the name of justice and equality. There's plenty to be angry about, and fuck the cops, but I rather think this ain't it.
The hero is up-and-coming painter Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who gets a show through the kind auspices of agent/girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris). If you've recently rewatched Rose's film, you know immediately who Anthony is, and you understand that Candyman 4 is just another puzzle-box franchise. A quick aside (a question, really): If there are several Candymen, how is it they all have hooks for hands? That's a very strange and specific prosthetic/amputation. Look, the plot is terrible, though not so terrible perhaps as dialogue that features two separate monologues about gentrification and white supremacy before ten minutes have elapsed. Are these valuable and worthwhile topics our culture needs to deal with? No question. Is Candyman 4 a TED Talk? Kind of. A dull one, at that. I want to reiterate, and not for the first or last time: Rose's film is already this discussion, conducted in an elegant, damning, terrifying way. His Candyman remains one of the scariest, richest movies I've ever seen. DaCosta's film lost me immediately by lecturing me like a bad teacher does an especially recalcitrant child.
Whisperings of the Candyman have inspired Anthony to do some paintings of Candyman-adjacent themes. At the event, snooty white art critic Finley (Rebecca Spence) shows up and scoffs that his work consists of "didactic kneejerk cliches about the ambient violence of the gentrification cycle." Though critics might write this way sometimes, I've never known any to talk like this. This is what it sounds like when someone writes a character they don't have a feel for but do harbour plenty of disdain towards. M. Night Shyamalan did something similar when he wrote a film critic into Lady in the Water and then had him eaten by a dog made out of grass. Okay, man, but even if you murdered every critic with grass dogs, it doesn't make your movie less hilarible. When Anthony visits Finley at an apartment I have doubts that any arts critic in Chicago could afford, she's wearing what appear to be silk pyjamas and listening to Fiona Apple's "Fetch the Bolt Cutters." The only thing missing is box wine. This is a character created from absolute loathing, and, whatever, I get the anger. Yet the broad intensity of the rancour not only undermines its effectiveness as critical satire--it has about it an element of the pathetic as well. It doesn't, in other words, land any of its intended blows. Too bad this isn't the only own-goal Candyman 4 plants.
Consider Brianna's gay brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who gets to do the Dan Aykroyd "wanna hear a scary story" scene from Twilight Zone: The Movie wherein he recounts how Helen went bazoo without so much as mentioning Candyman. If Rose's film were to ever get a true sequel, the bad guy, after all, would be Helen. It's her name that milquetoast Trevor weeps into the mirror at the end of Candyman, summoning her shade, which promptly eviscerates Trevor and frames his lover for it. Female sexual jealousy and empowerment; what a movie. Anyway, Troy's husband scolds Troy for being "so extra," and Troy gets to be something of a comic-relief figure when he says that Black people aren't about summoning things. He is a caricature and an expositional Pez dispenser. Geek him a bit to get to the first plot point. When evil gallery owner Clive (Brian King), who's humping his intern, Jerrica (Miriam Moss), is murdered in an impressively not-scary set-piece, there's a hint of a suggestion of the sexual politics of Rose's piece with none of the weight. Candyman 4 essentially first plays off this powerful white man's exploitation of a young white woman as a joke, then punishes the both of them equally for no other reason than Anthony's dismay over having a tense exchange with a critic.
And what if the critic is right? The show, an installation where a medicine cabinet opens in the gallery to a dark storage room in which Anthony's Candyman paintings hang beneath moody yet gauche neon lighting, is a model of pretentious affectation. A show within a show, n'est-ce pas? It's called "Say My Name--For a Fickle Sonance," and, for the sharp of eye, the program reads, in part:
A racially-loaded, allegorical palindrome about "longing" and "reluctant becoming"--In the foreground, Helen Lyle, a white privileged graduate student whose obsession with her research into an urban legend called Candyman led to her bizarre self-emulation in the housing projects courtyard in the early '90s.
Here, the opening lecture about white privilege is reiterated in a way that doesn't clarify the concept in any meaningful way, magnified with not a typo, but a Mondegreen that is either intentional or unintentional. (And illuminating either way.) Helen doesn't "self-emulate," of course--she "self-immolates." If this is a malapropism that got through, that says something not-great about the production. If it's a purposeful word choice, it says that Candyman 4 is interpreting Candyman's Helen as someone who somehow imitates herself. That's fascinating, since Helen is unclear about why she's doing what she's doing. She believes she's performing an intellectual exercise in the cause of academia, though in reality she's only further preyed on an exploited population for her own social/class advantage. It's such an eloquent reading of a complex character that I assume they just fucked up and didn't know to fix it. Whoopsie-doo. The program, again, is someone writing in a voice they disparage, and there is, again, space to discuss how academic lingo discriminates against certain populations. Still, I'm having a hard time taking any of this seriously when it's so clumsy.
"Didactic kneejerk cliches about the ambient violence of the gentrification cycle" indeed. Candyman 4 is railing so hard against gentrification it misses the booby-trap: how it's Candyman 4 itself that is building a facile, cheaper version of something over a classical foundation. Barker's short story begins, "Like a flawless tragedy, the elegance of which structure is lost upon those suffering in it, the perfect geometry of the Spector Street Estate was visible only from the air." Candyman 4 is the partner in a chat who repeats what you're saying back to you, but stupider. The elegance of its source material(s) in teasing out the tensions ripping apart our societies through the exquisite juxtaposition of character, observation, a graceful word, a horrific metaphor and image, is transformed in DaCosta's film into sledgehammer diatribes and other assorted, clumsy bullshit. I'm stuck on the moment where Anthony disappears, and Brianna tracks him down by following an address she sees on one of those pens that businesses give out. It's for a laundromat, because nothing says "laundromat" like a pen. Were we to look right now, we'd find at least two or three of these pens in my junk drawer. If I go missing, I hope my wife doesn't go looking for me at 1STBank because, you know, I probably won't be there.
Candyman 4 is basically A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge without that film's confidence in subtext. DaCosta does some nice aesthetic stuff with reflective surfaces and image-blurring that creates in-camera doubling, but to no end. While I really liked the murder of Finley (it reminded me a little bit of the inciting death in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), in a film about how All Cops Are Bastards, there is not one way in hell a Black man who was in an apartment seconds before a white woman was turned into a pile of meat isn't instantly the Prime Suspect and probably kneeled to death in the back of a van on the way to the station. I did not like that there's a white librarian (Cassie Kramer) who is hot for Anthony, because it plays on negative stereotypes for a cheap laff, although I did love that the only Asian girl (Sarah Lo) in a quartet of high-school girls about to be slaughtered 'nope's the hell out of there ahead of time. And I loved the shadow-puppet interstitials the movie uses, reminiscent as they are of the wayang puppets in Joko Anwar's Impetigore. The closing credits feature puppeted creation myths for all the Candymen--Candymans? Candies Men? Les hommes de bonbons?--and it's obvious, sure, but it's also beautiful in an operatic, melancholic way. Like the original Candyman. Like even the first sequel, Bill Condon's Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, as it happens. And emphatically like Candyman 4 is not. No, Candyman 4 is hot garbage with good politics. What a shame.