This year has produced quite the multiple returns from icons in regards to horror. In not only the passing of legacies but the resurgence of the old guard. Jigsaw returned, Chucky came back, Michael Myers returned to Haddonfield, and if it counts, even Godzilla and King Kong re-emerged to duke it out. (Some circles consider them to be horror icons as well) It’s been a revelatory time to see amongst the buffs, communities, and casual audiences. Which of course leads to one of the freshest (and divisive) returns this year with Candyman (2021); an artistically terrifying, socially specific, and ambient frightfest from dynamo filmmaker Jordan Peele and talented new director Nia DaCosta.
Of all the icons that exist throughout cinema the slasher with an affinity for hooks, reflective surfaces, and bees is by far one of the most underrated. Created by writer Clive Barker in one of his short stories, “The Forbidden” in the “Books of Blood” collection, the first adaptation of Candyman was released in 1992. Despite underperforming at the box-office, the urban legend grew into cult status over the years, which of course mimics quite the number of other horror classics to this day. Since then, the premise has garnered two other sequels as well as multiple appearances in other media, and a few unrealized projects including a prequel film from the director of the original, Bernard Rose, and two potential crossover films in Hellraiser vs Candyman and Candyman vs Leprechaun. It wasn’t until 2018 and Peele signed on as producer for a new film with his company, Monkeypaw Productions, that the project gained steam again. Needless to say, that steam resulted in filming, and the rest is history.
As the story goes, an ambitious but struggling artist named Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul Mateen II, putting in one of his best showings in his amazing career) is seeking inspiration for his next work. With support from his art gallery director girlfriend, Brianna (an ultra solid Teyonah Parris), McCoy’s search leads him to a mystery involving a woman named Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and the community of Cabrini-Green, a presently gentrified housing project on the North Side of Chicago. As the mystery deepens and his obsession grows, McCoy soon finds himself the unwitting vessel for the re-awakening of Candyman, who promises to spread destruction and terror across the city to those foolish enough to speak his name.
Right off the bat the haunting and positively unnerving score by Robert A.A. Lowe drapes across this entire production in such a way it can’t be ignored. Elegant with a sense of despair and somber forewarning, not since It Follows (2014), Color out of Space (2019), or Mandy (2018) has a score been so mesmerizing. Also the visual texture, scope, and style on display from director Nia DeCosta is top-notch. She was able to convey thick dread and looming menace into nearly every frame, particularly involving the landscape of Chicago from the towering skyscrapers to the corners of the Cabrini-Green community to even amongst the still and foggy streets. Of all the horror entries to come out this year, this film was one of the most stunningly shot and photographed. Definitely shares that same praise with entries to come out this year like Malignant (2021) and Titane (2021). Also hugely noteworthy is the art direction, as we not only get a few sequences of Shadow Puppetry (Done by Manuel Cinema) but a few art pieces that are both just creepily arresting and beautifully executed. Which again, just shows how horror can be just as gorgeously impactful in presentation as any genre like drama or science fiction. But what of the scares? Well, this film carries many facets of paranoia and fear, blending not only the supernatural and the unknown, but the fears and victimization of people…especially African-Americans in this nation’s history and present standing. The intersection of violence and pain, creating unwilling martyrs. The people they were, the symbols they’re turned into, the monsters others are told they must have been and the tragic cycle being repeated. Over and over. The story not only serves as a harsh and brutal commentary on that, but also the decimation of those curious or insipid enough to dare to say his name.
Other projects that have dove into these sort of topics along with the supernatural like Lovecraft Country (2020), Them (2021), the hugely underrated Body Cam (2020), and of course the Academy Award winning Get Out (2017). The racial under/overtones of these features make for hard-hitting storytelling, no doubt. And while they have been met with their fair share of vitriol, they’ve nevertheless brought something else worthwhile and significant to horror’s near endless library. Which leads to the divisiveness and/or controversy of this story within some movie goers and a portion of the horror community, because much like the themes brought up within the narrative it can’t be shrugged off so easily. What’s unfortunate about the loud minority on the merits of this film, is it’s in direct correlation with the original. Meaning the same subtle and huge statements on prejudice, ethnic violence, and persecution made in this was expressed in that classic. Sadly, either some have forgotten about that or felt they were being “preached” to simply because this followed suit and expanded on those themes to further reflect the current societal climate. This can either be viewed upon as another gross misconception or a complete oversight.
As far back as can be remembered, horror has been looked down upon for being smut, crass, vile, vulgar, and far too violent and deconstructed to ever be viewed upon as a genre or medium. For decades, creators, filmmakers and fans have fought and struggled to see horror legitimized and recognized as a cogent staple in cinema. And one of the great assumptions of the whole medium is that it has nothing to say beyond the blood, jump scares, and depravity. There’s nothing underneath to examine and analyze, and it’s simply a waste of time. Again, another misconception because in actuality, horror has always been a collage of creative thought processes and a powerful reflection of a plethora of subjects and times.
Throughout the decades hundreds of scary movies have made testimonies on the worlds within themselves and the world we live in. And this includes every single one of the greats, classic or modern. Such subjects include feminism, masculinity, religion, society, mental illness, voyuerism, classism, various phobias, capitalism, government, the internet, family, children, life, death, suffering, evolution, history, sexuality, fantasies, spirituality, consumerism, technology, traditions, folklore, rituals, mythology, and the list goes on and on and on and on. No matter what topic or theme one can think of, there’s a plethora of horror films that dive into it. A message beneath or right next to its horror. For all to see or witness.
And while it’s MOSTLY been negatively scrutinized by critics, casual viewers, and even the Academy, it’s nevertheless been postivtely analyzed, examined, and celebrated by horror lovers and hounds alike…and some critics…so it’s unfortunately disappointing that a piece of horror like this is shot down, despised, loathed, and sanctimonious criticized by the SAME community that’s been vying for the genre to be recognized for what it truly is, for decades. Why? Simply because it’s a message they don’t want to hear. One they want to ignore, and quite frankly, one they want to pretend doesn’t exist because it makes them uncomfortable. In a way, this film does too well of a job holding up a mirror to society, because some people are looking away or smashing the mirror altogether because they had to look the first place. When it’s simply just a reflection. No fallacy. And for anyone who believes I’m saying that if you didn’t like or care for this film that you must be that kind of person, trust me, I’m not saying that. Luckily in this day and age, people have a tendency to reveal themselves rather well as being that type of person, even while a hatefully criticizing a movie.
Natural progression of said commentary is common nowadays because the world has shifted in many ways. For better or worse. So this story, while taking such a bold direction, makes it work thanks to the performances, script, score, and Peele/DeCosta’s love for the original material. I’ve often told people that real life is more terrifying than any horror film, and this reminds me of how that very circumstance, melded with art and cinema, can create something strikingly chilling as well as unabashedly important. That’s exactly what this is. And with the power of film, both tasks have been accomplished, in all its glory. And that’s a praise this humble schmoe has no problem repeating….even if it’s more than 5 times. No mirror required.
Review written by Marcus Wilturner