Candyman (2021)

We were supposed to see this Candyman in June, 2020. Then September. Then October. Then Universal gave up, threw a dart at a board that landed on “August, 2021,” and that’s why I uploaded my review of Candyman (1992) when I did.

I don’t know what would’ve happened if the plague hadn’t come and this movie had come out when originally intended…but I can guess. Best case scenario, American conservatism would’ve drummed up a moral panic about it, like they did with 2019’s Joker. “Will this movie warp the fragile minds of young American males into becoming murder ghosts and killing the cops who killed them first?” And just like with Joker, all that would’ve done is help the movie make ten times its budget back instead of three.

Worst (and therefore, far more likely) case scenario, this movie would’ve been immediately caught up in the discourse around George Floyd’s murder by cops in Minneapolis on May 25th, 2020, and the subsequent protests against murderous cops everywhere. Protests that were already approaching their terminal phase as the summer got hotter and mainstream media coverage got dumber and meaner. Not that it was ever smart, but at that point it split into at least two distinct strands: yelling at activists to shut up, lest they hurt the Democratic party’s electoral chances in November, or reprinting corporate press releases about how Charmin put “BLM” in their Twitter profile, so activists really should just shut up already, lest they hurt the Democratic party’s electoral chances in November.

Which is how I get presumably real people in the comments of my Candyman (1992) review telling me how “the mainstream media, many big businesses, and Hollywood are on [my] side.” Buddy, I’m a comic book fan. I learned real early in life that none of those institutions are on my side, no matter what they say in public. They’re on the side of getting my money, and they’ll say whatever they think will make that happen. But if they thought it’d make their Third Fiscal Quarter profits go up by even a fraction of a percent, they’d kill me with a smile on their face, like Batman does to that one dude in Batman Returns. Change the names of as many streets or add whatever you want to a corporate social media account – it won’t bring the dead back to life or make the cops any less bloodthirsty.

So yes, defund the police, because not only did no one, anywhere, actually do that in 2020. The cops just pretended they did as soon as it came time to ask for more money. Hell, abolish the police, because deep in their bones, the cops seem to understand something our elected civic leaders either do not, or cannot: that modern American police forces are basically mobs running city-sized protection rackets. That, rather than seeing them as leaders or partners or bosses (as in my town, where the mayor’s also the police commissioner), cops see democratic institutions as Those Who Press the “Money” Button and that’s all. Even the vaguest possibility of any other action is a threat to the Cop Prerogative, and will be met with the most naked of shakedown tactics. “Nice yuppie/hipster/tech enclave you got here – be a shame if anything happened to it. Like if we stuck our thumbs up our asses until the next round of contract negotiations. Be a real shame if any criminals out there heard we were doing just that. Oh, look, there’s senior cop spokesperson Bacon McCheese right now, announcing our intentions to stick our thumbs up our asses to every major media outlet in the local market. Geeze, how could that crime rate be going up? Must’ve been all those skinny college yelling ‘defund the police’ two years ago. Bet you wish you hadn’t listened to them now, huh?” Game, set, match. Money Button go “burrrrr.” The fact that no one listened to those skinny college kids, except to scold them and tone police their slogans, does not matter. Facts matter way less than a cop’s feelings.

What was I talking about? Oh, yeah – Candyman (2021). A 20-Year-After-the-Fact Sequel I actually liked. This came as a great surprise, but it won me over right off, because for almost thirty years I’ve read Candyman’s frame-job of Helen Lyle as an attempt to turn her into exactly the kind of urban legend he is. So,within five minutes of starting, our protagonist’s girlfriend’s brother, Troy, is lighting candles to set the mood and telling us all the Legend of Helen Lyle: the Mad Scholar who, Once Upon a Time, went on a killing spree, kidnapped a baby, and died in Cabrini-Green’s annual bonfire. For once, I actually didn’t hate being right all the time. Hell, I was so happy, I did the Rick Dalton pointing thing in real life.

Troy’s art gallery directing sister, Brianna, is shacking up with Chicago artist Anthony McCoy. Inspired by Helen’s legend, Anthony goes to the remains of Cabrini-Green, now twenty years gentrified, the towers all knocked down and the row houses so broken in they make their 1990s selves look kept up. But life goes on, pretty much the same as ever. Everybody got bills to pay and laundry to get done. If you’re lucky, the local laundromat owner is still a repository of local lore. Like Bill Burke, who meets Anthony among the broken-down houses and tells him a slightly-closer-to-what-we-saw version of Helen’s story: she was looking for Candyman and found him. “What’s Candyman?” asks Anthony. And we’re off.

Rather than yet another rehash of the death and life of Daniel Robitaille (though we do get a little one later on), Burke tells Anthony a version of the legend from Burke’s childhood, in the 1970s. As he says, “For me, Candyman was a guy named Sherman Fields.” Sherman was beaten to death by a baseball team’s worth of cops in the laundry room of one of the old tower blocks, supposedly for putting razor blades in children’s candy. Inspired, Anthony makes an art piece based on Sherman’s untimely death, complete with a hand-out that dares readers to call up Candyman in the supplied mirror. Even Anthony, in a moment of artistic over-enthusiasm upon the piece’s completion, says “Candyman” five times into the mirrored surface of his and Brianna’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

Candyman (2021), then, is a dramatization of the act of watching Candyman (1992) and coming to understand and empathize with the Candyman more than with, say, Helen Lyle. It’s meant to reflect that act…like a mirror. That’s why the company logo at the start is backwards, why the credits play over an upside down Chicago cityscape, and why Candyman begins to haunt Anthony from every mirrored surfaces he comes across – some of them delightfully subtle, only visible to us, the audience, through perspective tricks. Over the course of the film, we learn Anthony’s art has accidentally passed on the Candyman’s legend to a new generation. At first, it’s only a few disinterested art snobs…but as the bodies start to pile up, the word virus is loosed upon the world again, and Anthony begins to change. His formerly warm demeanor fades, his reaction to the first murders is joy that the news is mentioning his name in connection with them, and through it all we get periodic spurts of body horror, as if this movie didn’t do enough for me already.

In my research, I found two different murderers dubbed “Candyman” by the press in 1970s Texas alone, so I was perhaps primed to receive the idea of “Candyman” being a polymorph…a conglomeration…a Congress of sorrows. To find that the Candyman looks different to different people based on the version of the story they heard first. That Candyman is subject to the Observer Effect, and this is yet another way in which a sentient meme can – and does – reproduce itself. After two movies with the same plot (three, if you squint at the first one hard enough), I felt this was a much needed rejuvenation of the Candyman’s mystique. Thus, I was probably also primed to appreciate the arc of Anthony McCoy. Candyman became an artist when Tony Todd came up with Daniel Robitaille’s backstory. Now an artist becomes the Candyman after empathizing with him a little too much…or, perhaps, just the appropriate amount.

Oops. Spoilers, I guess…but anyone who’s watched Candyman (1992) as much as I have saw The Almost Obligatory Twist coming from the cast list on IMDb. They got Vanessa Williams (no, not that one) back to play Anthony’s mom, Anne-Marie, and she kills it, so not only am I happy with all these choices, I’m ecstatic. This is a Candyman movie crafted for me, specifically, and I thank everyone involved for making 2021 slightly more bearable.

I get why this almost-instantly dropped off the radar, though. The first fifteen minutes are an expository storm. And we critics hate it when filmmakers try to beat us to the punch by putting a critic in your movie as a stand in for us…and then kill us halfway through for the bad faith reading you yourself put in our mouths. See also: Shyamalan, M. Night, The Lady in the Water. Also, the one true Candyman Scholar of the film turns out to be, if not the villain, then at least the main human antagonist. But c’mon, people: everybody says it’s more fun to play the antagonist and Colman Domingo’s having an infectious amount of fun with it. He’s crazy, yes, but he’s also desperate. Having long-since given up any hope of effecting positive change, he’s on a pure vengeance trip…just like the rest of our Fellow Americans.

The real villain of the film is, obviously, the white supremacist violence that’s sheltered and nurtured American capitalism since its inception. Capitalism needs an underclass to scare the middle classes into showing up to work on time, and both our major political parties declare their allegience to capitalism at the drop of a hat. So we’re fucked. Official channels are closed off. There is no hope and there can be no change. Might as well become a murder ghost. Say what you want about the power to summarily execute people in the street, at least it’s a form of real power.

There are those who took points off this movie’s final grade for explaining what gentrification is at least twice, through two separate characters, much like I did just now. But I’m gonna give it a pass on that in order to criticize my critical colleagues. Not everybody lives in big cities, y’all. And most who do are too busy hustling to wonder why a whole block on their way to work mutated into a post-modernist filing cabinet for hipsters, yuppies and old folks. As if this film’s namesake and predecessor wasn’t also about the gentrification of Helen’s era, to pretty much the exact same degree. As if that Candyman didn’t talk about gentrification in the first ten minutes, when the maximum amount of audience members would still be awake.

Also, I award this movie extra points for having an (initially) less-than-sympathetic protagonist: the self-obsessed artist whose obsession leads to the destruction of the self…or, at least, the self’s sublimation into something older and much more powerful. That’s very much in the Clive Barkerian Tradition. I’d put Anthony somewhere between Book Helen and Movie Helen on the Harry D’Amour Scale of Clive Barker Protagonists I just made up. His art gallery-owner GF, Brianna, more or less becomes the protagonist as Anthony slips away from the moral coil, and I’d put her more on par with Movie Helen. She’s also much more in line with our director, Nia Dacosta’s, previous protagonist, Ollie, from her previous film, Little Woods: the long-suffering clear-eyed pragmatists in their respective relationships, trapped in that most insidious loop of all: co-dependency. The maker of rational decisions in an irrational world that only gets more dream-logic as Candyman regains strength. A genuine, bonafied small business owner: pretty much the only category of American human our politicians talk about positively.

Little Woods was the type of horror movie that doesn’t get labeled a horror movie because it’s too horrifying, both for the people who like horror movies and for the people who only started admitting they like horror movies during the Trump administration. Officially, it’s a crime drama, but it’s a crime drama about how horrible things actually are in America, particularly in the upper midwest, and the lengths people have to go to in order to just get by. What’s scarier: haunted houses, or the fact the bank can just seize your mom’s house after you watched her die? The Babadook, or your sister’s bad habit of making babies with dipshit dudes who drink their lunches and hit you up for pills once the sun sets? Demons, or the fact it costs $10,000 to have a kid in this country that claims to love life so much? Murder ghosts, or the far more numerous and deadly murderous cops? As Troy says at one point (to an Anthony who isn’t present, because by then he’s truly gone), “Candyman ain’t real.”

Nerd theory time! Even though Troy says the truly magic words, Candyman never touches him because (a) Troy’s too smart to do the mirror thing, and (b) Troy is one of Helen’s congregants, keeping her urban legend alive. Let me say that again for the people in the back: Troy belongs to Helen. Very puny. 10 out of 10 pun, right there. Good job, everybody. I got it right away, but it’s probably gonna take other people a second.

That’s true of the whole movie, really. I got it right away, but I had to walk my roommate through it. No, Brianna’s not the Helen of this movie: that’s Anthony. Briana’s more like the Jake: the necessary witness, charged with telling the story by no less than Daniel Robitaille himself. But before that, Brianna also comes alive as, not just the audience’s, but the artist’s stand-in. The person who doesn’t know shit about Candyman but comes to understand, and even sympathize with Candayman at least to some degree.

“Can I see myself?” she asks the Chicago cop whose trying to get her to go along with their cover-up of her boyfriend’s murder. In-universe, she asks the question to gain access to a mirrored surface so she can call on supernatural help to get out of a jam. In our universe, she’s asking the question previous creative teams should’ve asked themselves before making these sequels: “Can I see myself” in Candyman? For some of us, the answer was “Yes,” even back when we were ten, because Candyman (especially the only one we had back then, Tony Todd) is both cool as hell and wicked sick. But I recognize some of us are weirdos. It takes more than us to make a legend spread.

The good news is, there’s more than one way for an urban legend to reproduce itself, and this movie is Ocelot in Metal Gear Solid 5. “Go,” it says, “let the legend come back to life!” And I for one, appreciate it. It’s nice to end a franchise retrospective on a positive note. Probably won’t happen again for a long time…unless I go back to The Matrix. Missed the 20th anniversary of the first movie…but the 20th anniversary of the sequels is coming up next year…


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