Now that the Delta Surge is receding and local vaccination numbers are looking robust, I’m personally getting comfortable with returning to movie theaters. Anecdotally, I’m also seeing larger crowds testing those same waters than I did this summer when I briefly showed up masked & vaccinated at the local multiplex just before Delta sent me right back into my turtle shell. Luckily for me (and unluckily for movie theaters), the film distribution pipeline hasn’t yet caught up with that return of consumer confidence, which means there hasn’t been a flood of major new releases to wash out the big-ticket movies I missed in the past few months of extended seclusion. So that’s how I got to see Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot on the big screen in the weeks leading up to Halloween, even though it was initially released in the summer. By now, professional critics and terminally online horror nerds have already talked the merits & faults of Candyman ’21 to death (and the bee-swarmed mirror realm beyond it), so I expected there was no room left for discovery or interpretation in my late-to-the-game viewing of the film. And yet, I was pleasantly surprised by the new Candyman despite my tardiness – both in how much I enjoyed it and in how well it works as a direct, meaningful sequel to the Bernard Rose original.
I remember hearing a lot of chatter about how the new Candyman is blatant in its political discussions of the continued gentrification of Chicago, but I somehow missed that those discussions are linked to an ongoing, generational trauma echoed from events of the original film. This latest update could have been justifiably titled Candyman 4: Candyman, since it directly recounts and expands the lore of the original film through audio recordings & shadow puppetry. By the end, we’ve seen & heard several characters from the original cast dredging up the most painful details of that shared past, landing DaCosta’s film more as a “reboot” than as a “remake” despite the expectations set by its title. However, rather than developing Candyman lore by transferring the Candyman character to exotic cultural locales (New Orleans’s Mardi Gras celebrations in Candyman 2 and Los Angeles’s Day of the Dead celebrations in Candyman 3), DaCosta instead expands the boundaries & definition of Candyman himself. Building off his body’s occasional form as a gestalt of bees, Candyman is explained to be a buzzing hive of various tormented Black men throughout American history instead of just a single murderous ghost with a hook for a hand. He’s a symbol for Black pain fighting its way from under the boot of this country’s long history of racist violence, and the terror in this particular chapter is in watching our troubled-artist protagonist get absorbed into that history despite his mostly charmed life.
Personally, I don’t mind that the new Candyman is transparent in its political messaging & metaphor. It’s at least conceptually sturdy in how it chooses to examine the generational & cultural echoes of trauma, which is a much more rewarding mode of “haunting” for this particular horror icon than it would’ve been if he latched onto another lone victim like Helen Lyle. Its art gallery setting is a brilliant choice in that paradigm, as it both functions as a physical symbol of gentrification and as an open forum where heady ideas about art & symbolism are totally justified. Candyman is first summoned by white art snobs in a gallery showing of political Black art that they do not take seriously (beyond its economic value), presenting him as a significant yet volatile form of Black representation in popular media. If there’s any lesson taught in his re-emergence and his eventual absorption of the painter who gives him new life on canvas, it’s that the pained, racist history that he represents should not be evoked lightly. DaCosta seems careful not to revive Candyman for a cheap-thrills supernatural slasher; she wants to genuinely, directly contend with what place he holds in the larger pop culture zeitgeist. I believe she finds plenty of worthwhile political substance to contend with there, so I don’t understand the supposed virtue of being subtle about it.
My only sticking point with the new Candyman, really, is how often it shies away from depicting onscreen violence. The greater cultural & political violence that Candyman represents is sharply felt when the film is viewed as a whole, but individual kills are often obscured through mirrors, wide-shots, and physical barriers in a way that often undercuts their in-the-moment effect. It plays like a PG-13 television broadcast of an R-rated film, except in this case the network forgot to bleep the cusses. DaCosta is way more concerned with the meaning behind Candyman than she is in the physical consequences of his presence, which makes the film feel like it was intended for an audience who appreciates the social commentary aspect of horror without all that icky horror getting in the way. She totally nails the eeriness & tension that a good horror scare can build, especially in her expansion of the buzzing bee & mirror realm imagery that made Candyman iconic to begin with. She just also seems disinterested in (or maybe even politically opposed to) the cathartic release of an onscreen kill shattering that tension to shards. At its most visually upsetting, Candyman makes room for the slowly-building body horror of a bee sting that festers beyond control. Mostly, it’s upsetting in its concepts & politics, which isn’t going to satisfy most audiences looking for the latest, most exciting big-screen scares. I’m honestly surprised I was satisfied with it myself, violent catharsis notwithstanding.