Kandisha (2021)

Since its planned 2020 release was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot has long been one of the most widely anticipated horror films on the horizon.  Given the recent infection surge from the Delta variant of this cursed virus, it was certainly possible its release would be delayed again, but the movie has finally arrived on the big screen. I’m just not personally feeling comfortable enough with current movie theater safety to see it. On top of that, Hurricane Ida has knocked out the power supply to all cinemas in my region anyway. Everything DaCosta has said about her vision (and revision) for Candyman lore has at least made the new film sound like it has a thoughtful, novel approach to the material.  At the very least, it can’t be any worse than the previous two Candyman sequels, which essentially just plugged the Candyman character into new cultural settings outside of his Chicago housing projects home (Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Día de los Muertos celebrations in Los Angeles, to be specific) without any worthy thematic purpose to justify the change in locale.  Early reviews have been mixed, but I’m still waiting to see how successful her attempt to revamp the material is for myself, which is frustrating now that it’s just outside my reach.

If you’re like me, you really, really need a modernized rehash of Candyman to hold you over until DaCosta’s film arrives on VOD, and I guess you could do worse for that fix than the recent French horror Kandisha.  Directed by the sickos who wrote the home-invasion chiller Inside, Kandisha blatantly riffs on the Candyman narrative template but relocates it to the housing project towers of Paris.  In the film, a small crew of teenage girls summon a Moroccan ghost that proves to be more powerful & dangerous than they ever imagined, putting all of their friends & family at risk.  The girls are graffiti artists who hang out in abandoned nooks of their housing project, emerging through holes in the walls as if sneaking into alternate urban universes.  They make direct jokes about summoning the demonic figure of Kandisha by saying her name five time in the mirror “like in the movies”, a direct acknowledgement of the film’s ties to Candyman lore & iconography.  It’s basically Shudder getting into the Asylum business of rushing out a similar-enough photocopy of a major work before the real, expensive thing reaches home video.  And by that metric, it’s pretty good.

In its early goings, Kandisha plays like any recent coming-of-age drama about European teens — Girlhood, Rocks, Cuties, etc. There’s a genuine camaraderie established between the girls when this is still just a hangout film, which is when it’s at its strongest and most specific. Once the Kandisha is out of the bag things get much more generic.  This is basically a mainstream teen-audience horror on an indie budget.  The gory details of its kills can be shockingly gnarly, but all its story beats & scares are exactly what you’d expect from a Studio Horror version of this story. This is especially true when it comes to the film’s confused approach to metaphor.  Kandisha is a modern urban legend and an ancient Moroccan folktale.  Despite the geographic specificity of her origins, she can be summoned through either pentagram or Ouija Board, which from what I can tell have nothing to do with Moroccan mythology.  She’s both a misandrist and the only covered Arabic woman in the cast, but the film has little to say about the cultural & gender politics evoked in those choices. I’m not saying that every single horror villain has to function as a 1:1 political metaphor for some diagnosed social ill, but in this case it’s impossible not to search for one. Are the girls punished for venting that “All men are trash” by summoning a misandrist demon that only targets the men in their lives?  Is there some thinly veiled commentary here about the tensions between Europe’s Old-World mysticism and modern youth culture? Is this progressive, reactionary, or somewhere in-between?  I couldn’t tell you, since Kandisha is way more invested in the grisly details of its bodycount violence than it is in the thematic purpose behind it.  That approach is entertaining enough in the moment, but it’s also disappointingly shallow considering how much more thoughtful the character work is in the early stretch.

Kandisha “updates” Candyman in the exact careless way its direct sequels did in the 1990s: by relocating it to a new cultural context & locale for variation in backdrop, with no real engagement with how that change affects its themes or purpose.  The promise of Nia DaCosta’s reboot is that it attempts something much more thoughtful & substantial with its own revision of Candyman lore.  I’m excited to see that ambitious, divisive revision from the comfort & safety of my own home in a few months, but in the meantime I enjoyed this junk-food appetizer for what it is.

-Brandon Ledet