Nia DaCosta’s Candyman Is a Haunting Fairytale Trapped in a Horror Franchise

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman Is a Haunting Fairytale Trapped in a Horror Franchise
Don't say it. (Image: Universal)

Though director Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is the latest chapter in an iconic, decades-long slasher franchise, the movie is also one of the many recent studio projects trying to transmute the real-world horrors of anti-Black racism into a thrilling story meant to capture imaginations. Like its contemporaries, this feature walks in the footsteps of Bernard Rose’s 1992 film of the same name which told the tale of a hook-handed apparition terrorizing the streets and hallways of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green.

The reverence that DaCosta and her co-writers, Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, have for the original movie is palpable in many aspects of the new film; from a handful of carefully placed cameos to the way the new story borrows plot points from two ‘90s-era sequels that preceded it. But DaCosta’s new slasher flick uniquely situates itself within the horror canon because it understands that stories spotlighting the violence and brutality inflicted upon Black people — foundational elements of America’s identity — have become increasingly en vogue in Hollywood.

This sequel dares a new generation of audiences to speak its titular tortured soul’s name, but it does so understanding how the act of saying the names of the countless Black men, women, and children who’ve lost their lives to real racist violence isn’t something that we should do lightly or for entertainment purposes.

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This direct sequel to the original film picks up over 26 years later and follows gallery director Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) and her visual artist boyfriend Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). They’ve moved into a now-gentrified Cabrini that bears little resemblance to the neighbourhood it once was, but the specter of Chicago’s structural racism still looms large in the background.

The film’s focus on the city’s art world rather than academia is one of the ways it, like Get Out before it, tries to illustrate how localised community trauma is always part of a larger, societal issue. Both Anthony and Brianna are somewhat familiar with the legends of a murderous spirit said to have once stalked Cabrini-Green whenever people called out to him through mirrors. But as the movie opens, the couple are far more focused on their respective careers and the understandable fear that they might not be recognised for their talents.

While Brianna’s able to clearly navigate some of her professional obstacles, Anthony struggles with a bout of creative block that he’s only able to break through after the debut of his work coincides with a grisly murder that shocks the community. His fascination with the local legend functions as the plot’s way of weaving itself into the narrative fabric of the larger franchise while also levelling an unsubtle (but somewhat necessary) critique at itself and other productions fictionalising the brutalisation and murder of Black people.

Just as it seems as if Anthony might be on the brink of irrelevance, his art gains a new significance because of the way it becomes associated with a murderous folk legend. As he tries to come to grips with the reality of how people see his art, he descends deeper and deeper into an obsessive fascination with the legendary ghost and the many different stories told about him.

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Though Abdul-Mateen and Parris portray the protagonists, Anthony and Brianna’s chemistry doesn’t quite pop, and pales in comparison to the unsettling energy vibrating between both characters and William Burke (Colman Domingo), a longtime Cabrini-Green resident who remembers the days before the neighbourhood was filled with condos. Brianna, Anthony, and William all know deep down that there’s something otherworldly still haunting Cabrini’s streets, but here that something is far more pervasive and insidious than any singular apparition.

Cinematographer John Guleserian uses an array of disorienting, sweeping shots throughout the movie that, when coupled with DaCosta’s eye for striking compositions and composer Robert A. A. Lowe’s haunting score, creates an atmosphere of foreboding dread. Even though some of the movie’s editing makes keeping track of some of the fine details a bit tricky in spots, the story is punctuated by a series of beautiful and chilling animated sequences where puppets, shadows, and light are used to illustrate pieces of the puzzle.

Like the moments focused on Anthony’s gradual descent, the puppet scenes are where the film feels most alive and speaking in a voice that its own. It’s something that doesn’t always ring as true when it comes to the big sequences of people actually being murdered.

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Each and every single one of the movie’s murders is gruesome and stomach-turning in its own way, but they all share a common simplicity that lends itself to the core legend at the heart of the franchise. People say the name five times while looking into mirrors, and — shocker — he shows up to eviscerate them regardless of whether they believed in him or not. White characters’ willful naivete may make you chuckle in the minutes before most of them realise that they’ve messed with the wrong one, but those deaths can feel like a (gorgeously shot) distraction from more interesting threads introduced — like Vanessa E. Williams’ cameo as Anne-Marie McCoy.

There’s a fantastical, dreamlike quality to Anthony’s arc over the course of the movie that ends up making this feel somewhat like a Pan’s Labyrinth-esque fairytale rather than a straight blood-soaked thriller. There’s also a specific rhyme and reason to how the movie’s ghost goes about dispatching the living, but by the time his victims reason it out, it’s always far too late for them to do anything about it. The hopelessness that idea implies is the most haunting aspect of this story and one that makes it feel like a solid standalone instalment with aspirations for future expansion.

Candyman also stars Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Rebecca Spence, Kyle Kaminsky, and Michael Hargrove. It’s now showing in Australian cinemas.