Double Feature: Candyman (1992) & Candyman (2021)
Virginia Madsen - Helen Lyle
Tony Todd - Candyman
Xander Berkeley - Trevor Lyle
Vanessa Estelle Williams - Anne-Marie McCoy
Kasi Lemmons - Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh
Gilbert Lewis - Det. Frank Valento
Ted Raimi - Billy
Genre - Horror/Supernatural
Running Time - 101 Minutes
The Candyman (Tony Todd), a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student (Virginia Madsen) researching the monster’s myth.
Considering the 2021 reboot/sequel has been released to a ton of buzz [no pun intended], I figured it was the right time to revisit CANDYMAN. A movie from 1992 that’s now considered a modern horror classic, CANDYMAN was one of the first notable horror films with a story and villainous character that catered to people of color at the time. The film did well enough to produce two 90s sequels that aren’t as good as the original, as well as remain in the mind of one Jordan Peele to make him want to produce a modern version to remind everyone how important the Candyman lore is to a certain demographic of people who might not feel seriously represented a ton in the genre. With the new film being successful, I’m glad it gave me a chance to go back to a film I hadn’t watched in two decades. And surprisingly, 1992’s CANDYMAN holds up quite well even with its flaws.
During the 1990s, where horror was either self-referential or downplayed into procedural narratives so they could be classified as thrillers rather than the H-word, CANDYMAN went into a whole different direction by focusing on social and political issues that were big during the 1970s. While not making its social commentary as blatant as the 2021 film, the race and class issues do bubble underneath the surface ready to pop by the film’s end. This is pretty funny considering the source for CANDYMAN - a short story called The Forbidden by Clive Barker - took place in Liverpool rather than in Chicago. But the move to America heightens the tension between the character of Helen Lyle and the residents who respect and fear the Candyman legend, who judge her on her gender and especially her skin color. Even Helen’s friend, Bernadette, is seen as an outsider due to her good clothes and education, even though she’s black. The perceived privileged people are seen as egotistical and selfish, as they feel they can just use the resources from a perceived lower class location for their own gain, not considering the feelings of those who lived the Candyman legend. While Helen is considered the film’s protagonist, watching it again makes you question that entirely considering her skepticism creates all the trauma that plays out in the film, making everyone a victim alongside her indirectly.
This question is strengthened by the fact that the Candyman character has a ton of depth and character, making you feel justified for his actions more often than not. Unlike his horror contemporaries like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, Candyman carries himself with a sense of majesty that strikes both respect and fear in people. His backstory is super tragic, as he was punished for falling in love with the wrong person in the late 19th century, tormented with a hook hand and bees stinging him to death. In a way, Candyman is just a tool in how victims are chosen, as he has to be summoned by someone by saying his name in a reflection five times. If people would just keep their mouth shut and believe in silly urban legends and superstitions, all of these events could be avoided like the people in Cabrini-Green would like it to be. I never felt that Candyman was a villain like most horror villains are. He’s intelligent and only sacrifices people because idiots call out for him. Even when he kidnaps a baby as a sacrifice, it’s definitely for a specific reason. Sure, he does bad things like stealing kids and killing animals and humans. But in a way, it feels partly justified because it’s his revenge on how people had treated him while he was alive. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but you can understand where the character is coming from with his actions.
The only other character of note is Helen Lyle, who is researching the myth of Candyman for a thesis. At first, she just thinks the story is nonsense, feeling amused by the trepidation of many when it comes to Candyman. She even jokingly says his name five times, thinking it’s an urban legend like Bloody Mary. But as she digs deeper into her research, she realizes that she may have stepped into something she won’t be able to get out of, leading to a lot of unnecessary tragedy that could have been avoided if she had just left enough alone. While also intelligent, her school smarts blind her to the truth because she needs things to be proven in order to believe them. Her struggle for knowledge doesn’t mix well with the struggle of the Cabrini-Green residents who have to fight for money and food in order to survive. Helen opens up a form of Pandora’s Box, unleashing the truth about a myth many tried to keep hidden - especially with how she’s personally connected to the Candyman.
While some of the characters have depth and the social and class subtext definitely adds atmosphere and tension to the movie, the screenplay also has to fall into Hollywood tropes that aren’t as interesting compared to everything else going on in the film. The main one is this subplot involving Helen and her professor husband, who just comes off so pretentious and snobbish that you wonder why a woman like Helen would want to be with him. Things are made worse when you see that he has a wandering eye for younger students and seems indifferent to his wife. My issue is that Helen’s relationship is the least interesting thing about CANDYMAN and only seems to be at play because of the film’s final scare. Helen’s friendship with Bernadette is more interesting because of their banter and the chemistry they share. There’s no chemistry at all with the husband character to the point where I actually forgot this subplot was even in the film.
Speaking of romance, there’s a subplot involving Candyman’s obsession with Helen, which may be linked to something in his past. While Helen does share more chemistry with the villain over her own husband, there’s no real development of their relationship and why it’s so important to Candyman. I mean, you understand why he’s so focused on Helen and you’re given enough story to figure it out. But it happens way too late in the film and it never really gets going because it’s straight on to the finale once the revelation pops up. It’s a shame because it’s an interesting story between the two characters that never gets its due for whatever reason.
Speaking of the finale, I think it’s kind of a mess honestly. Without spoiling things, I do feel certain moments and elements of what takes place do click very well. But it feels rushed and it’s not given enough time to really be fleshed out and given a chance to be more powerful than it’s unfortunately portrayed. I’ll say the same for the new film, but I feel both versions should have been longer movies. It would have allowed more breathing room for the finale and allowed it to build up to the interesting conclusion, instead of making it all feel rushed and forced. And that last jump scare is kind of silly in retrospect as well, even though I do enjoy the karma part of it. It’s a decent ending but it should have been a better one considering how strong the first two acts are before it.
Bernard Rose does a wonderful job in both his writing and direction. He never shies away from the social commentary where it contains class and race issues, using them as a subtext to build up the Candyman legend and giving reasons as to why some fear him while others respect him. Also portraying an interracial relationship during a time where it was still considered taboo strengthens the story and commentary that goes with it.
As far as the visuals, Rose brings a lot of style and atmosphere to CANDYMAN. From swooping overhead shots, to moments where characters step through a hole that’s really the mouth of a Candyman mural, and to a great use of shadows and reflections to unease audiences, Rose nicely brings his script to visual life. There are standard jump scares here and there, but certain moments remain memorable nonetheless - including that bee scene where Candyman and Helen make out while the bugs are in their mouths. And there are some nice gory moments, including a decapitated dog and victims gutted by a hook. And whoever designed Candyman, with his coat and hook for a hand, deserves kudos. Just a nice looking film that creates a genuine mood.
The acting is fine as well. Virginia Madsen does well as Helen, making us like her even though she has her flaws. She’s always an active character and remains resourceful to the very end, even when things are going badly for her due to her skepticism of the Candyman legend. Xander Berkeley, Vanessa Estelle Williams and Kasi Lemmons do well with their respective supporting roles, bringing out different elements of Helen’s personality. But the real star here is Tony Todd as Candyman, who gives the film’s villain a level of majesty and power that a lot of horror villains have no chance matching. His deep voice and towering presence makes Candyman a formidable and commanding foe who is still embraced after all these years. While you’re afraid of Todd in his mesmerizing performance, you’re also kind of rooting for him considering the tragic events of his past sort of justify his actions in a macabre way. Tony Todd is a horror legend for a reason and it’s mainly because of this movie.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II - Anthony McCoy
Teyonah Parris - Brianna Cartwright
Nathan Stewart-Jarrett - Troy Cartwright
Colman Domingo - William Burke
Vanessa Estette Williams - Anne-Marie McCoy
Rebecca Spence - Finley Stephens
Genre - Horror/Supernatural
Running Time - 91 Minutes
Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend (Teyonah Parris) move into a loft in the now gentrified Cabrini. After a chance encounter with an old-timer (Colman Domingo) exposes Anthony to the true story behind Candyman, he unknowingly opens a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifying wave of violence.
One of the surprise successes during the pandemic box office has been this 2021 reboot/sequel of CANDYMAN. Produced by Jordan Peele and directed by Nia DaCosta [the first African-American female director to have a #1 movie at the box office], it was a heavily anticipated feature since the trailers were released. Unlike the two sequels that came after the original in the 1990s, this version of CANDYMAN seemed closer to the original in terms of the lore, atmosphere and tone. Having to wait for this film’s release for over a year [thanks COVID] was pretty rough, but once it was released, I was totally there for it. And while I did enjoy this new version of CANDYMAN, it still left me with conflicting feelings even now.
I think the biggest takeaway from 2021’s CANDYMAN will be the film’s social commentary. Like with the original film, topics about class and especially race are brought up and play strongly within the crux of the narrative. However unlike the original, the commentary is so in one’s face that I’m not surprised some people criticized the film for being “too woke”. Now, I’m not in the “too woke” camp since the whole Black Lives Matter movement continues to be relevant, while gentrification of cities has been a major issue for many for years. I would think a movie like CANDYMAN would want to focus on these issues, considering most of the characters are people of color and have realistically dealt with this stuff. And a lot of the story involving the return of the Candyman character occurs because of these issues without the characters really realizing it.
While it’s great that CANDYMAN is about something and has something important to say, I do think it becomes a bit too much by the film’s end. Police brutality and the corruption of power some police have over certain groups has been well documented and unfortunately still happens today. And gentrification has really changed what cities used to be by forcing lower-income people out to bring in those with better finances to boost the city’s economy, becoming a big issue for many. Candyman grows as a legend because of these incidents, becoming a mythical figure people fear and admire because it represents a certain time and topic that can’t be escaped or ignored.
The final moments of the film seem too focused on the commentary, rather than just having the narrative flow organically to arrive at the same result. I don’t want to spoil things since the film is still fresh, but there is a moment involving a white police officer and a character of color that left me feeling uncomfortable - but not in the way the filmmakers probably intended. Instead of me thinking that it was a messed up situation [even though it was], it just felt really forced and unnecessary since the film never hides the subtext. It actually felt kind of desperate in a way, as if the ending wouldn’t have been strong enough without it. I just felt hammering the message when it didn’t need it was a detriment to an interesting finale that promises cool things to come. Considering the success of this film, I think those things are definitely on the way.
Speaking of the ending, the entire final act was way too rushed. It was jarring how it went from the second act to the third, as you felt that there was something missing in between for things to escalate as quickly as they do. I honestly felt that I had blinked and missed something because the transition didn’t really connect for me and certain things went down without a logical explanation for them. I usually wish films were shorter, but CANDYMAN [like the first film] is a movie that should have been 15 minutes longer just for things to make more sense.
As for the rest of the story, there’s more good than bad. I like the main characters since they come across as instantly likable, if not a bit naive to the legend that eventually haunts them. I really enjoy the scenes involving the art world, as it’s not only a throwback to the cool murals of the first film, but really conveys the commentary of the film without feeling forced. Anthony is inspired by the history of Cabrini-Green and the gentrification that changed the town, using his art as a way to express race and class issues. However the art critics see his work as trite and cliche, feeling Anthony is too literal with his so-called “dated” expression. The interesting part is that the critics aren’t people of color, ignorant to the fact that these issues haven’t gone away and somehow have gotten worse in the last few years. But since it doesn’t affect them directly, they don’t appreciate what Anthony is trying to sell. But when bad things go down after his art is displayed, Anthony becomes the talk of the town and the critics are interested again because death and macabre obviously sells. The art world represents how society plays out in the real world, which is a nice touch.
Even though the characters who chant “Candyman” because of Anthony’s exhibit are idiots for doing so, I like the events that play out because of it. Instead of the previous Candyman, who took his time with punishing his victims out of vengeance, this new Candyman instantly murders these idiot characters in vicious ways as punishment for the gentrification and social inequality that has grown since his last time being a force. This time around, the character seems to only hurt those who seem to deserve it on some level, letting others live in order for his message to be spread to gain power as some sort of balance. It’s an interesting take and makes Candyman more of a folk hero rather than a vengeful villain to many.
The body horror aspect is also well done, as it gives an excuse as to why there may have been multiple people who have been “Candyman” for various generations. When the character who is becoming Candyman learns of their true past [due to a cameo from a character in the first film], they understand why they were chosen for the role. I have a feeling another film may explore this new take a bit more, but I liked that maybe the Candyman that we know and love was just one of many to take over the role. While the body manipulation was probably painful, being chosen is a sign that this person was worthy to continue the revenge on those who continue to be socially unjust.
That being said, certain characters don’t get enough depth for us to really care about them. And while certain backstories are introduced for the main characters - backstories that deserve exploration since they continue to haunt the present day - they’re either given exposition later on the film, or not brought up again like it didn’t matter in the first place. It almost felt like these subplots were edited on purpose for a Director’s Cut or deleted scenes for a blu-ray release. Again, CANDYMAN should have been longer than it was.
Nia DaCosta does a great job visualizing the story she co-wrote with Jordan Peele, making one forget those other sequels and remind audiences why the Candyman character resonated to begin with almost thirty years ago. The film is super polished and given a lot of style. DaCosta focuses a lot on mirrors and reflections throughout the film, wanting the audience to see if Candyman will appear when you least expect him through the use of light and shadow. The elevator that was made of mirrors was a really nice touch that created a creepy atmosphere that I appreciated. The death scenes are surprisingly taking place mostly offscreen, despite the first film having no issue showing the violence. We get hook stabbings and bleeding people being dragged across floors by an invisible force. We have one person, in an extreme long shot, thrown against a penthouse window while being murdered by someone invisible. And a cool moment in a school bathroom involving the murder of schoolgirls seen underneath a toilet stall as a waterfall of blood meets the floor. I still think the ending is rushed, but the visuals that take place during the final act are nicely shot and save it from being a total fail. And I loved the pop-up animations that recalled the events of the first film and Candyman’s past history. I thought those scenes were extremely cool. I look forward to seeing what DaCosta does in the future.
The acting is probably the best thing about the CANDYMAN reboot/sequel. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II has had quite a career in the last few years and he continues to be fantastic as Anthony. Dude is incredibly charismatic and conveys Anthony’s struggle in a very human way while living in a supernatural world. He starts off as cool, calculated and effortlessly confident. But when the events of Candyman begin to haunt him in ways he doesn’t understand, his performance becomes more manic and paranoid. I believe him all the way and his performance elevates a script that has a lot to be desired. Teyonah Parris is also very good as Brianna, doing the best that she can with what she’s given to do. Her character is very interesting and Parris plays it to the best of her ability. But the script kind of forgets her along the way until the last act, where she becomes a very important part. She’s too good to be on the sidelines. Same goes to Colman Domingo as William Burke, who does what he can with his interesting character but doesn’t get a whole lot to do until the very end. He’s mainly there for exposition but Colman does it so well that you’re invested in what he’s saying anyway. It was also nice to see Vanessa Williams back, even though her appearance was much shorter than I had expected considering her billing. And I thought Nathan Stewart-Jarrett was fine as Troy, who was mainly used as comic relief. Plus, it’s always great having Tony Todd back in any capacity. It was a really cool cast, but the script wasn’t developed enough to give the actors more to do.
THE FINAL HOWL
I enjoyed both the 1992 and 2021 versions of CANDYMAN, flaws and all. While the 1992 film has its share of problems, especially in its final act, the Candyman character is so iconic due to the performance of Tony Todd that it’s easy to see why many consider the film a modern horror classic. Bernard Rose’s writing and direction are very strong, creating atmosphere and crafting an interesting lore from Clive Barker’s short story. And I appreciated the use of social commentary on class, race and economic issues that aren’t in one’s face all that much, letting it remain subtext for a cool narrative that kind of loses its way near the end.
The 2021 film isn’t as good, but it’s still mostly solid in what it’s trying to accomplish. While I don’t think it’s a “woke” film like many out there, I do feel the social commentary on race and gentrification [which I appreciate] tends to overshadow the horror narrative at times, especially at the end where the message felt forced and left me feeling a certain way because it wasn’t necessary. And the film is too short to allow characters and their backstories to be explored and given much needed depth to make the return of Candyman feel more powerful. That being said, it’s great having the horror icon back and the return is done pretty well through the use of body horror and camera tricks that create creepy moments and a nice atmosphere throughout. Nia DaCosta’s direction is very confident and strong, adding her own flavor to what’s been presented before with interesting uses of art, shadows, light, and mirrors. Out of the two films, the acting is strongest in this film - with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II continuing his strong career as the troubled Anthony. He elevates a script that should have been better, keeping us watching from beginning to end with his captivating performance.
Overall, I think both films are definitely worth a watch. The first one is a must for any horror fan, while the 2021 film is definitely better than any of the sequels and feels like a rightful continuation of the original story.