Between the revival of the neo-goth aesthetic and Hollywood’s post-2017 realization that Black audiences do matter (and can advance their bottom line), one would think that a Candyman reboot, helmed by an accomplished young director and produced by the filmmaker who helped kick off the Horror Noire renaissance in the first place, would be a grand-slam deserving of a Bautista bat-flip and Gibson slow-trot around the bases as the sparks rain down on you from the shattered lights like you’re a natural. It was, perhaps, too good of an idea to accommodate any others in its making, as “Look, guys, we made a Candyman movie! Remember Candyman? Real creepy when you say his name five times, huh?” seems to be the driving ethos behind Nia DaCosta’s modern-day reinterpretation of the ‘90s horror classic. Sure, it’s about art, and it’s about gentrification, and if you look at it long enough you can probably discern whether the blots look like a butterfly or Tony Todd’s face on this thematic Rorschach test. Worse, it’s a scattershot, style-less re-imaging in line with the empty soulless Chicago streets it inverts, gray clouds looking like ominous fog when flipped upside down, concealing all the life below like it doesn’t have the computational power to generate even the most basic of street scenes on the concrete below. Yes, that was a joke about the Spider-Man PS1 video game. No, I’m not sorry.
Co-written by Jordan Peele, DaCosta’s Candyman picks up a few decades after the original film, with the city and the wealthy having reclaimed Cabrini Green as land-to-be-developed, with all that remains of the projects are a few small rowhouses, rotting along with the memory of the Candyman. Yet, as most Chicagoans know, it only takes a single spark — not from Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, however — to set a city-consuming fire ablaze, and that occurs when a local artist named Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, one of the film’s true bright spots) hears the tale of Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), the graduate student in the first film. Looking to escape a creative block that has, despite the help of his successful art-gallery managing girlfriend (Teyonah Parris), stunted his career, he becomes obsessed with her case and begins to investigate the ruins of Cabrini Green. It’s there that he meets William Burke (Colman Domingo, less scary here than he was in Zola), who tells him the legend of the Candyman, and leads him further down the rabbit hole. He makes a show centered around the legend, which, of course, sees more and more people testing their luck and saying that phrase five times into a mirror, and a lot of murders start happening. All the while, Anthony begins descending into madness, his right arm rotting from a bee sting he got in the garden, and it seems that he’s near most of the murders… sounds pretty interesting, right? Well, not really in practice.
DaCosta’s film suffers from the same tragic flaw that strikes down every divinely-dipped horror Achilles that emerges as a standard-bearer for “Elevated:” It wants so desperately to be meaningful that it forgets to be focused, and as such Candyman is ultimately a jumble of mixed messages in search of a thesis. Is it an art world satire? If so, is it a satire of modern wealth pillaging the memories of the poor for “understanding” or “evolution” or, more honestly, nice urbane décor? If so, it’s the kind of artist wish-fulfillment fantasy with all of the narcissistic catharsis and self-flagellating that it implies — eventually, you will overtake your critics and your doubters and, eventually, ascend into your place in a canon of glorious infamy — and, shockingly, it isn’t even as self-aware as Dan Gilroy’s indulgent-yet-funny Velvet Buzzsaw, which was eviscerated by critics upon its release a few years back. Sure, there are some admirable practical gore effects and there’s one well-constructed and lit scene set in a gallery full of neon and rear-projected black-and-white videos of spooky children which somewhat lives up to the billing. This is essentially the film’s centerpiece, though it comes barely a half-hour into the film, kind of like when you get free breadsticks at a junky pizza place right at the start of your meal before the entrees come out and they just utterly blow away the reheated orange-colored grease-dripping horseshit that you paid for in the first place. But there’s an irony that a film so concerned with art itself is so artless, so empty in its construction beyond the echoes of the stills from better films (The Shining, chiefly, replacing Bernard Rose’s gothic vision) assembled in its look book.
But it’s not really about that, isn’t it? It’s about gentrification, and what happens when the accumulated energy of the suffering accumulates in the walls like a psychic black mold, causing pain and havoc all the same. Sure, lots of the screenplay is devoted to that fact, when DaCosta and Peele aren’t busy indulging in bullshit faux art-world speak or lecturing us about the meaning of Candyman (line of which nearly feel straight ripped from whatever pitch document they wrote as their initial treatment). But a few casual acknowledgments that our heroes may be a part of the problem here — one of which is quickly rejected out of hand when a woman brings up the role of artists in the process of transforming a neighborhood like Cabrini Green into a walk-in Duane Reade to Mateen — and a late-film revelation stressing Mateen’s OG bona fides like a Super Bowl MVP shouting out their high school in the press conference aren’t enough to erase the fact that there’s only two figures in the film who actually lived in those projects. The first is Domingo’s, dedicated to keeping the vibe (and the legend) alive after an encounter with Candyman, and the other is Mateen’s mother, who fled Cabrini Green for the South Side after her son was born. They are the only people aware of the legend before the beginning of the film, but the latter doesn’t see it as something worth preserving, as it’s more a memory of a rough, awful period in her (and the city’s) history than a vengeful impulse to be indulged.
That conflict is something you could base a film around, one that acknowledges that the community should have survived its darkest days before it was abandoned by the city and invaded by the developers and, yes, the artists, who are like Cane Toads descending into the Australian Bush when a coffee shop with a cool-ass mural opens up where the neighborhood’s only laundromat used to be. But one that also recognizes that the younger generation’s fetishization of that period — while rooted in an earnest need to connect with an unwritten history — is perhaps only possible because of the temporal remove that they’re allowed to approach it from. Coupled with the art-world storyline above, however, Candyman can’t hone in on any other idea for it will compromise the artist-insert at its core, trying to make sense of the mess that they’ve made of this modern mythological character. I honestly wish DaCosta and company had just outright rebooted the series instead of trying to push this ponderous nightmare across the finish line, but such is the burden of the Elevated Rebootquel, which must consider the legacy of the franchise as well as assess its future viability as intellectual property. The best of these dispense with that bullshit outright (Halloween 2018, which is just a fun-ass slasher) and act as really well-executed fan fiction, or at least have the gall to do something provocative (the beginning of the Child’s Play remake) rather than offer up lame justifications for its continued relevance while keeping its draw hidden in the shadows like it’s Bruce the Shark. What a bummer, Candyman.