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Reviews: Candyman (1992) and Candyman (2021)

For most of my re-watch of Candyman (1992), I wondered why I didn’t originally care for it and had never watched it since its original theatrical release. I was really enjoying it and believed I had been wrong about it for all these years. Then, I hit a specific scene that bothered me and from that point forward, the movie started dragging toward a conclusion that seemed manufactured by Hollywood rather than by the film’s creators. It left me feeling more like I did 29 years ago than I had hoped to feel today.

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Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is working on a thesis about collective belief in urban legends that leads her into an investigation about the fears of urban society in which an entire group attributes its daily problems to a supernatural being. Specifically, it’s the murder of a woman named Ruthie Jean where she lived in Chicago’s notorious housing project, Cabrini-Green, that draws her into a mystery revolving around “Candyman.” Say his name five times while looking in a mirror and he will appear and kill you with the hook attached to the stub of his right arm.

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That’s not what he does to Helen, though. She and her study partner, Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) say his name five times and Candyman does not appear until much later, after Helen and Bernadette visit Cabrini-Green, and then Helen learns about the legend of Candyman, and then Helen returns to Cabrini-Green a second time by herself. During her second visit, she’s brutally attacked in the bathroom by a real-life “candy man,” a drug dealer that doesn’t like her snooping around.

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With this set-up and through the upcoming scene I mentioned above, I was thoroughly engaged and intrigued by Candyman. For about half the movie, I wondered if Helen had psychological issues triggered by her attack and that the monster really was just a myth. This feeling was validated when Helen began suffering blackouts and waking up in the middle of bloody crime scenes. Naturally, she’s arrested; she seems like the obvious perpetrator. Why would anyone believe that she actually summoned Candyman?

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Things go south when there’s a sudden time jump. It’s a month later and she’s been under observation to determine if she’s fit to stand trial. To prove Candyman exists, she says his name five times. He does indeed appear and kills Dr. Burke (Stanley DeSantis), so… she can summon Candyman to do her bidding? What has changed about the nature of the beast that it toys with her rather than kills her? Candyman slashes her restraints and she escapes, learning something we suspected all along: her husband, Trevor (Xander Berkeley) is cheating on her.

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Even though I was confused through the rest of the movie, understanding very little about the characters’ motivations and some “deal” that Helen made with Candyman over the life of a missing baby, I could have attributed it to Helen’s descent into madness. Even with an action-packed climax that didn’t quite fit, I could have made it work for me and would have thought highly of the effort. I guess my tip is: when you see the little boy from Cabrini-Green (SPOILER ALERT) drop Candyman’s hook on Helen’s coffin, stop the movie. That’s a great ending.

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If you continue, you get a tacked-on Carrie/Friday the 13th-style epilogue that I despise. Don’t get me wrong; it makes sense. I just think it negates everything that happened before, removes any ambiguity, and doesn’t fit into the legend of Candyman that the movie establishes. That’s all I’m going to say about it. Overall, the film is well-made and has scary moments. It’s creepy and gory. The music by Philip Glass is terrific. I barely remember director Bernard Rose’s earlier film, Paperhouse (1988), but if I recall, it maintained a consistent vision that's ultimately missing here.

The new movie, Candyman (2021), sticks the landing in ways its predecessor does not. It’s a direct sequel to the original but accomplishes several new things without being encumbered by the history of the franchise. (By the way, because of my sentiment regarding the first Candyman, I have never watched its sequels.) Primarily, it honors the original social commentary regarding real-life urban terror in Cabrini-Green by reflecting upon the modern-day phenomenon of gentrification.

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It also expands the legend with the idea that Candyman is generational; there have been many specific versions of the monster over the years. In fact, most of the film revolves around a 1977 case of mistaken identity in Cabrini-Green that resulted in a different man with a hook for a hand being murdered by the police. As William Burke (Colman Domingo) says, “his” Candyman was this person, Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove.) It also seems that Candyman is being resurrected into physical form in this story by Jordan Peele & Win Rosenfield, and Nia DaCosta.

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Candyman cleverly opens with a bit of revisionist history, both from inside and outside the movie. There’s the horrific tale of Helen Lyle who lost her mind and tried to run into the annual bonfire at Cabrini-Green carrying one of the resident’s babies. There’s no mention of Candyman or the fact that Helen was trying to rescue the baby, not kill it. I like the set-up because, if you were paying attention earlier, I love the idea that Candyman was merely a figment of Helen’s sick imagination. (And I love that the horrible ending was ignored.)

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Taking Helen’s place in the narrative is Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a once-promising artist who’s hit a creative slump. When his girlfriend, Brianna’s (Teyonah Parris) brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), tells them the “scary story” of Helen Lyle (not Candyman as we might have expected0, he investigates the current dilapidated housing project that substitutes for the demolished Cabrini-Green. There he meets William Burke, who embellishes the legend of Helen Lyle with additional details about Candyman.

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This inspires Anthony to create a misunderstood mirrored piece of art that suddenly becomes the rage of Chicago when the gallery owner and an art critic die horrible deaths. Candyman (2021) avoids the road travelled by Candyman (1992) and doesn’t make Anthony a suspect in the murders, although he does descend into a physical madness all his own. This terrifies Brianna, who leaves him, but she’s reunited with him for the climax in which… Uh-uh, I’m not going to tell you. This Candyman has something else the other doesn’t: surprises... lots of them.

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For someone like me who criticized Candyman (1992) for the reasons I did, Candyman (2021) is a masterpiece for simply obeying the rules it establishes at the beginning. For example, Candyman instantly appears when summoned, but is visible only in the mirror. Therefore, his grisly killings appear to be done by someone that’s invisible. In one scene, brilliantly shot, we see a woman slung around her apartment, not with close-ups on the carnage, but as the camera pulls back into the cityscape, the murder scene becoming smaller with each second.

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This Candyman honors the original with specific plots points (only the good ones), but also stands alone as a scary horror film. Its characters are fully realized and realistic. How often does a black woman peer into a dark basement, then say, “Hell, no,” and simply shut the door? In ways like this, Candyman is also sometimes funny. The social commentary is more subtle, but possibly more impactful. It’s corrects the mistakes of the past in its fictional world while demonstrating how we've been unable to do the same in the real world.


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