Sunday, August 29, 2021

Urban Legend: CANDYMAN

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman movie takes the 1992 original’s subtext and flattens into the surface text. Gone are the creeping insinuations and curling undertow of a ghost story about a lynched Black man lurking as an urban legend in a Chicago housing project. (Say his name five times and he’ll haunt you, drive you mad, or maybe slaughter you with his hook-hand.) The new film just states flat out that it’s all about the lingering aftereffects of racism’s traumas, and the ongoing wound-prodding the constant reminders and recapitulations of them with which we live are. What the earlier film allowed to bubble up from the depths of its horrors, this new one uses as dialogue to be repeated over and over as the didactic thematic design of an otherwise simple slasher trajectory in which all of the character start alive and most end up dead. It opens with a painter (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his gallerist girlfriend (Teyonah Parris) moving into a fancy new apartment in the recently gentrified neighborhood that was the housing projects where the first film took place. There’s a discussion about the ethics of such a move, and some gentle ribbing from the woman’s realtor brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who retells the story of a grad student (Virginia Madsen) who lost her mind investigating the Candyman there three decades earlier. (Astute viewers might quickly piece together the movie’s other Big Connection to its inspiration well before the surprise is sprung.) Intrigued, the boyfriend ends up using the story as material for his upcoming art show, sending him spiraling into artistic obsession that lets the Candyman back into the world. I liked his first idea: a mirror that opens onto paintings of lynchings. He calls it "Say My Name," a doubled reference to the activist urgency of remembering victims of police brutality and the lore of the Candyman. That’s the sort of mirroring where the picture’s at its best.

But then the movie is going about making its points flatly and obviously. Even as DaCosta films each scene with artful intent and striking images—I most appreciated Lotte Reiniger-style silhouette animation used to dramatize supernatural events in flashbacks, and establishing shots of upside-down Chicago streets, especially eerie when the tops of the distinctive Marina City towers plunge downwards into an overcast sky—the script undercuts them with declarative and repetitive plot explanations and thematic expostulation. The cast’s charisma—I didn’t even mention the great Colman Domingo as one of the few selling a flimsy supporting role—nearly carries it anyway, but it’s an uphill battle. The film’s politics are admirable—as is its craft—but the story stumbles. Its supporting cast is there to state the themes, provide exposition, and (usually) die. (Worst has to be a smarmy art guy or a sniffy critic, both drawn in such obvious villainy you’re just itching for comeuppance until their deaths are doled out with strange restraint.) Most disappointingly, some of the late reveals muddle its message, and on a scene-by-scene level the scares never quite hit. Elsewhere some curious gaps of logic open up. Cuts to black obscure some holes, while off-screen dialogue papers over others. The movie is full of the sort of things that might not bother me if it was otherwise working, but when my investment is slowly leaking away, it’s all I can focus on. Interesting how the truly great horror movies are simply unreproducible regardless of how many sequels try. Somehow the original is scarier, and more effectively topical, than the new one, no matter how insistent it is about contemporary concerns. It’s a good effort, but a dissatisfying result.

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