Cabrini Green, Chicago. What was once a poor ghetto has been demolished and luxury homes have been erected. Anthony and Brianna are having her brother Troy and his boyfriend Kyle over for a meal. Troy darkens the room and tells them a scary story (apparently this is based on the plot of the original Candyman film but for those, like me, who didn’t see it, here’s a brief summary).
Helen Lyle is a white woman who became so obsessed with the myth of the “Candyman” – a local boogie man – that she went a bit mad, beheading a Rottweiler and kidnapping a child, which she tried to throw on a bonfire. She was prevented from burning the child by concerned locals, but when they were looking the other way, she threw herself on the fire instead. As Troy narrates Helen’s story, his words are depicted in eerie black and white shadow puppets which look terrific.
Anthony is an artist who has been experiencing the equivalent of writer’s block, but is inspired by the story, and visits the remnants of the old housing project. He has to jump over a fence, and as a police car whizzes past, he dives into the shadows. When he emerges, he sees another black man, William Burke, who asks of the cops: “are they keeping us safe, or keeping us in?”
William tells Anthony the story of Candyman from a different angle. It is now about a man with a hook on his hand, who gave out sweets to kids. When razor blades were found in the sweets received by a couple of white kids, he was hounded to his death. But then, after his death, more razor blades were found. Just one more Black victim of racist assumptions and stereotypes.
The film slowly enters fuller horror mode – building on the legend that if you say the name “Candyman” 5 times while looking in the mirror, you will meet an untimely end. After a couple of false starts – people chickening out after the fourth “Candyman”, there is a number of gruesome murders of people who are testing out the myth.
One of the things that Candyman does very well is show how much stories depend on who is telling them and the context in which they are being told. A story that was originally about a dangerous big black man is transformed into a warning of how concerned white liberals can endanger the Black community – and cops are even worse. In one of the opening scenes, set in the 1970s, Candyman is shot dead on sight by cops, because that’s what cops do.
The film is also visually spectacular. As well as the shadow puppets, there is great use of mirrors and overhead shots at various points of the film. This gives the impression that we are viewing something which just goes on for ever. It also means the horror scenes are able to ramp up the tension and build an impressive atmosphere.
The tagline for the new Candyman film is “Dare to Say his Name” (“Say My Name” is the name of an installation created by Anthony). This has two connotations for me. Firstly there are the callouts of the names of the victims of police or Nazis murders, like George Floyd or Heather Heyer, which has become a welcome ritual at recent anti-racist demonstrations.
But also, there’s Muhammed Ali. When fighting Ernie Terrell in 1967, in the run up to the fight, Terrell deliberately called Ali Cassius Clay several times. When he converted to Islam, Ali gave up his “slave name” as a statement against racism. Ali won the fight easily, and as he whupped Terrell in the ring, he repeatedly shouted at him “What’s my Name?”
This brings me to the one problem I have with the film. There is obviously a lot of allegory going on, but apart from setting a general mood, it’s not always clear what this allegory is supposed to mean. In a modern film, Say My Name evokes a protest against racist violence, yet the people who repeat the name “Candyman” are not celebrated but brutally murdered.
At one point, Burke tells Anthony that Candyman is the collective unconsciousness of the community, but how does this fit in with white and Asian female college students being killed? We are constantly receiving hints that we are watching a metaphor for racism and gentrification, but what is this metaphor actually trying to say apart from both of these things are bad?
Faced with the choice of presenting horror or denouncing racism, Candyman sometimes falls between two chairs. On some occasions, it seems to be making sophisticated statements on race, on who owns art, on who is to blame for rising rents. On others, it looks like it’s reaching for the nearest available metaphor, even if it makes little sense in context. Or maybe it’s just that I only really like horror films when they’re silly, and this is way more important than that.