Candyman (2021) Review

Candyman (2021) - IMDb

Sweet on the outside, sour on the inside. A visually impressive attempt to provide a thoughtful exploration on duality and identity, is overshadowed by heavy-handed ideology. Nia DaCosta delivers audiences a spiritual sequel to the cult horror film Candyman (1992) that is grounded in much of the lore of the original, yet forges a new frontier that simultaneously serves as a vehicle for horror legend Tony Todd to pass the hook onto Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. DaCosta is joined by writer-producer Jordan Peele and screenwriter Win Rosenfeld to “tell everyone” who dares to look in a mirror and call out his name five times. Admit it, even in our most rational state, we are still a little apprehensive to stare at our reflection and call out Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candym–. That’s the power of horror films! These fictional stories on screen have their mystical ways of affecting the collective conscious in such a manner that we change or question our behavior. Another great example of this effect is the iconic highway scene in Final Destination 2. And challenging audiences was certainly what the three screenwriters had in mind when writing the story for Candyman (2021). Unfortunately, the agenda-driven message steels the focus away from the stunning visuals, and ultimately fails to effectively paint a portrait of reality that invites all to engage in the important conversations the film is trying to have, instead, alienating audience members that don’t share the filmmakers’ opinions. Suffice it to say, this film is Peele for the course.

In present day, a decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, rising star artist Anthony (Abdul-Mateen II) and his partner move into a loft in the now gentrified Cabrini. A chance encounter with an old-timer exposes Anthony to the true story behind Candyman (Todd). Anxious to use these macabre details in his studio as fresh grist for paintings, he unknowingly opens a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifying wave of violence. (IMDb)

If you’ve never seen the original Candyman, don’t worry. While having seen the original will certainly help audiences to appreciate world-building and backstory elements, there is enough context given to help those that may be unfamiliar. Following the screening I attended, I heard individuals negatively critique the retconning of plot elements in the original; truth is, the parts of the original that were reimagined to fit the backstory of 2021’s Candyman were thoughtfully adapted.

While I have my reservations with the film, I would be remiss to not highlight the excellent direction, cinematography, editing, costuming, production design, and even the performances! Visually, the movie is stunning! All the mise-en-scene elements work together to create a BIG SCREEN experience. And talk about outstanding performances. Back in the heyday of the slashers (late 70s through the 90s), we did not expect to be impressed by the performances of the cast. And while there are notable exceptions of horror films WITH brilliant performances, usually it’s not expected. Over the last 7–10 years, horror films have been stepping up their performance game. The lead and most of the supporting cast will all captivate you. Unfortunately, there are useless characters like Brianna’s (Anthony’s girlfriend’s) brother and his boyfriend. Having no real affect on the plot, this interracial gay couple was little more than a token that could be removed from the movie, and the movie still play out the same way. However, if it weren’t for these two characters, the movie would be lacking ANY humor. So I suppose that was their purpose, to add humor.

There are so many beautifully crafted shots and shot sequences in this film. From juxtapositions of the old meeting with the new to geometric shapes and lines, there are many excellent compositions. The production and set design and lighting, of this film, are used in similar ways that the designs in expressionism are used. Expressionism uses the design of buildings, costumes, lighting, and camera angles to externalize emotions, psycho-social states of being, and ideas. And with expressionism being part of the formula of horror (expressionism+surrealism+Poe+Freud), it makes sense how and why there would be this care shown in the mise-en-scene.

All the backstory elements are communicated through the brilliant use of shadow puppets. The shadow puppet sequences are perhaps my favorite recurring diegetic device used in the film. Not only do these shadow puppets provide exposition, they also move the plot forward in action and subtext.

The idea of shadow puppets as a storytelling device is best explored in Plato’s Cave. French film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry likened the movie theatre to Plato’s famous allegory Plato’s Cave found in Plato’s Republic. But since we’re not all film or philosophy theorists, here is a quick explanation of Plato’s Cave:

The allegory states that there exists prisoners chained together in a cave. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners are people carrying puppets or other objects. This casts a shadow on the other side of the wall. The prisoners watch these shadows, believing them to be real. Essentially, what Plato is exploring is the concept of “belief vs knowledge.” The prisoners (or audience) in this analogy believe the images on the wall as reality; when in actuality, it is only the puppeteers version of reality. The analogy goes on further to describe a prisoner breaking free and venturing from the cave out into the real world. Two things happen (1) the newly freed prisoner completely rejects the imagery in the cave and returns to warn the prisoners of their one-dimensional view of reality, and risk being killed for a radical view, or (2) the freed prisoner fears or cannot reconcile actual reality and retreats back into the cave, where there is comfort in the surroundings, to warn the prisoners not to leave. Therefore, this highlights how a lack of knowledge leads to blind belief.

Despite being centuries old, the allegory is appropriate for filmmaking. After all, the audience watches images on a screen. We’re meant to believe it to be real, but we know it’s false. Only when we step out of the theater back into reality can we take what we’ve learned in the cinema and apply it to our lives. In a literal sense, a movie is just a series of images. But digging deeper, they present unique ideas and themes that we can take with us into the real world. Numerous movies utilize this concept in their plots and themes. You have probably seen films where a character believes one reality and then becomes exposed to another, greater reality and is never the same. In the case of 2021’s Candyman, DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld have metaphorically trapped the audience in an ideological cave to present their versions of our reality that exists outside the cinema’s doors.

The movie has some great kills! But it highlights a moral problem plaguing this movie. From the art gallery to the critic to the girls at the prep school, the only victims, to meet their gruesome demise ON screen, are white characters. While there are a couple of off-screen deaths of black characters, the only ones in the visible mise-en-scene to meet with Candyman’s iconic hook are white. Had this movie been directed and/or written by a white writer-director and only killed and disparaged black characters, there would already be a #cancel campaign on Twitter. In my five years as a film professor and seven years as an active critic, I cannot ever recall a horror movie (in particular, a slasher movie) that ONLY killed black characters and disparaged the black community in virtually every scene from the opening to the closing. So if that would not be tolerated by the public–and for good reason, a movie released like that in 2021 (or ever) would be in incredibly poor, despicable, disrespectful taste–then the inverse should not be acceptable here.

I get what DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld are trying to do with this horror movie. From the time of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, horror has been used to comment on societal observations to either warn of an impending dangerous ideology, to provide allegorical material that can be used as a framework to better understand marginalized groups, or even to challenge systems or institutions. Which is why horror is often far more truthful than a straight drama. Of course, one can make the argument that this is a fictional film in a fictional Chicago, which is not untrue; however, the problem therein is that little (if anything) in this fictional Chicago sets it apart from the real world, except for the supernatural character of Candyman, because these filmmakers have a point to make. But the problem here is that the very people that these writers want to challenge are the very people that are being unfairly represented in the movie. How is any of that constructive to the conversations of race relations and policing??? Short answer: it’s not.

The symbolism I did appreciate in the film are the moments that we explore the duality in ourselves and our environments. This is represented through literal and metaphoric reflection. Mirrors (or reflections) are regularly used to communicate duality. One of the best examples in recent years, in how mirrors are an effective cinematic device, is the mirror scene in I, Tonya. Just before her final competition in the film, as Tonya is applying her high contrast makeup, we witness in the mirror the internal struggle. On the outside, she is this accomplished figure skater (probably the best athlete the sport has ever seen) but on the inside she is tormented by her mother, her abusive marriage, and what she did or didn’t know about the incident. Likewise, in Candyman we explore the history and identity of Anthony and his neighborhood. Anthony has a secret in his past that has been painted over, that is trying to resurface, and his neighborhood of Cabrini Green has a sordid history that it has tried to cover and hide behind a fresh coat of paint. History is always there. It cannot be erased. And if it’s not dealt with, it can become a specter and haunt you and your environment. The mirrors and other reflective surfaces of Candyman are brilliantly used to communicate this idea of duality.

It is clear that DaCosta is a gifted director, but I hope that she works with different writers in the future that can find that balance of commenting on or raising awareness of something important, but also finding the ways to bring everyone to the table for a thoughtful discussion. The power of cinema, and in particular horror films, is that it can bring diverse groups of people together from all walks of life to both be entertained and challenged through screams, jumps, and laughter.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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“The Divergent Series: Allegiant part 1” movie review

AllegiantPossibly a strong finish for the Divergent Games! Of course, we won’t know just how well it finishes until the second part. Surprisingly, The Divergent Series: Allegiant part 1 provides fans with a good start to a well-executed conclusion. After the weak sequel, it was quite unexpected that the series would begin to complete this YA series on such a high note. Unlike the disappointing conclusion of The Hunger GamesAllegiant brings back your favorite characters you love and love to hate in a very satisfying ending in the dystopian adventure to rescue a people from themselves. At the end of the day, the Divergent series will never be as successful or generate the same fandom as The Hunger Games; but simply comparing the last two films in both franchises, this is clearly the superior finish (or should be). Although Roth’s socio-political themes and subtext were fairly clear, all be it still weak, in the first two films, the message is a little vague and incoherent in Allegiant. Two YA franchises down and one to go. We will just have to see what lies in store for the Maze Runner series. Just like the Divergent series has a week middle, hopefully the weak sequel in The Maze Runner will pave the way for a strong conclusion as well. One thing is for sure, Allegiant contains far more action than the previous films which almost makes the weak and still completely explained plot worth the approximate 2-hour run time.

The first part of the final chapter in the Divergent Series takes us beyond the wall into a desolate wasteland. Follow Beatrice/Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Caleb (Ansel Elgort), Peter (Miles Teller), and Christina (Zoe Kravitz) as they embark on a journey to seek help from the outside in order to stop the civil war in dystopian Chicago (or modern day Detroit). With newly asserted leader of the faction less system Evelyn (Naomi Watts) and Amity turned Allegiant leader Johanna (Octavia Spencer) at odds with one another, war is brewing in the streets and all hell is about to break loose. Barely escaping Evelyn’s security team, Tris and her band are rescued by a team from an organization of pure bloods who oversees the “Chicago Experiment.” This group of researchers and scientists led by David (Jeff Daniels) recruits Tris and her team to develop a plan to save Chicago, or so they think. When Four discovers what is really going on, he must convince Tris and the rest of her band of rebels to make right what is going incredibly wrong.

For me, and I am sure other critics, analyzing this particular series, The Hunger Games, and Maze Runner gets boring. Because, for the most part, they all have the same plot, same fallacies, and similar subtext. They are all extremely socio-political methods to spread the message that only teenagers are special and are capable of saving the world from corrupt adults. Although these movies are aimed at Generation Z (anyone born after 1995), they still attract attention from Y/Millennials (~1982-1994) and Generation Xers (~1965-1981). That is important because Generation Z does not have the spending power that generations X and Y do. In order to maximize the income potential of the films, the studios have to appeal to Generation Zers in such a way that it will also bring their Millennial friends and potentially Generation X parents. Since schools are constantly preaching the message that teenagers are the future, they are special, and uncontaminated by the greed of the world, it makes sense to create films based on books that carry that theme. The negative side effect to this approach is creating a generation(s) that automatically distrust adults and their respective decisions regarding the environment, politics, and society. Just as Allegiant depicts what happens when there is such great division among a people who view the approach to peace so very differently will devolve into a war-like state, it’s entirely possible that reinforcing this division between Generation Z and X/Y could symbolically arrive at the same precipice.

The production value and design in Allegiant definitely outshines the prior two installments. That is important due to the fact that Roth’s political subtext definitely becomes a little muddled in this last chapter. Although there is definitely way too much cheesy CGI, it is far less than the previous film. And other than some of the outlandish technology used in the story, for the most part, the defense, security, and surveillance technology used by the various characters makes sense and is perfectly believable in their universe. There is even a real reference to 21st century earth’s scientists experimenting with the human genome. That helps to create a sense of futuristic realism in the Divergent universe. One of the biggest problems I have with the plot is the still unexplained history of how exactly the Chicago experiment began. Perhaps the director and writers did not feel it was necessary to provide a clear history through character exposition, but I am still a little confused as to how the Pure Bloods and Damaged became so incredibly separate. Another thing, if there are thousands (if not millions) of Pure Bloods in existence, then why use the Chicago Experiment as a method to see if a Pure Blood can be born out of all of it??? I guess that is why it’s not worth overly analyzing films such as this one.

For what it’s worth, Allegiant is an exciting start to the last chapter in the Divergent Series! Far more entertaining than the last one. If you were disappointed by Mockingjay Part 2 than rest assured that you will definitely enjoy the conclusion of this franchise. Not a bad way to spend your Spring Break or an afternoon over the weekend. But, I wouldn’t bother seeing this film in IMAX or 3D. However, I can see some benefit to the experience of this film by watching it in a D-Box auditorium.