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Candyman successfully scares with gore plus social, racial commentary

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Filmmaker Nia DaCosta (Little Woods) resurrects a 1990s horror icon, breathing fresh life into the dormant Candyman franchise with a chilling new entry. (90 min.)

Caleb Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two? It's the Candyman of course, but I'll refrain from mentioning him by name again—or at least more than four times—in fear of inadvertently summoning this ghostly slasher. Technically he-who-must-not-be-named only appears if you call out to him five times while standing in front of a mirror, but I'm not taking any chances with this review. The mirror motif immediately comes into play in co-writer/director Nia DaCosta's Candyman, as the aforementioned Willy Wonka-sourced lyrics echo over the Universal and MGM logos, stylistically reversed to appear as reflections of themselves. Have you ever seen the MGM lion roar in reverse? Well you're about to. Clever title sequences aside, I wrongly assumed this chilling new take on the Candyman mythos (originating from a short story by Clive Barker, famously adapted into the 1992 film) was going to be a reboot of the franchise. Instead, Acosta and co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld have fashioned a thought-provoking follow-up to the original film. Twenty-seven years after the events of its predecessor, this sequel follows a Chicago-based artist, Anthony McCoy, (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) seeking a fresh muse. In an attempt to break a creative dry spell, McCoy decides to base his next exhibition on a local urban legend he's become engrossed in. Unlike myself, this protagonist isn't afraid to say his subject's name five times in a row.

Téa McCoy's Candyman-inspired exhibit, complete with a mirror, dares viewers to "say his name," inciting a grave series of events to unfold as the legend begins to spread once again. McCoy learns more about the legend of Candyman from laundromat owner William Burke (Colman Domingo), who relays his own chilling experience with Candyman as a child. Burke introduces us to Candyman's dark and layered history, sharing with McCoy the story of the first Candyman in 1890, Daniel Robitaille. Narrated by Burke, the first Candyman's origin story is presented through a captivating sequence of shadow puppets, in which we witness the gruesome lynching of Robitaille's shadowy facsimile at the hands of an angry mob. Though the theme of racial injustice is consistently woven throughout the film, it is perhaps this sequence that most poignantly highlights the legend's intrinsic link to the struggles of the downtrodden Black community, particularly residents of the Cabrini-Green housing project (the alleged site of several Candyman killings). While the film does touch on the issue of gentrification, it leaves something to be desired in that department of its social commentary. Nevertheless, DaCosta creatively inspires the film's audience to examine their own experiences regarding race, class, and privilege.

Caleb That puppet sequence is truly haunting, and one of the many instances this sequel surpasses its predecessor in striking the perfect balance between escapist horror and poignant social commentary. The original film (one of the best horror movies of the '90s by far) does comment on racial injustice, but those elements seem to get sidelined by other thematic threads—psychosis, adultery, infanticide, just to name a few—and the film's goriest moments. While both films celebrate gore in grandiose fashion to please fans of the slasher genre, the most unnerving aspect of 2021's Candyman has nothing to do with its titular, hook-handed killer nor the numerous throats he slits. Without giving away too much, there's a scene where McCoy's girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) is sitting in the back of a cop's car, and the dialogue overheard from the driver's seat is just as stomach churning as anything else in the film. Although Peele did not direct Candyman (restricting himself to the producer's chair), it feels like a spiritual successor to both of his directorial efforts, Get Out and Us, as all three thrillers succeed in repurposing age-old horror tropes to illustrate themes of race and privilege.

Téa Peele's influence clearly shines throughout the film, inviting audience members to reflect on some of the more challenging themes the film presents. We can't help but consider the role Candyman plays against the sociocultural backdrop of Cabrini-Green; we're all but forced to ponder the legend's symbolic purpose and unwittingly find ourselves musing on the intersection of race and class as the film progresses. The eerily familiar dialogue between Brianna and the police officer provides a chilling link to current events as it depicts just a small sliver of the devastating reality that the Black community endures at the hands of the justice system. Though Candyman himself might be just an urban legend, I'm left with the impression that what the specter represents is, in fact, all too real. The climax and resolution of the film were a bit rushed; however, I thoroughly enjoyed the film's deliciously sweet ending. Δ

Split Screen was written by Calendar Editor Caleb Wiseblood and freelancer Téa Main this week. Send comments to cwiseblood@santamariasun.com.

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