Candyman (Universal Pictures, R)

To even describe the opening credit sequence of Candyman feels like giving part of the movie away, and yet it so aptly illustrates certain key themes that it’s worth mentioning right off. So reading on won’t necessarily ruin anything for you, but it may dilute the effect of some truly magnificent creative choices when you do go and watch the movie. Candyman doesn’t rely on plot twists so much as it continually surprises the viewer with its formal decisions, themes, and aspects of story structure. More so than any particular turn in the story, viewers will be upended by the movie’s overall construction and concept, what writers Jordan Peele, Win Rosenberg, and writer/director Nia DaCosta have done with the material of the first Candyman that is so unexpected, complex, and brilliant.

Those who don’t mind finding out beforehand should first know this: Candyman’s opening credit sequence is backwards. The effect isn’t obvious at first.  A close-up of the planet Earth fades in, a clear indicator that we’re looking at the Universal logo. But the colossal platinum letters that orbit the planet look different. Once the shot completes its outward dolly, the word LASREVINU comes to rest at the equator. Then Leo the Lion of the well-known Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer logo roars above the words REYAM-NYWDLOG-ORTEM, and an animated sequence on a train announces the film as a NOITCUDORP WAPYEKNOM instead of a Monkeypaw Production. The first shot of the movie is a sly and highly appropriate reference to The Shining. Like Jack Torrance in his blue robe, a young, black child sits on the edge of his bed and stares vacantly at nothing in particular. The shot slowly pulls out to reveal that we’re seeing his reflection in a mirror before the camera pans and gives us the same image, but reversed.  When the shot cuts to the boy walking out of a public housing unit, the words “Cabrini-Green, 1979” pop up on screen, this time in the right direction. At this point one thing is clear. We’re in the mirror world.

It’s important to regard this effect not merely as a bit of playful craftsmanship or a show-offy bit of camera trickery, but as a key to understanding what the movie is really about. Mirrors are one of three major motifs in the Candyman movies, the others being bees and the projects. But they take on much greater meaning in DaCosta’s version than in Bernard Rose’s from 1992. Mirrors are especially profound, here, standing for multiple things in this revival. By the end of 1992’s Candyman, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, who sadly does not appear in this film) has defeated the monster and become a legend herself. When artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) are visited by Briana’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), and his boyfriend, Grady (Kyle Kaminsky), they are treated to a haunting and gruesome tale not of Daniel Robitaille, the Candyman (Tony Todd), but of Helen Lyle, the crazy white woman who entered the projects to research urban legends and went insane, stealing a baby and attempting to sacrifice it in the project’s annual bonfire (a disparaging corruption of the truth, that Helen sacrificed herself to save the baby, who turns out to be Anthony).

From unjustly murdered black man to a “justly” defeated white woman, the feared specter of Cabrini-Green has gone through a 180-degree transformation. Another way to put it would be that the haunted, black world of Candyman has been gentrified, much like how the glossy high-rise inhabited by Anthony and Brianna has been built on the redeveloped land that formerly contained the majority of the Cabrini-Green projects. The era that followed Helen’s sacrifice has seen many of Candyman’s potential victims spared, but it has also seen the erasure of an entire black community. Candyman wasn’t just a monster, but a reminder of white violence and black trauma, a supernatural manifestation of vengeful black suffering which, we come to learn, inhabits multiple hosts other than Daniel Robitaille. Anthony seems poised to become the next one.

To forget the Candyman is to cause a kind of historical amnesia. Once this is understood, the purpose of the mirror becomes even more clear. The role of the Candyman has been reversed, and the film intends to undo this reversal. The Candyman must be summoned in order to unearth racial trauma, to give it a voice, to look at its cause. As for that cause—what do we look at when we look in a mirror to summon the Candyman? We look at ourselves.

Pretty much all horror movie monsters function as some kind of mirror, often of the ugliness of society. It’s not often this device is used with such awareness and intentionality. The script for Candyman shows a deep understanding of the conventions of horror as evidenced by how often it subverts them, but the direction—particularly in the gruesome but distantly and obliquely shot kill scenes—demonstrates a formal daring and ingenuity, the appreciation of which is indispensable to acquiring a thorough grasp of the movie overall. Director-driven art films have reclaimed a space in the mainstream, and the horror genre is leading the way. | Nic Champion

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