Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
August 27, 2021
Thoughts on Candyman (2021)

So I saw the new Candyman last night. Brief thoughts: I was disappointed. While I suppose it's a valid take on the mythos, it was neither the direction I would have taken nor the film I wanted to see. But then, I have really strong feelings about Candyman! Keep reading for more totally not spoiler-free commentary.

Like Hellraiser, Candyman and its sequel (not the third one, ugh) are among my favorite horror films -- though, like Hellraiser, my reasons for loving them aren't *entirely* things for which the films deserve credit. For instance, while Candyman certainly describes the concept more than once in his dialogue, the movies don't much *dwell* on the nature of his existence: he exists as rumor. He kills not out of malice or for revenge, but rather because he must in order to live. People summon him because they do not believe he exists; he kills them to ensure that others, now convinced of his existence by the deaths of their neighbors' cousins' friends, will spread the gospel by which he endures. (Of course, one could argue that killing his victims is unnecessary and potentially even counterproductive -- he'd arguably be more popular if he simply appeared to those who invoked him -- but that wouldn't make for a particularly scary movie.)

It's a concept that I think about a lot, and there are tons of real-life parallels that one could draw: a criminal forced to make violent examples of those who cross him in order to discourage challengers and retain his grip on power; a celebrity who misbehaves to attract the paparazzi and remain relevant on gossip TV; even folks compelled to post "positive" content on Facebook so that the algorithm prioritizes or at least doesn't largely ignore their content. I don't know which parallel I would have landed on for a modern take on Candyman -- I think, given how the racial justice movement has been fueled by regular coverage of brutal tragedies, that could have been an interesting take. And, to be sure, though the film doesn't explicitly tackle the subject from that angle, it does include several instances of police violence against black men. But it doesn't explore or even really touch on the nature of Candyman's existence as rumor, and for me that's one of the most compelling things about the franchise.

Another major point of interest about the series: the Candyman himself. Born shortly after the end of the Civil War, Daniel Robitaille was the son of former slaves. Because his father had invented a device that earned the family a considerable sum of money, Robitaille was educated at elite schools alongside white students -- the films don't at all explore his upbringing beyond stating as much, but one can imagine the treatment he must have received as a student in the 1870s and 1880s. At any rate, along the way he became an artist, and excelled in that pursuit such that his portraits became a fashionable way for the wealthy to document their status in society. And then a landowner commissioned Robitaille to paint his daughter. The two fell in love; the daughter became pregnant; the father was super pissed and paid a mob to lynch Robitaille. They chased him down and beat him. They sawed off his right hand with a rusty blade. And then they stripped him naked and smeared his body with honey from a nearby apiary, such that a great cloud of bees followed and descended and stung the fuck out of him. And then, because dude was still alive after all of that, the mob set him on fire and watched as he burned. At one point during the honey segment of the lynching, a droplet landed on a spectator kid's mouth, and the taste prompted the kid to say aloud: "Candyman." The mob picked up the chant, and so Daniel Robitaille became the Candyman as he was tortured to death.

Some commenters have noted how the new film's taunt -- "say his name" -- represents sort of an inversion of the approach taken by racial justice protesters: whereas saying "Candyman" five times gets one killed and should therefore be avoided, repeating the names of victims of police brutality is a welcome call for reform and a demand for accountability. But Candyman 2021 fails to properly acknowledge that "Candyman" *isn't* his name. As the second movie points out -- and as I've described above -- this was a taunt screamed at him by racist whites as they murdered Robitaille. When he subjects a would-be victim to a flashback sequence, he tells her, "See what it means to call me by that name." (So in a way it provides an explanation for Candyman's harsh treatment of those who summon him... though being disemboweled with a hook is a bit more severe than being smacked upside the head with a can of Twisted Tea.) So while the previous films also didn't explore the nature of the name and Robitaille's experience more deeply than what I've described, I'm still disappointed by the failure of this new film to do so. Robitaille grew up in close proximity to whiteness and somehow managed to thrive... right up until he made the ultimate transgression. In the midst of so many discussions about diversity and inclusion -- which largely involves opening up and transforming white spaces to be more accepting of and welcoming to people of color -- surely there's room for interesting comment about a character who was so significantly shaped by a society's violent resistance to that notion.

But in light of what the film *does* do, it makes sense that the film doesn't do more with Robitaille -- because, bafflingly, the Candyman of this movie mostly *isn't* Robitaille. Sure, it mentions him (eventually), and it references the 1992 movie a whole lot, but mostly the Candyman who appears here is some grinning hobo who lived in the walls of a housing project and occasionally emerged to give candy to children. (Where the hell was this motherfucker getting the candy???) Ultimately this creepy hobo was beaten to death by police for the crime of slipping kids candy with razor blades, though they later learned that he'd been innocent. And thus he became the Candyman: because in this movie, Candyman isn't one individual but rather a murderous supernatural force renewed in each generation when a black man with a particular set of characteristics (tall, long coat, missing one hand) is unjustly murdered by The Man. And, like I said at the onset, it's a valid take (even if it does require one to ignore a whole bunch from the original series).

But I don't like it. The Candyman of old was approached as an *individual* -- so much so that the two sequels largely focused on his interactions with his descendants (his pregnant lover went on to have the child after his death). Here, however, he's absorbed into a collective entity, or an office: the first in a series of black men murdered under specific circumstances. (He's sort of like an evil Avatar?) Given that one of the most unfortunate things about being black (IMO, anyway) is not really getting to be an individual -- one is always somehow a racial representative, and one is often keenly aware of this reality -- I didn't at all like seeing that approach taken with a character I find compelling in part because of the unique elements of his tale (even if, like all fiction, it does take certain cues from real-life events) and who, owing to his treatment in previous films, had transcended that limitation impressed upon so many of us in real life. I might have appreciated it more if the movie had explicitly commented on that change, but it didn't. Nor is the notion of others taking up the mantle of a horror monster a novel one: the movie reminds me quite a bit of Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman, in which various women, as a result of certain behaviors, become the titular spirit. It works better for that character -- although, like Candyman, the Kuchisake-onna is the subject of a scary story that ultimately proves real, her backstory isn't so closely tied to one person and there wasn't previously a series of films about that individual. (Even then, I prefer the prequel, which *does* focus on one character and how she becomes what she becomes.) The Candyman was always Daniel Robitaille; altering that detail somehow diminishes him.

I've focused on what I didn't like about the new Candyman film because -- as someone who especially appreciated the original Candyman 1&2 (and rewatched them before heading to the theater, though this was hardly the first time I've revisited them since their initial releases) -- that's largely what I came away with. That said, I do think the new film had a few interesting things to say... even though, like the original films, it largely relegated those insights to snatches of dialogue absent deeper exploration. As a new film, and one that neither requires nor assumes deep love of the previous films or the character and concepts introduced in them, it's fine. But for all but the last minute of the film, it's quite literally not my Candyman.

-posted by Wes | 5:18 pm | Comments (0)
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