Nov 22, 2021


Warning: Spoilers for the Candyman series.

The idea of going back to the Candyman franchise thirty years after the original terrified the previous generation seemed a little unwise and fairly arrogant—for all kinds of reasons. Where to start? Though it’s generally (and unfairly) lumped in with other slasher sagas, the Candyman series only made it to three entries, very much on the low end when compared to its double-digit-reaching colleagues. Indeed, the series has been extinct for over twenty years, thanks to 1995’s underwhelming Farewell to the Flesh and 1999’s atrocious direct-to-video Day of the Dead. On top of that, the irreplaceable Tony Todd had obviously aged out of the title role, and there was really no one left standing at the end of that brilliant original movie to continue the story (…or was there?). Probably the most important question: could a modern filmmaker working on behalf of a major studio have the same uncanny ability for unnerving audiences like writer/director Bernard Rose had back in the dark ages of 1992? Could anything baring the Candyman name in this day and age really be as terrifying?

For once, though the trailers gave away a lot, they didn’t give away everything, and what was assumed to be a straight-up reboot of the series’ overall concept was actually a sequel in very sly sheep’s clothing, allowing for the return of characters (and actors) not seen since Candyman ‘92. Much like 2018’s Halloween, this belated Candyman follow-up has ditched its association with every sequel outside of the original, only keeping the real name of Candyman intact as Daniel Robitaille, as established in Farewell to the Flesh. It’s also very much a loyal sequel, calling back to the original as much as possible while still digging deeper into the concept of Candyman as a character, as a legend, as a concept, and as something much more—“the whole damn hive” as the movie explains.

Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, the upcoming The Matrix Resurrections) is an artist in a rut, living with his art promoter girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, the fucking hysterical They Came Together) in a swanky Chicago apartment that, once upon a time, had been part of the Cabrini-Green housing projects where large portions of the original film took place. After hearing the legend of Helen Lyle, Virginia Madsen’s character from Candyman ‘92, whose life story has been rewritten to make her a Candyman-like villain as opposed to the hero, Anthony begins to research the mythos by heading to where it all went down: what remains of the Cabrini-Green projects. He soon meets William (Colman Domingo, Selma), manager of a local laundromat, who tells him of his own murderous run-in with Candyman as a child…only it’s not the Candyman audiences already know (Todd), but an altogether different hook-handed weirdo in a flowing jacket named Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), a well-meaning but slow-witted local killed by police after having been falsely accused of injuring children with razor-blade candy. Following his killing, Sherman returns as the eponymous mirror man, killing those who call him by his new name, which directly results in the death of William’s sister. Now infected with Sherman’s image, and, naturally, after repeating the name “Candyman” five times into the nearest mirror, Anthony begins to suffer hallucinations of a bloodied and mutilated Sherman Fields appearing in every mirror reflection, all while a nasty bee sting seems to be transforming his body into a hideous husk. Meanwhile, his previously dismissed art gallery exhibits inspired by Candyman begin to gain traction…in conjunction with the deaths of those with immediate ties to Anthony’s work as an artist. Soon, as word of Candyman’s terror begins to spread, so does that of the means to summon him: by looking into the nearest mirror and saying his name.

It’s often said for belated sequels like this that prior knowledge of previous movies isn’t necessary to enjoy any updated take (especially those belated sequels that drop all numerals and subtitles and reuse the original moniker, a trend I really wish would go out of style), but when it comes to Candyman ‘21, written/produced by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and directed by Nia DaCosta, I could not disagree more. Sure, if you’ve never seen the original film, you could still find things to enjoy and grasp the overall concept while also getting a nice dose of the creeps, but by default it would prove to be an almost hollow experience—especially with its ending. Candyman ’21 isn’t just an homage or a universe side adventure—it depends on the original film to flesh out its story in the very same way it depends on it for its entire existence. If Candyman ’21 were a haunted house, Candyman ’92 would be its ghost. The original film’s events, ideas, and characters permeate the events in this new take, which finds dozens of loving ways to loop itself in with its predecessor, falling back on even its most background details (like the razor-blade candy, which remained unexplained in the original and remains unexplained here). Relievedly, there are no radical reinventions of the concept—at least, none that don’t expand on ideas already well established. Even the musical score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe presents in the same spirit as Philip Glass’s score for the original, crafting a very experimental and non-traditional soundtrack, along with lifting its most recognizable theme and reinventing it as a pensive and melancholy melody on electric organ. Candyman ’21 isn’t out to exploit its namesake while pushing aside everything that made it so wonderful; if there’s any one modern sequel that proves its love for its source material, it’s this one.

Candyman ’92 laid the groundwork for who Candyman is, and most importantly, why he persists. As intimated, Candyman is a walking embodiment of his own legend and of the fear he causes in those who believe in him. As the legend of Candyman grows, so does his presence in the world, and as his presence grows more well known, the legends about him grow further, and on and on, an endless loop of a mythical being’s willed existence. Though the main thrust of events is centralized to Cabrini-Green in Chicago, it’s suggested his legend is known everywhere, including the middle-of-nowhere suburbs, the setting that provides the film’s opening kill. When Helen Lyle saves Baby Anthony, previously kidnapped by Candyman to serve as a sacrifice that would make both Candyman and Helen immortal in story and together forever, those Cabrini-Green residents who bore witness to the act credit her with having killed the boogeyman who has long haunted their lives. Over time, however, as evidenced during Candyman 21’s opening modern-day moments, it would seem that Helen Lyle has inherited the Candyman mythos. We, the audience, know the truth, but for those characters in the room hearing the story for the first time, that version of the myth becomes their truth. That’s how urban legends spread, growing more and more powerful with every new person who tells them. To destroy the Candyman, one must destroy the belief in him, but following this logic, that also allows the Candyman legend to change at will, so long as enough people disseminate all the different variations of the story. “The hive,” as it’s called, is the accumulation of black lives lost to hate in the decades since the lynching of Daniel Robitaille; though the identities and details change, with certain people being haunted by their version of their Candyman, all of those variations are ultimately absorbed back into, for lack of a better word, the myth of the OG Candyman (Tony Todd, who returns for just one brief moment). He is the dumping ground for the world’s racial hate—a sort of anti-Batman on whom Cabrini-Green needs to hang its history of pain. This concept of “the hive” is the backbone of Candyman ’21 and is a major feat pulled off by the filmmakers with great success. It not only remains faithful to all the rules established by its predecessor, it greatly expands the mythos and brilliantly allows Todd to reprise the role in just a single appearance, limited to a single line, while reestablishing his Candyman as the Candyman. It doesn’t matter that he’s not the main Candyman glimpsed throughout the movie; ultimately, it’s still the story of the Candyman who started it all.

Also returning is Anne-Marie McCoy (a quietly devastating Vanessa Williams), not seen in this series since the closing moments of Candyman ’92 in which she peers down into the open grave of Helen Lyle, the savior of her son. Her one scene offers affirmation to the audience that the histories of the McCoy family and that of the Candyman are intertwined and sadly inescapable; though Anthony begins to suspect his place in Candyman lore, it’s not until the confrontation with his mother that we know it’s all true—in that moment, Anthony believes, thus giving the Candyman legend power, and thus setting into motion his own transformation. Seeing Williams return to the role not only cements this “twist” in the story and brings with it a series history that works in tandem with Candyman’s own, but also provides a nice little shot of romanticism, as we horror fans love nothing more than seeing iconic faces return to our beloved franchises. (Also, that woman does not age.)

Candyman’s biggest detriment is its incapability of executing any sequences of real fear—at least the kind of fear with the same staying power of its predecessor…though perhaps that’s unfair. Candyman ‘92 remains one of the scariest mainstream horror films of all time; its very first frame establishes a sense of dread and ominousness that continues until its very last. (The bathroom murder sequence involving a young child is still a top-ten “that fucked me up” moment of my entire horror-watching life.) That’s not to say Candyman ’21 doesn’t contain its own collection of eerie images because it certainly does, and “new” Candyman Michael Hargrove unnerves the viewer with nothing more than a smile, but it never reaches those “dangerous” scary heights that give you pause to continue watching any further.

By its very design, Candyman ’21 has an awful lot of balls in the air, and for the most part it keeps them all moving fluidly without causing a catastrophe, though threatening to overcomplicate matters is an underexplored subplot in which Brianna deals with a past trauma involving the suicide of her father, who was also an artist. Though likely existing to draw parallels to Anthony’s worsening mental state, there’s also a sly inference that Brianna’s father was a version of her own personal Candyman, in the sense that she’s also being haunted by someone with a tragic end whose image she can’t seem to escape. Candyman ’21 seems to even be implying that every person has his or her own unshakeable ghost—not walking visages of those gunned down unduly in the streets or lynched by angry white mobs, but more along the lines of the abstract concepts a ghost can represent: guilt, sadness, regret, or the sense of something left unfinished.

Predictably, some critics and audience members have dismissed this new take as being the “woke” version of Candyman, stopping at the surface level of seeing a black man dealing with black issues caused by the fallout of racial injustices and dismissing it unseen, but there’s not a single idea present here that hadn’t already been established by its predecessor: first, there’s gentrification—Helen Lyle reveals that her swanky apartment building was originally built as a housing project before some modifications transformed the units into upscale condos in an effort to keep the rest of the housing projects contained to the other side of the highway; and then there’s black tragedy at the hands of an angry and racist white mob—literally how the Candyman legend was born: his having fallen in love with a white woman and getting her pregnant; and of course there’s a racist police system—more than once, stories are told about how black residents of the Cabrini-Green housing projects would call 911 to report someone coming through the walls to kill them, but that no one would come help because of how “scared” they were to come into the ghetto—and it’s not until Helen is attacked in the projects while pursuing her research that the cops finally act. Racial indifference, economic disparity—they are old themes made new again. It’s ironic that William tells Anthony the legend of original Candyman Daniel Robitaille, a renowned artist hired by wealthy families to paint their portraits, and says, “You know how it goes: they love what we make, but not us.” He could’ve been talking about the very movie he was in, almost anticipating close-minded audiences to dismiss a movie with the full right to discuss genuine societal issues—something the horror genre has only been doing for the last hundred years—as “woke,” a term I’ve come to despise. What bullshit.

On the lighter side, Candyman is filled with all kinds of fun Easter eggs—homages to Clive Barker, whose short story, “The Forbidden,” originated the Candyman character, are peppered throughout, along with an unexpected but sweet homage, via Brianna’s surname, to genre legend Veronica Cartwright (Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), who appeared in Farewell to the Flesh as Candyman’s great-granddaughter. (There’s also a pretty lame nod to Jurassic Park.) I won’t point them all out, as spotting them is part of the fun, but with Peele’s influence, they are plentiful, reminding the audience that, yes, this movie is to be taken seriously, but that it’s also okay to have a little fun with it.   

To loop back around on the Halloween comparison, my hope is that Peele et al. leave this newly resurrected franchise alone, as further exploration of this newborn concept may very well result in a bed-shit a la Halloween Kills. Like Halloween ’18, Candyman ’21 works better as a one-off companion to its lineage and doesn’t need any additional follow-ups to further explore its themes. Maybe I’m just resorting back to my home-base cynicism, since I didn’t have any faith that I would enjoy this new Candyman as much as I did, but it seems doubtful the same kind of risks can be taken in a sequel to further explore Candyman as a phenomenon without it buckling under the weight of its own ambition. After all, Candyman ’21 is the fourth time Candyman’s name has been called. Call him a fifth time and things could get painful.

Nov 9, 2021


Spoiler: This review does not serve any purpose.

Nicolas Cage has made the most interesting movies of his career over the last ten years. I didn’t say good, mind you, although there have been quite a few of those—I said interesting. Even his failures, like 2018’s low-rated Between Worlds, a metaphysical erotic thriller that breaks the fourth wall and recognizes Cage’s character as actually being Nicolas Cage during a sex scene, is far more interesting than the last highest-rated Hollywood Marvel tentpole you saw. Despite his reputation as being a quirky, rubber-stamping performer saying yes to every offer that comes his way, well…broken clocks and all that: saying yes to a lot can yield occasionally awesome results, and it’s given us horror fans a handful of terrific titles during this period. Though it’s impossible to keep up with Cage’s movies at this point, I feel confident in saying it’s been a while since I’ve seen a particular movie where he slept walk through his role. Cage is always trying, and always giving it his all; he’s quite possibly one of the bravest actors from the old guard still taking chances with wild abandon, unafraid to ascend to the most manic heights if it serves the movie. (See the binge-drinking, underwear-clad bathroom freak-out scene from 2018’s incredible Mandy.) This was something I always knew, but of which I was reminded following an impromptu double-feature of two Cage flicks brand new to video: the understated, beautifully made Pig, in which he offers a tragic, brokenhearted performance as a man seeking the last remaining thing on this planet he loves, and Prisoners of the Ghostland, in which he plays a criminal forced to go looking for something he couldn’t care less about, screaming his face off and gnashing his teeth and contending with roving desert threats the whole time—ghostly or otherwise. His range across those two random examples was remarkable, the first bringing tears and the second bringing wide-eyed astonishment. Very few actors can do this, and Cage is one of them, though his genuine talent is often forgotten thanks to his internet folk hero status as a meme, those “crazy reel” YouTube compilations, and his doppelganger in that old-timey 1800s photos that suggests he is, in fact, a vampire. (Insert scene from 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss which sees Cage running down the street screaming, “I’M A VAMPIRE, I’M A VAMPIRE!”)

Cage himself has described Prisoners of the Ghostland as “the wildest movie [he’s] ever made,” a quote wisely utilized in the film’s marketing, as anyone considering watching a movie with a concept as wild as this one would likely be enticed by his presence alone, so once you see that quote, well, holy shit—strap in. Such a proclamation is a very ballsy boast, as by now I’m sure your own choices for Cage’s craziest are playing in your brain like a powerpoint presentation. Could Prisoners of the Ghostland out-crazy the Hellraiser-meets-Death Wish vigilante horror-thriller Mandy, or the stone-faced supernatural comedy/horror hybrid Willy’s Wonderland, or Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which has a scene where Cage’s bad cop sees the breakdancing figure of a thug his goons just killed and says, “Shoot him again—his soul is still dancing,” before breaking out in wild, unhinged laughter? Directed by Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono (Cold Fish, Suicide Club), Prisoners of the Ghostland is a mish-mash of genres; not content to borrow influence just from Yojimbo or just from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it’s instead both—a collision of Japanese samurai warriors and the lone American western about a gunman looking for redemption, creating a nonsensical world of imagery that feels more like a boardwalk sideshow where tourists stop to put on garish costumes and take novelty photos with their families. Cage, of course, is the film’s man with no name—a leather-clad cowboy known only as Hero, or sometimes Nobody, yanked out of jail following a botched bank robbery in a sandy nowhere called Samurai Town and forced into a rescue/retrieval mission across the desert at the behest of the villainous Governor (Bill Moseley). Yes, it’s a direct riff on Escape from New York, or, technically, Escape from LA, but also contains elements of Dances with Wolves, Mad Max, Book of Eli, and the spaghetti western of your choice. Yet, in the face of these largely American and Japanese inspirations, something about Prisoners of the Ghostland feels strangely Australian; though that might be explained away by the Mad Max influence, it almost seems to be echoing the work of cult directors Brian Trenchard-Smith (Dead End Drive-In, The Man from Hong Kong) and Russell Mulcahy (Razorback), leaning on crazy color schemes, an unrelenting quirkiness, and a driving identity only Australian cult cinema is capable of. While I can’t say Prisoners of the Ghostland’s puréed influences all get along, I can say that it’s enchanting, allowing moments of genuine artistry, and, of course, moments of obligatory Cage freak-out scenes. (Cage’s Hero bellows “TESTICLE!” at one point with so much operatic gusto that I swear to Bale’s Batman you can see his tonsils.)  

Though both actors have been dabbling in smaller productions that skip mainstream theatrical debuts altogether, it seems strange to see Cage sharing the screen with character actor Bill Moseley, who has been playing unseemly characters in under-the-radar horror flicks since the 1980s, perhaps most infamously known as Chop Top in Tobe Hooper’s 1986 sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Otis Driftwood in Rob Zombie’s Firefly trilogy. Moseley’s career is filled with as many movies you’ve never heard of as Cage’s…but they’re a different variety of films you’ve never heard of, and likely stocked with other character actors who make most of their living traveling the country for various horror conventions. Really, the whole cast is a combination of different worlds, from the appearance of Cage’s Face/Off co-star Nick Cassavetes as Hero’s former partner in crime and current desert-dwelling ghost (he’s best known as having directed The Notebook) to Sofia Boutella, mainstream sweetheart of Hollywood fare like The Kingsman and Atomic Blonde. How all these people managed to come together and collaborate on a movie that feels like it transcends each of them as individual personalities, I’ll never know, but it only adds to Prisoners of the Ghostland’s indefinable identity.

Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t a movie so much as it is a dare. It’s a challenge to cinemagoers everywhere, but especially a gauntlet for those like me who are tasked with writing about it. “Dare to make sense of me,” Prisoners of the Ghostland says. “Go ahead and find meaning in the madness.” It’s why this review opens with that spoiler tag: Prisoners of the Ghostland is critic-proof. I’m sure many have tried to bring forth some kind of thoughtful analysis, whereas some others simply threw in the towel and dismissed the title out of hand, tucking tail and fleeing from the carnival of lunacy—from the strange plot, the in-and-out moments of broad humor, the ambiguous sense of whether or not anyone involved in the film’s making is taking it seriously, and what it’s supposed to mean…if it’s supposed to mean anything. If there’s any one thing that Prisoners of the Ghostland isn’t, it’s subtle. Even when the flick takes a break from the fight scenes and ghastly gore, its smaller moments are still peppered with that perceptible sense of “what is this?” It’s so broadly played and relishing in its over-the-topness that it becomes one of those movies where it can either be about nothing at all, or whatever you want it to be. You could walk away claiming it’s an allegory for manifest destiny and I sure as hell wouldn’t argue with you because you’d still be closer to the true “meaning” than I’ll ever get. One thing is for sure: if you’ve ever wanted to see a flick where Nicolas Cage wears a full body leather suit covered in boobytrap explosions while screaming, “I’LL KARATE CHOP YOU!” and “HI-FUCKING YAH! HI-FUCKING YAH!,” well, I’ve got just the one…