On Candyman & The Night House
SEPTEMBER 2, 2021
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Candyman.
andyman, a reboot of/sequel to the 1992 horror movie of the same name, has a tough act to follow. An adaptation of the Clive Barker short story “The Forbidden" (1985), the original film seamlessly combined carnality with horror; was gorgeously shot (its close-ups beautifully
echoed 1931’s Dracula); and was the rare ambitious genre work that, although objectively politically muddled, tended to feel richer, riper for thoughtful conversation, because of rather than despite its tangled ideas. It’s one of the best — and knottiest — horror movies of the ‘90s. Because the new Candyman is directed by Nia DaCosta (whose 2018 debut film Little Woods was promising), and is executive-produced and co-written (with DaCosta and Win Rosenfeld) by Jordan Peele, there was plenty reason to anticipate this continuation wouldn’t be a cynical revival but a worthwhile latter-day conversation with an often brilliant but terminally flawed film.
Though thematically the new Candyman is smartly complementary to what was subtextually invoked in the first movie, everything else about it is a step down. It’s glacially shot, emotionally thin, tensionless, unnaturally expository, and flattens its Chicago setting into a faceless stand-in for any big city. It’s a movie that hand-holds when it oughtn’t, strains itself to make sure we’re clear what’s on its mind, what it thinks we should be creeped out by. Candyman ‘92 was a striking, feverish nightmare that didn’t overexplain itself and was better for it;
Candyman ‘21 prioritizes functioning as a corrective to the first film’s sore spots above being, at base level, an effective horror movie.
The new Candyman picks up nearly 30 years after the original film left off; it ignores the less-than-well-received sequels that sporadically popped up within the first few years of its release. As the new movie reminds us several times — not through conventional flashback but minimalist shadow-puppet reenactments — the first film was about a white graduate student, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), who for her thesis project zeroed in on urban legends. She eventually narrowed her focus on the Candyman, a specter said to haunt the Cabrini-Green housing projects who allegedly comes and kills you if you say his name five times into a mirror.
Predictably, the research culminates in Helen actually summoning the spirit (Tony Todd), who in life was a successful Black painter brutally killed after impregnating one of his white subjects at the turn of the century. (His racist murderers replaced his freshly sawed-off arm with a meat hook before slathering him in honey and setting him on fire.) The latter curl of metal in waking death became his choice murder weapon; bee-swarms continue to portend a new victim’s appointment with death. The invigoratingly pessimistic 1992 Candyman, which obliquely used the character as if he were America’s racist history coming back to haunt it, considerately grappled with gentrification, generational racial trauma, racist fears of the Black underclass, and the harm white people like Helen can unintentionally cause when they intrude on predominantly Black spaces for fundamentally transactional reasons under the guise of support.
The 2021 Candyman also conjures these ideas while excising much of what made the original prickly. It doesn’t center on a white character; play into the trope of a predatory Black man victimizing a naïve white woman; feature climactic white saviorism; or (for the most part) keep up the general discordance of its villain almost entirely targeting innocent Black people.
The quasi-stand-in for Helen this time is Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an artist who lives in the luxe apartment building that has replaced the since-torn-down housing projects of the original movie with his gallery-curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris). A few years ago, Anthony was christened an artist to watch. But as the film opens, he’s in the thick of a creative dry spell. That changes when Brianna’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), casually brings up the legend of the Candyman and of Helen (whose own story has with time been bastardized, like Candyman’s, by sensationalist word-of-mouth). At once horrified and engrossed, Anthony is newly inspired. He decides to incorporate the urban legend into his work (though only superficially). In an exhibit he puts on soon afterward, he installs on one wall a reflective medicine cabinet and encourages onlookers to say Candyman’s name while looking back at themselves.
If a major point of protagonistic criticism in the first Candyman was Helen’s privileged belief that she could analyze Candyman and his cultural effect while keeping a cold academic’s distance, in the new Candyman it’s Anthony’s creation of art that centers Black trauma not so much because he genuinely wants to creatively engage with it but, dubiously, because it is a topic that is currently lucrative he wants to commodify for career advancement. (He craves success above anything else; a telecast about a recent, potentially Candyman-related murder piques his interest solely because his name was mentioned in the story.) The movie poses a dilemma that it ironically doesn’t itself transcend but ultimately embodies. How do you create works of art that largely hinge on racial trauma and violence against Black people in a way that is critical and not simply exploitative, another font of it?
As it went with Helen, it’s only a matter of time before Anthony, playing so close to fire, starts getting burnt. After a bee (one of Candyman’s, apparently) stings Anthony’s hand, the wound balloons and blisters, slowly creeping up his arm until nearly half his flesh is visibly poisoned. The more his skin is taken over by the venom, the more obsessive Anthony becomes; when he paints, he’s like a man possessed. Ostensibly Candyman-related deaths begin proliferating around the same time (there’s one throwaway non-sequitur of a sequence at a high school that serves no purpose besides filling a short runtime); the film climaxes with the reveal that Anthony is much closer to the legend than he understands.
Although DaCosta’s direction can be stylish, with one killing provocatively shot through a makeup mirror that has plopped onto the floor and another from the perspective of someone looking through a high-rise window, the buildup is suspenseless. It’s too perfunctory, conscious of reproducing the original’s arc. The dialogue so frequently relies on the tidily didactic (“white people built the ghetto then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto”; “they love what we make but not us”; “you can change the institution from the inside”) that the cultivation of terror is undermined, too: you’re too aware of the movie trying to steer you. (Overliteral exposition is also about as far as DaCosta and her collaborators are willing to engage with the themes offered.) The lack of confidence that viewers can pick up on commentative subtleties reflects back on filmmakers who are themselves not confident enough to practice the tried-and-true truth that in horror — arguably the most sensorily-dependent genre — the methodically deployed implicit, suggested, and implied are generally more efficient than hand-wringing explanation.
With an exception in the always-great Colman Domingo, playing a former Cabrini-Green resident who adds nuance to Anthony’s understanding of the Candyman legend, the just-fine performances have much of their fire extinguished every time an actor has to exhale an instructive line. In these moments they feel more like engines for thematic confirmation than real people. (It’s also particularly frustrating to watch the Brianna character, given the most inner life of anyone in the cast, not allowed to do much more than suffer.) The movie is additionally hurt by not having a figure like Todd, with his sensuously snaky voice and transfixing stare, to tie it all together. Candyman here becomes multiple entities — Black men who have been killed in racist attacks specifically. Although this is a fascinating conceptual adjustment you think will be interrogated, DaCosta and her co-writers explore it so little that it’s unclear why they made the pivot away from singular villain aside from wanting to simply differentiate itself.
One of the better things about the original Candyman was that we always felt a bit like we were in a haze watching it. Our digestions of what just happened often finished up a beat or two late; there was a lot of frightened, double-taked I can’t believe it-ness going on, in step with what the main character was going through. (The whiplash turn into a waking nightmare in Candyman 1992 is something I’ve always admired about it — a reminder that there is never a cushion to soften the thud when you plummet into hell.) The ending of the new movie is so haphazardly abrupt — and cynical — that it feels more tacked-on than organic or satisfying. It’s like a last-minute tweak meant to leave the door open for sequels. The new Candyman finally leaves you not haunted but with the sense that it was configured almost purely to be a remedial smoothing a transition into a new era for a fraught franchise. This might be the most disappointing movie of the year so far.
he title setting of David Bruckner’s The Night House is a horror-movie paradise — an oasis of winding hallways, peeping Tom-friendly windows, furniture that from the wrong angle makes your eyes see illusory apparitions. It has a creepy basement because of course it does; when evenings arrive, the outside world dissolves into inky nothingness. (The
house sits in front of a lake, with only a single neighboring property.) There is something sinister about this middle-of-nowhere place as is — and soon into The Night House that hostility evolves into something more tangible than garden-variety bad vibes.
As the movie begins, the home’s owner, Beth (Rebecca Hall), is coming back from a funeral. It’s one she figured she wouldn’t be attending for at least a few more decades: it was for Owen, her husband of 14 years (Evan Jonigkeit). In understandable shock over his sudden suicide — she confesses to a friend that she thought she was the one with demons, not her typically upbeat spouse — Beth concludes shortly after the ceremony that the best way to cope is to continue with the school year (she’s an English teacher), continue saying yes to happy hour, continue going to dinner parties. In other words, distract herself from her raw and immeasurable pain as much as she can until the deep wounds of grief have for the most part scarred over.
It seems the house has a problem with this. Almost from the moment Beth returns from the funeral, the property, which Owen designed and built a couple of years ago, seems to have relinquished its implicit duty to source comfort for pure torment. Aggressive knocks break silence suddenly and often. The living-room speaker keeps blaring one of Owen’s favorite songs by itself right as Beth is about to fall asleep. The basement light intermittently flickers on. Though because all this starts around the time Beth also picks up Owen’s old sleepwalking habit — seemingly real moments of terror, like Owen’s ghost (?) texting “COME DOWN” as Beth is getting ready for bed, reveal themselves imagined — we can’t totally be sure how many of the early scenes of high-adrenaline fear are genuinely happening. Though we have our doubts. Maybe something bad did happen before Beth awoke sprawled across the bathroom tile.
But what we, and Beth, can soon be certain of is that Owen had secrets — and dark ones. Beth’s best friend, Claire (Sarah Goldberg), gently points out that digging through his phone, old keepsakes, won’t ultimately do much good: you don’t want to lose grasp of the person you knew and loved especially if a newly formed opinion misses important context now impossible to get. (Goldberg is a refreshing, and needed, warm presence in a very austere movie; her performance, and the way Claire is written, is finely honed as a supportive friend progressively unsure how to console someone drowning in particularly painful grief.)
But Beth can’t stop herself from conducting what turns into something of an investigation once she discovers Owen had an odd habit of taking faraway pictures of women who look an awful lot like her — willowy, pale, and with long black hair — and that, in the house’s original architectural plans, it appeared Owen was building a secret second home just like theirs, only backward. Why did Owen say in his suicide note that Beth is “safe now,” with nothing “after her” anymore? And why are those floor plans dotted with forbidding self-reminders like “Trick it; don’t listen to it”? Unsurprisingly, Beth also uncovers occult-adjacent books and a hyper-disturbing statue Owen had apparently prized.
Getting answers is a double-edged sword in The Night House. On the one hand, the central mysteries (of what exactly Owen was up to and whether the house is really haunted) and wanting to know where they lead only strengthen how wonderfully Bruckner cultivates an atmosphere of dread and swallowing depression. (The jump scares never feel cheap — they have carefully considered builds and almost rhythmic deployments.) But it’s also almost predictable that in a movie so good at generating nightmare-like foreboding (the lines between Beth’s horrific dreams and what is “real” collapse ingeniously), the resolution, though itself pretty frightening, will pale in comparison to the effectively cultivated suspense. And disappoint it does. Preceded by an over-explanation of “what is happening” so pinpointy that it largely undoes how well the movie captures the horrific nebulousness of mourning, the last moments of The Night House have an out-of-place, too-conclusive uplift to them. They jut out in a ferociously bleak, relentless movie at its finest dwelling in oceanic darkness.
But Hall’s bravura performance — one of her best in a career abounding in great ones — and the general truths that this is, final act problems aside, a very well-made and admirably ambitious genre movie alleviate most misgivings. We don’t often get horror films propelled by a lead performance so virtuosic: Hall’s vigorously emotive and later on physical work may put you in mind of Isabelle Adjani in 1981’s Possession at its most amped up. Or ones that go far beyond, with this one’s premise, done-to-death haunted-house theatrics. The Night House is helped by those novelties, if not necessarily salvaged by them.
The Night House: B+