Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge fan of horror movies. I don’t mind being disturbed, creeped out, unsettled, or outright scared by a movie, but I’ve found that the vast majority of horror movies (as typically defined) don’t accomplish those things for me. And I’m repelled by the sensationalistic nihilism that seems to motivate too many run-of-the-mill entries in the genre.
When they do succeed in provoking thought as well as disgust, it’s often because horror directors smuggle into their films the fears, anxieties, and preoccupations of the zeitgeist in which they were conceived. Sometimes, this is unconscious or at least implicit, as in the terror of feminism that inspired the sadism against women featured in countless late 20th-century slasher films. But when done with purpose, it can yield a fascinating juxtaposition of limbic terror and pointed (often literally) social criticism.
In recent years, one spate of horror films such as The Witch, Midsommar, and It Follows have incorporated critiques of familial, romantic, and sexual relationships. Another, spearheaded by Jordan Peele, has tackled American structural racism with, among others, the wildly successful Get Out and Us. Now Peele has updated one of the few American horror films to even tangentially tackle the issue of race, co-writing and producing a sequel to the 1992 movie Candyman.
The new Candyman might wear its ACAB bona fides a little too plainly on its sleeve, and some of its dialogue is painfully didactic, but it nonetheless manages to present a furious and impactful statement on the generational trauma passed down through generations of white, state-sanctioned violence against the bodies of people of color. Also, it’s pretty scary.
The 1992 film concerned Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green public housing complex, and an urban legend about a Black, hook-handed killer who could be summoned by uttering his name, Candyman, in a mirror five times. The main thing that’s different about the new one is Cabrini Green itself, which has been largely demolished to make room for a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood populated by up-and-coming artists like Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend/promoter, Brianna (Teyonah Parris).
Brianna’s brother and his boyfriend come over for dinner one night, and he proceeds to relate the story of Helen Lyle, the white woman played by Virginia Madsen in the original film, who investigated the Candyman folktale only to come to a grisly end. Anthony soon begins a new series of paintings inspired by Candyman, who is said to have been a Boo Radley-esque neighborhood character shot and killed by police for a crime he didn’t commit.
Anthony even includes a mirror in his eventual gallery piece, along with the information that anyone who says “Candyman” into a mirror five times will summon the killer. The piece is called “Say My Name,” an echo, of course, of the recent protests against police killings of unarmed Black men and women. (One assumes that Brianna’s name is no coincidence, either, although it’s spelled differently than Breonna Taylor’s.)
Well, long story short, as often happens in horror films, no one can resist tempting fate, and pretty soon slashed and mutilated bodies start showing up around town. Meanwhile, Anthony starts to dilapidate in both mind and body, the latter prompted by a very significant bee sting. He, and then Brianna, dig deeper into the history of both Candyman and white supremacy, with various stories from history or legend told using creepy shadow puppetry. Meanwhile, Candyman digs deeper into the torsos of those foolish enough to invoke his vengeance.
The director is Nia DaCosta, making her second feature. She’s also the latest relative newcomer to be tapped to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the director of the forthcoming The Marvels. While Peele is as much of an auteur here, DaCosta is adept at establishing character, building suspense, and coordinating action, all of which should serve her well at the mega-budget level. Among the actors, Parris (who DaCosta will direct as Monica Rambeau in The Marvels) stands out as a no-nonsense Black woman trying to make her way in the sclerotic world of modern art, and who finds herself confronting racism both subtle and the opposite over the course of the film.
A final note: Those, like me, who aren’t as inured to some of the truly ghastly things that can be done with special effects these days, should rest assured that the depictions of most of the murdering in Candyman are relatively restrained. A good portion of the gross-out factor comes from blood sprayed on walls or grisly sound effects rather than visual viscera and the like. Still, it should be clear that this one’s not for the overly faint of heart. (Opens wide on Thursday, Aug. 26)
ANY FAN OF THE BRILLIANT IRISH ACTOR SHARON HORGAN (“Catastrophe”, “This Way Up”) will be tempted to take in Together, the pandemic relationship drama in which she co-stars alongside James McAvoy. And, for those who are entranced by her accent and impressed by her ability to move from bitter irony to emotional vulnerability in a heartbeat, this two-hander offers a surfeit of both. Ultimately, though, this minimalist effort from director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, once upon a time) becomes an exhausting ninety-minute slog as the unhappily married couple played by Horgan and McAvoy are forced into enhanced proximity during England’s COVID lockdowns.
At the onset, “unhappily married” doesn’t quite cut it. Frequently breaking the fourth wall, the pair vividly describe their disgust and disdain for each other in an opening scene that promises a poisonously funny, year-long take on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But as the months roll by, each scene punctuated by a date and a running count of the country’s COVID deaths, the problems of these two people don’t seem to amount to a hill of beans, which was not, presumably, the film’s intent. Their self-absorption, evident in the occasional shots of their young son listening to their arguments from the stairwell, overwhelms any larger point about the ways that quarantine, and the pandemic in general, have affected relationships.
Horgan and McAvoy handle the lengthy, stagey scenes (and the pages upon pages of dialogue they contain) with aplomb. Sometimes, though, the device of speaking directly to the viewer backfires, as in a lengthy Horgan monologue that takes the government to task for not shutting down the country sooner and feels more like a lecture than a performance. The genre of lockdown cinema will be an interesting one to appraise when (if?) the pandemic stops being an everyday existential threat, but one thing seems clear: movies like Together were shot with the expectation that by the time of their release, things would be back to “normal”. As it is, the wounds are still a bit fresh. (Opens Friday, Aug. 27 at the Living Room Theaters)
Also opening this week:
Ailey: Documentary about the legendary and influential choreographer Alvin Ailey, who incorporated the African American experience into his work. (Living Room Theaters)
Flag Day: Sean Penn directs his daughter Dylan Penn and stars alongside her as a dad who breaks the law in order to support his daughter. Not screened for critics. (Regal Fox Tower)
Also screening this week:
Friday: Dead or Alive (Clinton Street Theater); Heavy Metal (Clinton Street); Jaws (Hollywood Theatre); The Lego Movie (Clinton Street); Welcome to Woop Woop (Hollywood)
Saturday: The Omen (Hollywood); Vagabond (Clinton Street)
Sunday: Oregon Short Film Festival (Clinton Street)
Monday: Battle Royale (Hollywood); Y Tu Mama Tambien (Clinton Street)
Tuesday: The Gleaners and I (Clinton Street); The Hunger (Hollywood)
Wednesday: Badlands (Hollywood); The Princess and the Pea (Church of Film @ Clinton Street)
Thursday: Personal Shopper (Clinton Street)