Review of “Candyman”

The sweetness of candy is its biggest appeal. It offers very little in nutrition, only a sudden burst of glucose to the bloodstream that then requires an equal burst of insulin from the pancreas to allow it to be absorbed by cells to be used to power the body. If the body doesn’t need as much energy as the candy provides, the glucose is then converted to fat. Chocolate is said to generate similar chemical reactions in the brain as seeing someone we love or feeling in love. There is an entire holiday, evolved from honoring, remembering and trying to protect us from spirits of the dead, built around the collection of candy by little kids. It is a tender trap of immediate gratification and long-term consequences. I love candy, am obese and have Type II diabetes. There are genetic reasons that might be involved, but being largely sedentary and eating too many carbohydrates, some of them candy, has put me in this position. Candy can be a gift, but if abused, it becomes a curse. Much the same can be said about this week’s movie, the sequel to and reboot of, “Candyman.”

An artist, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is struggling with finding the inspiration for his next series of paintings due to be shown in an upcoming installation. His girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) is the gallery director. His work largely centers around social injustice and equality, but the gallery owner Clive Privler (Brian King) says Anthony’s work is his past and not his future. Looking for inspiration, Anthony walks around the mostly abandoned Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago where he meets William Burke (Coleman Domingo), one of the few remaining residents of the project and the owner of a laundromat. Burke tells Anthony the urban legend of Candyman, a local hook-handed character named Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove) that was accused of putting razor blades in candy he passed out to children in the neighborhood. Fields is beaten to death by cops, but the razor blades continued to show up in candy, meaning Fields was innocent. The legend goes, if you stand in front of a mirror and say “Candyman” five times, Burke will appear in your reflection and kill you. Inspired by this, Anthony begins a new series of paintings depicting violence in graphic ways. The paintings are displayed for the showing in a room behind a mirror with each patron given a handout that details the legend and instructions for summoning the violent specter of Candyman. Following the showing, violent, grizzly murders are carried out against people in Anthony’s life. Is he responsible? Is he going insane? Is he Candyman?

Horror superstar Jordan Peele co-wrote, along with director Nia DaCosta and Win Rosenfeld, the script for “Candyman.” Peele is also a producer. His involvement immediately put this film on my “must watch” list. I’d never seen the original “Candyman” from 1992 or either of its sequels, so I was curious about what kind of film I’d be getting into. With Peele being part of a larger creative team and it being based on a previous property, would “Candyman” be a rehash of 1990’s slasher/horror, or would this 21st Century take on the character introduce something new? The answer is a bit of both.

The story of “Candyman” makes good use of its brisk 91-minute run time to squeeze as much as possible out of the original story and add biting social commentary about POC displacement and gentrification. Being a white male, I squirmed in my seat more than once as the characters discuss the history of Cabrini Green and knocking down low-income housing to build condos the original residents can’t possibly afford. There are moments when it sounds like Peele and the writers are making comments about their own success and how they are separated from the financial struggles and experiences of most minorities in America. It’s one of the rare scripts with aspects of social commentary that turns the gaze back on itself and says, “I’m guilty of this too.” Overall, this take should make fans of the original film very happy as this is a direct sequel. It shares history and characters from the 1992 film with even a photo and voice cameo from Virginia Madsen, and Tony Todd makes a brief appearance. While I haven’t seen the original, I have read a plot synopsis. From that limited information, I believe this sequel should leave original “Candyman” fans pleased with this continuation of the story.
The film is frequently trying to keep you off balance. There are camera angles that cause you to lose your sense of placement in space. Are we looking up from street level or down from above the clouds? Is Anthony going insane, hallucinating, or is he carrying out these murders in a hypnotic state? Since the movie is questioning what’s reality and what’s fantasy, the audience is never quite sure. It’s a nice mixture to keep you one your toes.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is amazing in “Candyman.” You can’t help but feel sorry for him as he struggles for inspiration, then no one sees the work the way he does. His obsession with the work poisons his relationship with everyone around him, as the legend takes him over, both emotionally and physically. There appears to be a rot that travels up Anthony’s hand from where a bee stings him as he wonders around Cabrini Green. That rot is emblematic of what happens to Anthony’s mind as the movie continues. Abdul-Mateen makes Anthony a frantic victim, confused about his physical and mental changes and wondering where it will end. The audience aches for Anthony knowing he likely can’t escape a painful fate. Note: If you suffer from trypophobia, or the fear of clusters of small holes, you may want to avert your eyes from Anthony near the end of the film, or stare at him to overcome your aversion.

“Candyman” is rated R for bloody horror violence, and language including some sexual references. All the murders committed on screen are bloody as Candyman uses his hook to rip out throats or otherwise impale his victims. We see and man’s arm sawed off. There are also two murders committed by cops on black men. The actual violence is done off screen. Sexual references are a couple talking about their upcoming coitus that is interrupted, and Brianna’s gay brother making mild sexual jokes. Foul language is infrequent.

“Candyman” delivers some quality kills but comes up a bit short on the scares. The film works hard to convince us all the victims deserve to die for being mean, callous, selfish and opportunist. His first appearance in the film is likely his best, stalking his victims and only appearing in reflection but still slashing throats and other body parts in the real world. Candyman becomes an anti-hero in this iteration. I would have liked a bit more tension and visceral fear, but the artistry and style director DaCosta brings to the project raises “Candyman” hook, head and shoulders above many other slasher films.

“Candyman” gets four out of five stars.

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Review of “Hell Fest”

Natalie (Amy Forsyth) is home from college to see old friends. Her best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) lives with a punk chick named Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) who has never been friendly with Natalie. The three young women are meeting up with three guys: Quinn (Christian James), Brooke’s boyfriend, Asher (Matt Mercurio), Taylor’s boyfriend and Gavin (Roby Attal), a friend of the girls that would like to date Natalie. They are headed to Hell Fest, a haunted amusement park filled with rides, games and several haunted houses. Characters are dressed in costume and roaming the park, scaring the patrons. A killer is also roaming the park in costume. He has killed before at another haunted house a couple of years earlier. He spots Natalie and her crew wandering around and begins following them. Natalie notices she is being followed and tells her friends, but they tell her she is being paranoid and he’s just a park worker. Soon, the killer begins knocking off her friends one by one with his sights set on Natalie.

“Hell Fest” has an interesting setting for a movie about a slasher: Meandering a haunted theme park and knocking victims off with nobody noticing. It should have been a fun, gory romp with a wicked sense of humor. Instead, it is a slow, plodding slog with a couple of memorable kills but a great deal of dead time (pun intended) between anything mildly interesting happening. It is filled with unlikable characters and all the wrong people die.

The killer, referred to as The Other, is never seen without his mask and isn’t identified in the credits. It doesn’t really matter as The Other is a bland antagonist. He’s a pale imitation of Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers. He’s all stalk and no actual menace. The mask is pretty good. It’s designed by Alterian, the same company that made the masks in “Scream” and “Happy Death Day.” It’s the best thing about the killer as he is otherwise the same kind of unstoppable force we’ve seen a hundred times and in better movies.

The non-killer characters are generic types: The good girl, the party girl, the bad influence and the boys they have sex with. Each actor could have been swapped around to a different role and it wouldn’t have made any difference. No one in the film is very likable. Even Natalie is kind of a stick in the mud, constantly being hounded into doing fun things with the group while she and Gavin have a clumsy and boring beginning of a relationship. If there were some interesting people on the screen it might be more watchable, but the blandness of everyone on screen turns a dull story into a real snooze.

I would have liked for the filmmakers to mix things up a bit. They make a good start with the first main character to die. The death is creative (if spoiled by a bit of business prior to the murder) and is properly gory. Had that creativity been carried over to the rest of the deaths I might have been more forgiving of the disinterest I had in the story. What might have made things more interesting is if the filmmakers had taken a chance and knocked off their main character Natalie. Of the three female leads she is by far the least interesting. Both Brooke and Taylor possess far more personality, even if it is muzzled to allow Natalie to be the focus. Like Alfred Hitchcock in “Psycho” killing off his big star Janet Leigh half way through the picture, knocking off Natalie early on would have awakened the audience from its slumber and focused their attention back on the film instead of their phones wondering what other movie they could see that would be better. None of these actors are household names so killing the character we are led to believe is the one that will survive (spoiler alert: She does) wouldn’t be a big risk. Instead, the filmmakers stay on the tried and true path much to the movie’s detriment.

“Hell Fest” is rated R for language, horror violence and some sexual references. There are several stabbings, an attempted decapitation, a head crushed by a giant mallet, a hypodermic needle through an eye and other stuff. The main characters crudely discuss the possibility of Natalie and Gavin engaging in sex later in the evening. Foul language is fairly common.

Horror movie icon Tony Todd is sold in the advertising as a big part of the cast. He isn’t. His role is billed as The Barker and he’s on screen for perhaps 60 seconds. His voice is also heard throughout the film as the PA announcer. Todd deserves better than to be an unwitting part of deceptive advertising for a third-rate slasher film. Make him The Other, write him some silly puns as he kills boring 20-somethings and present the audience something more interesting than what this film offers.

“Hell Fest” gets one star out of five.

Two highly anticipated movies (for very different reasons) open this week. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

A Star is Born—


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