Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Horror Flick 'Candy Land' Champions Sex Workers—Until It Doesn't

John Swab’s slasher is uncommonly sensitive. Then it turns predictably brutal.

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“If you want to unbuckle the Bible Belt, this is the place to do it,” explains Riley during a zippy, split-screen sequence in writer-director John Swab’s slasher Candy Land. Riley (played by nepo baby Eden Brolin, daughter of actors Josh Brolin and Alice Adair) and her crew of fellow sex workers are showing newcomer Remy (Olivia Luccardi) around the Middle America truck stop where they turn tricks. They point out the pit, the lot where trucks and cars park, noting their interest in paid sex with a series of nonverbal signals (“If someone wants company, they’ll let you know”). Then there’s the bathroom, which Levi (Owen Campbell), the only guy in their group, notes is for thrill-seekers. There’s also their CB, over which incoming truckers note their interest via arcane jargon, including announcing that they’re heading for Candy Land, the name those in the know use to refer to the truck stop’s skin market.

The sequence is exemplary for a zero-budgeted horror like Candy Land, as is the acting—naturalistic across the board. Between their place of work and the wood-paneled motel where they stay (and turn more tricks), Swab has built a world. It’s small but sturdy, and set in 1996, which allows its script to circumvent the narrative inconvenience that modern convienences like cell phones can cause. The nonjudgemental tone Candy Land sometimes strikes regarding its sex worker characters is perhaps the most surprising element here: In a brief scene, again with the purpose of acquainting Remy, several of them state their reasons for taking on this line of work. “I don’t think too much about it. It’s just a way to make money for now,” says the stoic Sadie (Sam Quartin), Candy Land’s de facto protagonist as the sex worker character with the most screen time.

“You don’t think I’ve worked a job for six bucks an hour? I’ve done that. Turn one trick, make a whole day’s pay, you know? It’s kinda hard to go back after that,” says Liv (Virginia Rand), Sadie’s girlfriend.

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“I just like to party. You know, you make a little dough? It’s not a bad gig,” explains Levi.

A little humanizing goes a long way in a movie descended from earlier macabre flicks about the hazards of sex work (Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, Joan Freeman’s Streetwalkin’). Make no mistake: Reminders of Candy Land’s exploitation flick DNA are scattered throughout. There’s an early scene of Sadie showering that depicts full frontal nudity after we’ve already seen her naked on the job, and there’s also a brutal rape later that ostensibly serves as a reminder of general occupational hazards, but is also just horror fodder served cheaply. Still, for much of its first half, the movie wades through sludge toward the right side of history. Remy’s naïveté may allow her to work as a proxy for viewers who are also inexperienced in this particular field, but that’s fleeting—she hails from a cult called the 13th Apostles whose leader proselytizes at the truck stop to no avail (“The End is Near — Are you coming?” reads a brochure he leaves, hilarious in its wording given the makeup of his would-be congregation). It initially seems that Remy has fled the cult for juicier pastures, as she tags along with the Candy Land crew and is put up in their motel. But somewhat predictably, she has moral score settling on her agenda. The wooden cross she carries around with her has a hidden blade inside—that’s iconic a few times over.

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The vicarious thrill of the religious scold being positioned as a horror movie’s villain while the sex workers are the good guys only intensifies during Remy’s first kills: a hypocritical, creepy priest and a pushy john who demands condomless sex and calls her a whore when she doesn’t jump on his dick fast enough. But when her trail of carnage points in the direction of the group that took her under their collective wing, it’s clear that she’s not discriminating in her condemnation of those who engage in the oldest profession, on either side of the register. The final third of Candy Land is a kind of bloody, repetitive zombie walk toward an inevitable conclusion.

At least there’s a good degree of oddness before that—Remy kills the priest by breaking his neck with her thighs as he goes down on her (after removing his dentures—what a detail). William Baldwin has a supporting role as a sheriff named Rex, who regularly patronizes Levi and regards him with equal parts affection and degradation. (William is, after all, historically the rare anti-homophobic Baldwin brother.) Oh, and it’s also set around Christmastime, which makes it a Christmas movie (featuring a horny mall Santa john and several holiday tunes, including Boyz II Men’s perennial yuletide chestnut “Share Love”). These kind of details and Candy Land’s intermittent sensitivity create a project that is overachieving in its low-budget, exploitation-oriented scope, especially for a movie that’s coming out during the first week of January (a traditional cinematic dumping ground). It’s several exits away from perfect and definitely not for sensitive viewers, but given all that Swab and his cast make out of not a whole lot, it’s gushing with potential.