Film festival Arrow Video FrightFest is commonly known by the regulars as ‘Horror Christmas’. To reflect this, the organisers often programme a handful of films set during the holiday season for maximum joy. This year though, of the seventy plus titles that screened, there were just two that took place around the Christmas festivities. The first was Eric Pennycoff’s ingenious film The Leech; the second is John Swab’s Candy Land. Although both The Leech and Candy Land are set in the lead up to Christmas, neither film is what the mind conjures when thinking about a Christmas horror film. The seasonal trappings are played squarely in the background. Their inclusion adds flourishes of colour, but are primarily present to denote the time period of the narrative, with the season of good-will being integral to both films.
Set in 1996, Candy Land joins a group of truck-stop parking-lot sex workers. Consisting of Saie (Sam Quartin), Riley (Eden Brolin), Liv (Virginia Rand), and Levi (Owen Campbell), the unit earn a living pleasing others. After their antics catch the attention of the local religious zealot, a dead body turns up on their turf. As the local Sheriff, Rex (William Baldwin), begins to investigate, Remy (Olivia Luccardi) arrives. Remy has fled the control of the zealot and with no place else to go, Sadie offers her sanctuary. Safety comes at a cost though, and as Remy tentatively begins to infiltrate the group, the bodies continue to pile-up. Can they catch the culprit?
John Swab does great work setting up both the world and characters of Candy Land. Opening with a parking-lot encounter, Swab immediately throws sex into the mix. This isn’t a glamorised, sensual, or fetishistic version of sex workers however; the sex displayed is perfunctory and transactional, Sadie and company’s boredom shining through in the same way as if they were working stacking shelves all day. As tedious as they find their patrons, they all enjoy the money and security that the job provides them. They’re a core unit and early scenes easily communicate their bond. These scenes instantly draw the viewer close to them, and despite their line of work, this is a group that the audience wants to spend time with. The addition of Remy could destabilise them, but it doesn’t disturb the equilibrium.
With the murders happenig offscreen for a chunk of Candy Land, it means that time and attention can be spent on Remy’s story. Her arrival allows some classic fish-out-of-water elements to creep into the plot and, in a warped way, Candy Land makes for a compelling coming-of-age tale. Initially allowing Remy to stay for free, the Madam of the truck stop, Nora (Guinevere Turner) eventually puts her to work. This subplot is a great inclusion. Much of Candy Land pits the girls and Levi against religious morals with an emphasis on how detrimental the local zealot and his cult’s beliefs are. They are painted as the oppressive bad guys, but through Nora, a counterview is presented. Remy is vulnerable and Nora slowly manipulates and indoctranates her into the world of sex work. The story will reflect the genesis of many desperate people and highlights that everyone is capable of bending the will of others to suit their own agenda.
The nature of the profession of the characters means that Candy Land is packed with nudity. Much of this is sexualised, but Swab and his cast are unafraid to thrust the naked form onto screen during mundane scenes too. These characters are body-positive, unashamed of their line of work and see the human form as merely that. They understand how their bodies are seen and interpreted by those around them, and are not afraid of their sexuality. Early discussions about how ‘the pussy is power’ demonstrates that these women don’t see themselves as victims. They are in control, something proved by the rules of working communicated to Remy.
As much as Candy Land and the characters within assert themselves to be all about the pussy, of all the truck-stop characters, it is actually Owen Campbell’s Levi that stands out. Whilst the focus on the women is kept at a distance and shown as entirely transactional, Levi’s story is slightly different. The men who use the women are strangers that are purely seeking gratification from a willing body. For Levi though, he has at least one regular, Sheriff Rex. Rex is infatuated with the young man, but there’s a danger to each of their encounters as Rex uses his status to dominate Levi. It’s a dynamic that has played out between man and woman repeatedly, but the gender switch here opens up a new direction. The entire time that he is onscreen, Levi is objectified in a way usually reserved for female characters, which opens up new discussions. Campbell’s performance falls somewhere between lost Culkin brother and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, and he consumes all the attention every time he’s onscreen.
Olivia Luccardi is equally compelling as Remy. Of all the characters within Candy Land, hers is the one that goes on the biggest journey. From uptight religious virgin, to empowered female, Remy’s sexual awakening pushes the film down a new direction. What starts as a coming-of-age tale of sexuality and desire descends into a murderous rampage of stabbings. A film that is restrained with its use of violence, bar one brutal encounter involving Levi, Candy Land unleashes maniacal Hell during its third act. The bodies that have been slowly appearing quickly amass into almost every character dropping dead. Though not technically a slasher in the traditional sense, Candy Land borrows plenty of aspects of the sub-genre and the wild nature of the deaths displayed is an enjoyable joy ride.
There’s a saccharine coating that permeates the core group one that makes Candy Land somehow sweet. That is until the floodgates are opened and it quickly becomes sickly sticky. There’s a playfulness present from the start as jolly Christmas music intersperses with montages of the girls and Levi working. This tongue-in-cheek humour continues, gradually growing until it becomes a gleefully maniacal final act. Even as the film ends, Swab maintains his funny bone with the inclusion of the needle-drop of the festival. Despite its frenetic, traumatic conclusion and graphic content, Candy Land has a lightness to it. With elements of Saint Maud, Tangerine, and American Psycho, Candy Land is a tonal oddity that somehow works beautifully.
With knockout performances from Owen Campbell and Olivia Luccardi, Candy Land deserves to be the next cult horror breakout movie. Unexpectedly sweet until it becomes sickly sticky, Candy Land plays with expectations, becoming one Christmas-set story that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
Candy Land was reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest.