Candy Land an Unflinching Grindhouse Look at Religious Extremism

In the opening week of 2023, M3gan looks to kick off the year for horror at the box office. Meanwhile a handful of indie horror movies have made their way to streaming and VOD platforms. On Vudu and Apple TV, an indie mix of slasher, Grindhouse, and religious horror, Candy Land became available today to rent and/or stream. Perhaps touching on similar themes as last year’s hit horror, Ti West’s X, Candy Land has already generated a positive critical response.

Synopsis

At a small Montana truck stop and motel, a young devout Christian woman, Remy, finds herself cast out and abandoned by her ‘family’. Alone and with nowhere to go, Remy unexpectedly finds support from the truck stop’s sex workers, or ‘lot lizards’, or show her the ropes of what they call, ‘Candy Land’. But a series of brutal murders on the lot threaten all the ‘lot lizards’ and Remy.

Candy Land an Unflinching Grindhouse Thriller

Straight out of the gate, Candy Land tells audiences that it will be an uncompromising look at the lives of its characters. In fact, for a good portion of its third act, Candy Land feels more like an eccentric indie midnight movie than a horror movie per se. Writer and director John Swab does a lot with a small budget and, as is often the case with this sort of movie, the indie vibe helps more than hurts. This looks like a movie that could have been made in the 70 amidst the peak of the Grindhouse era. While there’s bits of slasher embedded into the movie, Swab never really commits to the subgenre. Outside of the ‘and then there was none’ trope, Candy Land is never a mystery-thriller and Swab doesn’t seem interested in suspense or scares.

Writer and director John Swab does a lot with a small budget and, as is often the case with this sort of movie, the indie vibe helps more than hurts.

Rather Candy Land mixes an indie ‘slice-of-life’ with religious horror and Grindhouse thriller aesthetics. Liberal doses of nudity and the stark reality of sex work are briefly explored. Though there’s no real jump scares of which to speak, Swab doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable violence. And that’s the key characteristic of this horror movie. Don’t come into this one expecting Grand Guignol violence or elaborate death scenes. What Swab commits to the screen is just unflinching violence that captures the brutality of the act itself. If it’s not necessarily a scary movie, Swab makes sure there’s a handful of shocks. What’s put on the screen is straightforward but also uncompromising.

Candy Land Builds a ‘Lived In’ World Filled With Genuine Characters

Perhaps what sets Candy Land apart from similar movies is the world Swab lovingly creates on screen. Traditionally, movies have done a poor job in their depictions of sex workers either turning them ‘shrews’ or ‘hookers with a heart of gold’. From its opening scene, however, Candy Land humanizes sex work, investing its characters with genuine personalities. There’s a meticulous attention to detail in the rules and day-to-day realities experienced by the movie’s ‘lot lizards’. Each of Candy Land’s characters feels ‘real’ and Swab emphasizes the community and friendship that defines their lives at the motel and truck stop. As a result, you identify with these characters and, ultimately, care about what happens to them.

From its opening scene, however, Candy Land humanizes sex work, investing its characters with genuine personalities.

Of course, Swab’s careful attention to detail and character gets an assist from a handful of good performances. In particular, Owen Campbell (Super Bad Times, X) shines as the sole male sex worker on the lot, Levi. It’s a charismatic, vulnerable performance that fills the character full of life and genuine heartbreak. As the devout Remy, Olivia Luccardi (It Follows, Soft & Quiet) is alternately sympathetic as a lost, confused young woman and frightening in her religious fervor. If you’re a Yellowstone fan, you’ll recognize Eden Brolin whose also sharp as the foul-mouthed Riley. Along for the ride, William Baldwin turns up to chew a bit of scenery in what can’t help but feel a bit random.

Candy Land Makes Up For Lack of Scares With Disturbing Examination of Religious Extremism

Not everyone is going to like Candy Land, which in part stems from its eclectic mixing of genres. While there’s bits of slasher embedded into the story, Swab had also made an indie drama alongside a religious horror movie exploring the dangers of extremism and puritanism. Following a year that saw an unprecedented legal attack on women’s bodily autonomy, Candy Land is a subtly timely as it centers its horror in judgmental rage directed at characters who choose to work in the sex trade. Though it’s not scary and there isn’t much in the way of mystery, Candy Land is brutal and effective as a DIY indie horror effort.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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