FrightFest 2022: Candy Land

From one Candy Land to another, this Christmas-set slasher follows a group of truck stop sex workers (Eden Brolin, Owen Campbell, Sam Quartin and Virginia Rand) whose lives are rear-ended by the arrival of a religious cult runaway (Olivia Luccardi).

Superbly directed by the aptly named John Swab, Candy Land makes maximum use of its small-scale rig: three locations (parking lot, the truck stop toilets and a motel), a close-knit cast of characters, and golden cinematography by Will Stone. This gives the film a grounded sense of place even when it unbuckles the safety belts, letting us understand and ultimately like this delicate “lot lizard” ecosystem – though not necessarily those who pickup there.

Among the johns who sample the truck stop’s drive-thru services (not to be confused with In-N-Out Burger) are a slobbery priest (Mark Ward) and the local sheriff (William Baldwin), hypocritical authority figures from institutions meant to drive on the right, morally speaking. In particular the movie holds no truck with Christianity, depicted as an anti-carnal cabal who’ll brainwash you at the car wash and shaft you in the gift shop.

The characters are unusually vibrant and universally well-played. Luccardi is quietly brilliant as the escaped cultist, a victim of religious indoctrination with untold horror behind her sweet smile – and where a lesser film might start with her or the cult, Candy Land introduces the sex workers first, placing them at the heart of their own story. Swab does not shy away from the harsh realities of sex work but treats its people with dignity (the only character denied the dignity of visibility is a rapist), presenting the lot lizards as an unconventional family just trying to live their lives.

Those ideas are articulated in a transgressive and transcendent truck stop horror show that pays homage to 1970s sexploitation (complete with retro screen transitions) and puts the X in Xmas. Following in the tracks of Titane, American Mary and Alice, Sweet Alice, it is natural, compassionate and fiercely non-judgemental; a movie about the poison of religion and the truth of sex work (the soundtrack illustratively combines Christmas songs and Porno for Pyros) – and while those themes aren’t new on their own, watching them collide is an absolute gas.

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