Religion, sex, blood, Owen Campbell… sign me up! Still, I went into this knowing little more than this, so I wasn’t ready for how dark and brutal and real this movie is. Hitting me square in the chest, John Swab’s Candy Land – forgive the colloquial phrase – is not for the faint of heart. Trigger warnings for religious trauma and sexual violence certainly apply here – but if you can handle the savagery, this is a powerful genre picture that fans of 2022 horror favorites like Barbarian and X, as well as festival darling Swallowed, should make a point to check out now.
As a pastor’s kid and genre film cinephile, being fascinated by horror films focused on religious groups or people is not surprising. And, while this film is focused on a group of sex workers and only one of the main characters comes from this religious world, major parts of this film hinge on the dangers of religious fundamentalism. Build in the plight and story of sex workers and the life and struggles of LGBTQ+ characters, and the recipe seems built specifically for viewers like me. The blood and guts are effective, the brutality of the sexual violence works without employing excessive gaze or any exploitative titillation, and the bleakness of the tale is heavy without being overly oppressive for the filmgoer – but these elements really serve one primary purpose of eliciting pathos and furthering the themes of the truly affecting visual story.
This film’s synopsis is as follows:
Candy Land follows Remy (Olivia Luccardi, It Follows), a seemingly naive and devout young woman, who finds herself cast out from her religious cult. With no place to turn, she immerses herself into the underground world of truck stop sex workers a.k.a. “lot lizards,” courtesy of her hosts, Sadie (Sam Quartin, Body Brokers), Riley (Eden Brolin, “Yellowstone”), Liv (Virginia Rand) and Levi (Owen Campbell, X). Under the watchful eye of their matriarch, Nora (Guinevere Turner, American Psycho), and enigmatic local lawman, Sheriff Rex (William Baldwin, The Squid and the Whale), Remy navigates between her strained belief system and the lot lizard code to find her true calling in life.
Olivia Luccardi delivers a stellar lead performance, with the remaining ensemble all delivering strong supporting performances, as well. Owen Campbell continues to impress, reminiscent both in look and talent to a young Lou Pucci. The other sex workers all do a fantastic job of painting powerful, human, and honest performances that remidn us all that sex workers are people just like us. William Baldwin’s realistic walking contradiction of a sheriff is also a fantastic performance, who does work to protect the sex workers, yet is a truly disgusting person at the same time.
With this plot summary in mind, an understanding of the great cast of characters, and a few small trigger warnings for sexual violence and religious trauma, you should go into this one with nothing more and just let the film take hold. If you do this and you don’t come away affected by the emotional and powerful tale in any way, you may want to see someone and get checked out, because this reviewer can say with near certainty that this early 2023 release will remain one of the year’s best and most powerful genre films when the year comes to a close.