Our culture loves binaries. Many would say we love them at the expense of lived reality, but, in our storytelling, it’s hard to deny their appeal. What better way to tempt us, the audience, than by pinning down two diametrically opposed qualities?
At first glance, Candy Land (2022) promises this old conflict. Set on Christmas 1996, this psychological slasher pits the world of sex workers against a tightly controlled religious sect. The sex workers, or “lot lizards” as the movie calls them, work at a Route 66 pit stop dubbed “Candy Land.” However, their lives change with the arrival of Rémy (played by Olivia Luccardi), a member of a doomsday cult. Seemingly banished from the only home she’s ever known, the lizards of the lot, especially Sadie (played by Sam Quartin) and Levi (played by Owen Campbell), decide to give her shelter. Remy’s arrival, however, also heralds bloody and gruesome deaths…
First, Candy Land hard to take off. The first third of the film must be set up a lot plot and setting. The pacing juggles setting development, introducing several important plot elements, numerous character introductions, and the first seeds of conflict in the film. The main story only really starts after twenty-seven minutes of execution.
Unlike other slashers, Candy Land focuses primarily on its characters and their worlds. In fact, that character work is where the film shines. The beating heart of this film is our sex workers. Despite the grimness of their surroundings, the interactions between them scream love and easy companionship. Each member shines as human and dynamic. Sam Quartin gives a great performance as queer, insecure Sadie. Riley (played by Eden Brolin) works as the sassy but caring little troublemaker of the group. The film beautifully shows the dynamic of the friends in the intro as they troll Theo, the cult patriarch (played by Brad Carter).
My favorite by far was Owen Campbell’s Levi. Campbell works overtime to perfectly embody a fun-loving and kind male sex worker who nevertheless has to deal with the shifting power dynamics of his job. His easy banter with the group and his vulnerability at work make Levi feel completely fulfilled. An early scene at a restaurant reveals that Levi primarily gets into sex work “to party.” However, his carefree spirit does not banish his demons. We get this, especially in Levi’s interactions with Rex (played by William Baldwin), the local sheriff who isn’t afraid to use his power to coerce Levi into a physical relationship.
Speaking of coercion, Candy Land also excels in his writing. A lesser film would have painted our two groups, the cult and the sex workers, in stark black and white. Wouldn’t that be obvious? Obviously, frank and honest friends, free in their body and reliable in their loyalty, have no similarity with a dogmatic sect.
However, the film refuses to go easy on either side. The two groups live in liminalities, on the borders of respectability. At first glance, however, they appear as complete opposites. The lizards in the lot, for starters, dress like normal people. In contrast, members of Theo and Remy’s cult are dressed in full costumes or pioneer robes. While the lizards of the lot are comfortably affectionate with each other like cult members never are.
The film delights in these contrasts. Friendly demonstrations of ribbed and frank conversation about the war of menstruation with awkward conversations about purification, disease and sin. Sadie and Liv (played by Virginia Rand) engage in an easy and loving intimacy. Yet, cult members in conversation look down, away, or face the wall instead of each other. In one scene, Remy sits on the bed while Theo stands upright. Even when he attempts to squat down to her level, the camera angle emphasizes his position of power. You, the audience member, never see cult members as equals (with one chilling exception at the very end of the film).
Despite these disparities, the similarities between the two groups are apparent, especially in the more powerful members among them. Although their morals differ, the two group leaders, Theo and Nora the Madame (played by Guinevere Turner), are not afraid of manipulation or coercion. Their approaches differ, but in the end, both leaders want the same thing: compliance.
Additionally, the film refuses to downplay the miseries present in either life. The cult’s strict and inflexible control rings truest in Remy’s complete ignorance of the outside world. The disadvantages of sex work are, however, more explicitly highlighted (at least, initially). Fair warning: viewers sensitive to sexual violence issues should probably avoid this one. Sex work can be incredibly dangerous, especially during this time and in such an isolated setting. The movie does not go back showing these pitfalls. Nor does it soften the psychological blow of such abuse to our characters.
Finally, we come to the center of the film, Remy. Emily Luccardi gives, by far, the best performance of the film. The micro-expressions on Luccardi’s face sell it. You see Remy struggling with despair, growing affection for our outcasts, and the distaste for the corruption she’s grown to hate. Luccardi nails every second of it. I believe in his vulnerability, his curiosity and his religious devotion. Along with her performance, the film does a great job of emphasizing her isolation, even among friendly faces. Despite the story’s thematic resonance, Luccardi still displays great chemistry with his fellow cast members.
If you’re looking for a slasher that delves deeper into the lives of its characters, Candy Land is definitely for you. The film dives deep into grime, darkness and fear. But that does not prevent it from displaying the bright spots in the most unexpected places. It’s been a long time since I cared so much about characters in the slasher genre. If you want to experience that kind of sweetness, take a trip to Candy Land with me.
Lyana Rodriguez (they) is a queer Cuban-American writer living in Miami, Florida. Their greatest interests include monsters, animals, writing about nature, and staring too long at birds in their backyard. You can find more of Lyana’s writings in their intersectional horror blog, Dark Intersections.
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