Candy Land [Grimmfest Review]: Cults and Lot Lizards
Sex work and exploitation have always been part of the Horror genre, but it’s not until recently that these once taboo themes have been reclaimed and shown in a more realistic and open light. 2018’s CAM made a real splash with its honest and empowering look at sex work as a job, and a passion, prompting other films to follow. John Swab’s Candy Land is one of them. It may take its visual notes from 70’s exploitation films but the sympathetic and grounded portrayal of the women, and one fella, who work this truck stop motel is a far cry from how this line of work was often shown prior. Which is impressive considering that it still manages to have a high body count and embrace gore and brutality with unabashed glee.
Sadie (Sam Quartin), Liv (Virginia Rand), Riley (Eden Brolin) and Levi (Owen Campbell) are ‘lot lizards’, sex workers who live and make money at a truck stop under the watchful eye of their madam, Nora (Guinevere Turner), and the local Sherrif, Rex (William Baldwin). They are a group of misfits, those who have nowhere else to go, but wouldn’t want to be anywhere but with each other. The camaraderie and kinship between this group are obvious from the very beginning of the film, their easy banter and real care and affection for each other make them an easy-to-root-for ensemble, instead of just a selection of individual victims we’re hoping to see killed off one by one. They never claim their work to be glamorous, but they also don’t shy away from the fact that, to them, it beats a minimum wage ‘9 to 5’ and the exploitation of the ‘real’ world. As they say themselves, they take a lot of pride in unbuckling the bible belt of America.
“[Candy Land] humanises all of its characters and focuses on the hypocrisy of what society sees as acceptable, violence, and what it doesn’t, sex.”
The lot, nicknamed Candy Land by those who frequent it, gets a whole plethora of visitors, from truck drivers who radio in with hidden codes, to bathroom dwelling thrill seekers, all the way to the town’s Sheriff, who has a particular affinity for Levi. Even the local religious zealots visit. Arriving in a mini bus loaded with young women, all dressed in demure dresses synonymous with puritanical religion but with festive Santa hats adorning their heads, their male leader is on a mission to help these lost souls repent for their evil ways. Our workers however have no interest, and instead make sure this buttoned up man of God doesn’t know where to look when Sadie offers a full screen, no underwear crotch shot, to both him and the audience. Instantly, it’s clear that these women are not ashamed of their jobs or their bodies (which, refreshingly, were real looking women with real bodies and real body hair, instead of a fantasised version of female sexuality).
This small interaction kicks off the film and sets up the main thematic conflict, the moral clash between the charismatic sex workers and the intense religious cult. These two worlds collide when Remy (Olivia Luccardi), an abandoned young woman who, from the look of her polka dot smock dress, is clearly an ex-member of the religious group, is left abandoned at the truck stop. It appears she was cast out, or sent on a mission of repentance, but her story is not fully probed into by the ‘lizards’, instead she is simply accepted by people who know what it’s like to need an escape. Remy is offered sanctuary and solace with them as they give her the rundown of the lot and Nora, the madam, offers her a job and a roof over her head.
Unfortunately, not long after Remy’s arrival the lot becomes a much bloodier location as a murderous rampage hits the truck stop, leaving a trail of bodies in it’s wake. It is not the sins of these sex workers, or their customers, that puts them on this victim list, but rather the grip of unbudging and extreme religious zealotism that results in bloodshed. The ‘pure hearts’ who believe what they are doing to be truly good, who only work for God’s will, are the force of devastation in this film, not the down-on-their-luck sex workers, who are just normal sympathetic people who helped out the wrong girl. Candy Land doesn’t engage with typical slasher mystery about who the killer is, that is pretty clear from the start of the second act. Instead it humanises all of its characters and focuses on the hypocrisy of what society sees as acceptable, violence, and what it doesn’t, sex.
Candy Land manages to tackle these sensitive subjects with respect and honesty, whilst still relishing in its fun and brassy exploitation tropes. There’s commentary on the treatment of sex workers, the needs of those who frequent the rest stop and the role of religion in peoples moral decisions. There’s also a scene involving a creepy priest with a real John Waters look to him who gets much more than he bargains for when he tries to worship at the wrong ‘altar’. It’s this balance that makes Candy Land more than just an exploitation film but not a preaching drama either. The writing and direction, both by John Swab, are brilliant. The ensemble cast work perfectly portraying is a lovable group of real people, who humanise sex work and are easy to bond with on screen, making our fear for their fates all the more tangible. With gore on its face and its heart on its sleeve, Candy Land may not be for the easily offended, but for those who aren’t it’s an unsettling sweet treat.