Somehow landing on just the right side of exploitation sleaze, John Swab’s delightfully grungy horror drama Candy Land is very much a film of two halves. The first, a slice-of-life, almost mumblecore mosaic of truck-stop sex workers is exquisite in its own right, landing very much like a particularly well-written pulp novel, and leaning on a terrific ensemble of young actors (with William Baldwin as a tricky lawman). Right from the off, it’s frank with both its sexuality and its depictions of life on the outer rings of society, and would’ve made for something of a neat, if slightly artsier entry into the genre canon. 

But then about twenty minutes in, naturally someone winds up dead, and Swab’s script finds a totally different purpose altogether, nestling a particularly bonkers (and brutal) slasher story in amongst the winning drama. The weird thing is it just about works; maybe not as much as if he and his team had leant solidly in one direction, but the added blast of fun and games drags Candy Land far away from ever being too dour to make its point. 

The cast reads like a list of future indie darlings and awards-favourites; Owen Campbell (X, Super Dark Times), Olivia Luccardi (It Follows) and Sam Quartin (Swab’s previous Body Brokers) are all standouts, with Quartin in particular bringing real weight to a character who almost deliberately has no sappy backstory to dig into. Even Baldwin pitches his dirty old Sheriff as ultimately more sympathetic than skeezy, so by the time the slayings roll around, there’s a genuine sense of dread hanging around every murder.

CandyLandSwab plays his hand surprisingly early too, shrugging off any sort of Scream-esque mystery or mask play, and setting his sights on building a much more human killer instead. Which considering how character-focussed the rest of the film is, plays off nicely.

There is, overall, definitely something off, with the two halves bringing warring tones. It’s difficult to have loud, brash fun with a film that understands and empathises with poverty and sex work in the commendable way that Candy Land does. But it’s also downright impossible to take it at all seriously when the truly silly slashing is what’s ultimately pushing the story forward.

Because of all this, it might not quite appeal to the masses (or even the wider horror community) in the same way that something like Ti West’s X managed earlier this year, but that’s not to say that Candy Land doesn’t deserve just as many eyeballs on it. For its casting alone, this is a total home run.

Candy Land was screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest 2022.