PLOT: After a religious young woman joins a group of truck stop sex workers (a.k.a. lot lizards), someone starts murdering people in and around the truck stop.

REVIEW: After making a handful of crime dramas and thrillers, writer/director John Swab shifts into the horror genre with his fifth feature Candy Land – but he definitely didn’t just dive into formula or clichê with his first horror project, as evident from the fact that he cited ‘90s cult films like Bully and Welcome to the Dollhouse as sources of inspiration. Candy Land has been described as a truck stop slasher, and it does become that in its second half, but the influence of ‘90s indie dramas is clearly felt in the movie. It’s even set in the ‘90s; around Christmas 1996, to be exact. So it’s a bit of a shame that it’s being released in January, because it would have been a fine addition to genre fans’ holiday horror viewings, complete with decorations, Santa costumes, and Christmas songs on the soundtrack.

The story of Candy Land drops us into the lives of a group of sex workers who operate out of a truck stop at Exit 17 on Route 66 – the “last stop for quality action” for drivers who are westbound. These lot lizards, which happens to be the term used to describe truck stop sex workers, are Sam Quartin as Sadie, Eden Brolin as Riley, Virginia Rand as Liv, and Owen Campbell as Levi… and while we spend a good amount of time with them and get to see the harsh realities of their day-to-day existence, I was still left feeling like the characters were a little lacking. I came to care about them over the course of the film, but that’s mainly just because they’re people who are living a bit of a rough life. I don’t feel like I actually got to know much about them or who they really are. Other characters they interact with frequently include Nora (Guinevere Turner), who runs the motel where they live, and Sheriff Rex (Billy Baldwin), who is infatuated with Levi and is compelled to cheat on his wife with him.

Another character is soon pulled into their orbit: a young woman named Remy (Olivia Luccardi), who seems to have been exiled from the religious cult she was raised in. A cult that advises people to “repent, or you will be left for the final cleansing”. Anyone reading this has probably seen enough horror movies to know that taking Remy under their wings and helping her transition into sex work isn’t the wisest thing for the lot lizards to do. But that is what they do, and when people start turning up slashed to death in and around the truck stop it’s no surprise to the viewer.

Candy Land turns into a body count movie in its second half. By the end, this thing has as many dead bodies in it as a Friday the 13th movie. When the kills happen, they’re not as flashy as you would hope to see in something like a Friday the 13th, but this slasher fan was thoroughly satisfied with the amount of bloodshed. I was also surprised at just how many characters ended up being slashed. Yet the movie never quite becomes your typical slasher, retaining that gritty and raw ‘90s indie feel throughout and pushing boundaries whenever it gets the chance to. In fact, the sexual content packed into the first 15 minutes or so may be enough to turn away some viewers.

The actors all do great work in their roles, which is another reason why I came to care for the characters despite not feeling like I got to know enough about them. Quartin, Brolin, and Rand all make their characters fully believable, which makes it tougher to watch whenever something bad happens to them. Turner and Baldwin are both excellent as their characters, each detestable in their own way. Campbell and Luccardi are given some of the most intense moments to bring to the screen, and both play their intense moments in flawless ways.

Candy Land wasn’t always the most enjoyable ride, but I was impressed by it overall. And when the end credits started rolling, I was glad I had spent 90 minutes of my time watching this movie. Especially since it rewarded me by playing one of my all-time favorite songs over the credits.

Quiver Distribution is giving Candy Land a digital and limited theatrical release on January 6th.

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