CANDY LAND **** USA 2022 Dir: John Swab. 93 mins
Writer-director John Swab’s features to date, including IDA RED, RUN WITH THE HUNTED, BODY BROKERS and LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR (all released within the last six years) have gamely dealt with tough subject matter: child abuse, drug addiction, revenge and crime, though his scripts are punctuated with compassionate characterisations and cleverly balanced dark humour. CANDY LAND, which has a fine score by IDA RED’s David Sardy and is strikingly shot by Will Stone, is an assured, sometimes very funny, often harrowing (and always unpatronising) character-driven piece about sex workers – while also succeeding as a startling, visceral latter-day slasher movie.
It unfolds in and around a truck-stop motel, where so-called “lot lizards” tout for business (typically weird or unattractive truckers) around the misleadingly nice sounding “Candy Land” during the movie’s subtly conveyed 1990s-period setting. While young Levi (a terrific Owen Campbell) satisfies William Baldwin’s local Sheriff in between other, more dangerous tricks, the close-knit group of hookers (Sam Quartin, Eden Brolin, Virginia Rand) take in a seemingly genteel, troubled young woman, Remy (Olivia Luccardi) who has been cast out from an oppressive religious cult overseen by the grim-faced Theo (Brad Carter). A series of brutal murders in the area starts to encroach on the gang’s territory and safety.
With excellent character parts by Baldwin, superb character actor Carter and, as the Madame, AMERICAN PSYCHO / GO FISH screenwriter / actress Guinevere Turner, this captures a vivid sense of time and place while the plot cannily veers between gritty social realism, empathetic character drama and a full-on grisly murder-mystery with a significant bodycount. It nods to key 1970s American exploitation movies while not feeling a need to indulge in heavy handed homages and tips over into pure horror territory for a startling final act that showcases a fantastic turn from Luccardi as the shy, appealing, offbeat novice with a secret.
Review by Steven West