Candy Land (2022) Directed by John Swab
This persistently sleazy emulation of the crass language of exploitation cinema distinguishes its strengths from the stereotypically provocative moderately well, though it is incapable of implementing them effectively. There is a palpable problem with Candy Land’s promiscuous milieu, which makes its austere physiognomy and explicit vulgarity look stupidly anemic, lifeless and expressionless. John Swab’s insouciant direction leaves in salient visibility a hierarchical disarray in the narrative that makes me believe there never was one in the first place. In effect, the order of priorities is only one, like any verbatim exploitation film, a plethora of violence and prurient sex are preeminent over every other factor. This preponderance of exploitative obscenity over a timid narrative – which is inhibited by the genre’s own indelicacy – never allows the film to coexist between these two polar opposites; in short, Candy Land tries too hard to be raunchy and solemn with its violent material, neglecting that the most important thing to give it stable vital signs is that it has to tell a story first and foremost.
Eventually, once Candy Land establishes its unrepentant form of filmmaking, what initially seemed like an innocuous, mindlessly perverse but fun horror film falls apart because of its lack of creative artifice and stumbles into amateurish missteps because of its futile proclivity, overdone delight in wanting to make just a show of mundane violence and nothing more. In antagonism to what I am writing are the distinctly varied, but mostly positive opinions about this film. Some of these positive comments are articulated with meritorious arguments, others are simply puerile, there are more of the latter, I think. Candy Land disguises itself as a discursive slasher to cover up, to hide its flimsy exploitative material from being seen for what it really is. In its banalities you can find as many truisms as you can find interesting interpretations of social issues. Some more inept than others, though in general I can affirm that at least the writing does not venture to be univocally a horror movie about a bunch of dissolute young women and tries to weave complexities from the simple and cheap. Prostitution is not only the main theme, but its unethical idiosyncrasies also expand the subject matter into the religious realm, thus creating an antagonistic nature.
It’s 1996, Virginia Rand, Eden Brolin, Sam Quartin and Owen Campbell, play sex workers who have an established business in a motel near a gas station that serves as a stop for many trucks. Their regular customers are truckers but every now and then one or another guy from town comes in to satiate their carnal desires. William Baldwin plays Sheriff Rex, who is also a recurring customer, and just as profligate as any other lecherous trucker. The cyclical lives of these people change when a bashful, insidious girl from a religious cult decides to escape the liturgical atmosphere and join this collective of hookers. The sweaty sexual airs mutate into ominous airs of terror, when strange murders occur in that infamous gas station. The predictability of the scheme is so obvious that I find it derisory to believe that a plot with these preposterous narrative parameters could work; it doesn’t work in the slightest. The frontality with which the brutal murders are executed are worthy of a solid slasher film, yet there is something exceedingly synthetic about the cinematic composition of these. The visual design disrupts slasher conventionality with austere imagery and a symmetrical, if at times asymmetrical, mise-en-scène that emits an enigmatic depth, yet this appealing formality is tediously incompatible with the barbaric carnage that takes place in the film. Rarely is there a kinetic attitude that vitalizes the exploitative grotesquerie as it should be, rather it opts for a sedative system that visually disassociates itself with the sensationally hostile violence.
There are brief moments of pure narrative eccentricity that evoke a provocative symbolism that turns out to be the film’s highlight. Its content lacks authenticity when generalized but when individualized in small frames there is a nuanced grandeur that suggests all the potential it could have had if only the filmmakers had the intuition to be just that, filmmakers. From a scene with a perverted priest to a grimy sex scene that ends in a bloodbath, these moments are unforgettable for all the right reasons, and the gore is at its best. But what is most noteworthy is that Candy Land’s exploitative universe maintains an interesting neutrality amidst the prejudices inherent in our society. Here the prostitutes are judged by religious scrutiny, yet the prostitutes do exactly the same to them. A clever irony that could have been the unmistakable instrument to develop the plot; alas, Candy Land succumbs to the ordinary and the execrable without a sufficiently solid foundation to sustain the blistering violence.