Whether it’s to avoid dating itself with the rapidly evolving technology of smartphones & social media or if it’s to avoid the practical problem-solving that modern tech offers, a lot of contemporary horror drags its settings back to earlier, grimier eras of the genre’s past. Personally, I’m getting bored with how much current horror product is an echo of 1970s grindhouse & 1980s neon sleaze. That nostalgic impulse is getting really shortsighted in its avoidance of documenting & processing the world we actually live in now, if not outright cowardly & lazy. So, if most contemporary horror has to live in the past for narrative convenience, I’m going to be more excited to see movies set outside that genre heyday of the first slasher wave. For instance, the recent slasher prequel Pearl is inherently more interesting than its grimy sister film X, since its own tongue-in-cheek genre pastiche of Technicolor melodramas is way less familiar & less overmined than the grindhouse Texas Chainsaw riff it followed. The same goes for the truck stop sex worker slasher Candy Land, which is set in the grunge & grime of the mid-1990s, after the first slasher wave crested and the second, meta-comedic wave began post-Scream. As soon as the film opens with a montage of transactional sex scenes set to Porno for Pyros’ “Pets,” it already feels like a much-needed break from the digitally added 1970s grain and the Carpenter-nostalgic 1980s synths of its fellow low-budget festival horrors, which have long been a matter of routine.
What endears me most to Candy Land‘s grunge-90s setting is that it doesn’t appear to be nostalgic about past horror trends at all. It’s instead nostalgic for the film festival boom of the Sundance era that made names like Soderbergh, Araki, and Haynes stars of the indie scene. Candy Land starts as a very cool, loose hangout dramedy about the daily rituals of truck stop sex workers (or “lot lizards” in CB radio lingo) before it gradually turns into a rigidly formulaic slasher to pay the bills. The true glory days of independent filmmaking are over, and most low-budget productions that want to score wide distribution have to resort to flashy genre gimmicks to earn streaming sales on the festival market. And so, we have a workplace drama that opens with sex work and ends with murder, holding back the necessary kill rhythms of a body count slasher as long as it can until it’s time to deliver the goods. Unlike most slashers that dive headfirst into the bloodbath, that delayed payoff allows you space to care about the characters in peril: a good-girl-gone-bad played by The Deuce‘s Olivia Luccardi, a sweetheart hedonist gigolo played by X‘s Owen Campbell, a shit-heel sheriff played by Sliver‘s Billy Baldwin, etc. There’s a built-in tension & danger in the main characters’ profession that makes for a great horror setting (something it’s most frank about in an extensive, brutal scene of male-on-male rape), but writer-director John Swab appears to be more interested in making a truck stop Working Girls than a truck stop Friday the 13th. I admire his practicality. Not everyone gets to be Sean Baker; sometimes you gotta cosplay as Rob Zombie to land your funding.
Candy Land excels more in its minor character observations than in the tension release of its cathartic violence. It’s set in an insular world where all sex is transactional, all sexuality is fluid, and all cops are bastards. The truck stop brothel has a grunge-fashionista uniform of leather jackets, acrylic nails, booty shorts, and heavy metal t-shirts. The girls shower, menstruate, and parade puffs of pubic & armpit hair in defiantly casual, thoughtless exhibitionism. There’s a pronounced overlap in the rules & rituals of working the truck stop and the rules & rituals of the fundamentalist Christian cult Luccardi’s newbie abandoned to get there, both with their own built-in, complex lingo. There’s also some unmistakable political commentary in which of those two insular cults proves to be harmful to the community at large – first to the johns, then to the workers. Its Christmastime setting underlines the tension between those two warring worlds with a bitter irony that’s been present in the slasher genre as far back as its pre-Halloween landmark Black Christmas. The movie might have been more rewarding if it didn’t have to sweep aside its observations of social minutia to make room for bloody hyperviolence, but I doubt it could’ve been widely distributed or even made at all without that genre hook. At least Swab didn’t default to the industry’s current go-to setting for that horror hook; he instead recalls a brighter time in indie filmmaking when you could make a notable, low-key sex worker drama without having to hit a specific body count metric.