Every horny trucker heading west on Route 66 knows that Exit 16 is the last place to get any real action before you hit California. In horny trucker social circles, the rest stop has become so synonymous with its supply of “clean, drug-free pussy” that it’s earned its own unique CB radio handle: “Candy Land.”
Watching a horror movie about the illicit, transactional affairs that take place in the cabs of these semi-trucks is every bit as entertaining as you might expect. Equal parts slasher flick and softcore porn, writer-director John Swab’s ode to roadside sex workers is the kind of film that Quentin Tarantino would have seen dozens of times if it came out when he was still a criminally unsupervised nine-year-old. Pervy grindhouse sleaze oozes out of every frame, to the point where it feels like the only proper viewing method would be a scratched 35mm print in a theater with three different inexplicably sticky substances on the floor. In other words, it’s glorious.
The heroes of our story are Riley (Eden Brolin), Levi (Owen Campbell), and Sadie (Sam Quartin), the “lot lizards” who earn a living by navigating the complex social rules of anonymous gas station hookups. And boy, are there a lot of them. For example, a sex worker should never knock on the door of a truck unless the driver flashes the lights to invite them in. But if a potential customer starts tapping their foot in the bathroom, they’re likely a thrill seeker who will appreciate a more direct approach. It’s exhausting work, but somebody has to do it.
Swab demonstrates plenty of empathy towards his characters, never reducing them to caricatures of their sad circumstances. They all take solace in the community that has formed between the prostitutes who live at the truck stop motel, and they’re able to find enough simple pleasures to distract themselves from the reality of what they actually spend their days doing. The script doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring how they ended up in those circumstances, treating the truck stop like a liminal space where everyone just appeared and nobody asks any questions.
But that’s perfectly fine, because the film wisely devotes most of its screen time to the kind of stag movie magic that trash-loving cinephiles are going to seek it out for. Like a clergyman cunnilingus sequence involving a pair of removable dentures that’s as hauntingly slimy as anything Cronenberg ever shot. Or a scene where a Black department store Santa insists on staying in character while getting laid. Or one of the discount Baldwin brothers trying to bribe a male prostitute with a hamburger, but in a way where you’re never quite sure if he’s talking about the burger or his penis.
Riley, Levi, and Sadie have more or less made peace with this monotonously sexual existence, even if they remain adamant that it’s only a temporary arrangement. Nobody is making any plans to leave the truck stop life, but the universe gives them a bit of a nudge when Remy (Olivia Luccardi) arrives at Exit 16. The seemingly-innocent young girl was abandoned at the truck stop by a bizarre cult seeking to “cleanse” the earth of various evils, and finds herself with nowhere to go except the motel that functions as a de facto trucker brothel.
The lot lizards take her in and begin teaching her the tricks of the trade, which is simultaneously heartwarming and depressing as all hell. But Remy’s progress as a lady of the night quickly plateaus when she starts killing all of her clients and co-workers. She may have given the impression that she was on the outs with her religious relatives, but apparently she’s an even bigger zealot than the rest of them. It soon becomes clear that Remy is less interested in turning tricks than she is in orchestrating an elaborate suicide mission that sees her trying to kill all of her friends in an attempt to rid the planet of sin. Nobody else is particularly on board with that plan, but the soft-spoken church girl is the last person anyone suspects in the killing spree that’s engulfing the world’s horniest truck stop.
Taken purely at slasher movie face value, “Candy Land” isn’t nearly as scary or charmingly gory as many of the films that inspired it. But it succeeds by taking a deep dive into a fascinating subculture and refusing to shy away from the gross realities of everyday life. The end result is a hangout movie where the devil is in the utterly vile details.
Watching “Candy Land” is a lot like eating beef jerky from a truck stop. In both cases, you might find yourself thinking, “if someone told me this was made in 1973, I’d believe them.” Yet both experiences can end up being enjoyable despite leaving you with an overwhelming desire to shower. And if you can’t have a good time with violent stabbings, tawdry 18-wheeler sex, and Crowded House needle drops, there might be no saving you.
Quiver Distribution will release “Candy Land” in select theaters and on VOD on Friday, January 6.