One way to sell me on a horror film is to place it in some conventionally eerie setting. I love a good holiday-centric scare, and nothing fills me with greater joy than being able to point at some place that either isn’t that accessible, like a carnival, or that I just fear to do on principle, like a summer camp, and say “See! That’s why I don’t go there!” and Josh Hasty’s Candy Corn delivers on both counts...
...The only difference is I would probably totally dig Doctor Death’s Sideshow Spookhouse Spectacular.
Almost as soon as it begins, Candy Corn is firing on all cylinders. It tells the story of a group of small-town teens out to terrorize the local outcast, Jacob Atkins (Nate Chaney), on Halloween weekend. They call it hazing, of course, but all hazing is bullying under a different name. It broke my heart a bit to hear the act is an annual tradition they have all participated in for an unspecified number of years. Teenagers can be real dicks, and sometimes that’s all there is to it. They set out to find him at his job at the traveling freak show and proceed to corner and torment him. When he fights back, the group amps up the violence, accidentally killing him and fleeing the scene before they’re spotted. Enter Dr. Death, ringleader of the show played by Pancho Moler (Rob Zombie’s 31) and, apparently, skilled resurrectionist. Enraged at the death of one of his own, he brings Jacob back—complete with pumpkin mask straight from John Carpenter’s worst nightmares—to wreak his vengeance.
There’s a lot for horror fans to love about this film. The atmosphere is well-established and supported by an effectively mood-setting score. The effects of the mask alone made me want to stand up and cheer. The kills are absolutely brutal and cringeworthy in exactly the best way for a truly immersive slasher. Everything about the traveling show was spectacular, and I was a little sad we didn’t get as much time there as in the town. The cast is sparkling with horror icons, including personal favorite Tony Todd (Candyman) as carnival worker Bishop Gate, PJ Soles (Halloween), and Courtney Gains (Children of the Corn) as town sheriff.
While some of the character dynamics seem to stumble—I’m not altogether sure how old any of the kids who seek out Jacob are supposed to be, but my best guess in line with slasher convention is late teens to 20s—there are some true scene-stealers. Moler is excellent as the ringleader of the traveling band of misfits and defender of social freaks everywhere. His weird little curio shop of revenge trophies is something I can’t wait to learn more about in what I can only hope are inevitable sequels. Tony Todd always steals the show for me. He brings a gravity to Bishop Gate that nicely balances out Moler’s slightly off-kilter Dr. Death. You’re never quite sure what side of the line between good and evil Moler falls on, but you know he defends what’s his.
One of the most interesting things about the way this film works as a revenge story is that it does so on multiple levels, and we’re meant to and able to sympathize with both. There’s Jacob’s revenge against the gang who beat him for years, until they finally beat him too much. On the other hand, there’s the revenge of Dr. Death on society at large not just for harming one of his own, but for ostracizing and punishing all outcasts. There are some hints throughout that there may be more to Dr. Death than we know, and the ambiguity of his character, and of all the show staff, left me hungry for more.
I already can’t wait to incorporate Candy Corn into my Halloween rotation.
Candy Corn delivers a nasty treat through VOD on September 17th from Dread.
By Katelyn Nelson