I’m always in a dark-carnival-loving frame of mind, but especially so in recent weeks with the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley remake and the debut of Aaron Mahnke’s new podcast Sideshow. So when I saw that the 2019 horror film Candy Corn was streaming on Amazon, I was primed to check it out.
The film’s plot is basic: after the annual Halloween-night hazing of gawky, developmentally-challenged local Jacob Atkins (who has hired on as a carny with the traveling show currently in town) goes homicidally awry, the carnival leader Dr. Death performs an occult revivification of the victim’s corpse. Grim carnival justice ensues, as Jacob (now masked in Michael Myers-esque fashion) stalks and mows down down his bullies. This standard revenge element leads to some brutal but well-orchestrated kill scenes, which include the creatively destructive use of the titular treat (a Jacob favorite prior to his death).
The mute (and one-note) Jacob doesn’t make for a terribly interesting character. He’s easily overshadowed by the diminutive but forceful showman Dr. Death, a role embodied by Rob Zombie regular Pancho Moler. Candy Corn in many ways feels like a no-budget version of a Zombie film, right down to the grungy aesthetic and questionable perspective. It seems unsure of the horror it wants to convey, and the viewer struggles to find a character to identify with and invest in emotionally. Jacob proves more monstrous than sympathetic, and the film’s obvious final girl falls short of that role. Most confusingly, Dr. Death vacillates between a staunch defender of his carnival workers and a sinister oppressor of them.
The cast includes some notable horror actors of yesteryear (Courtney Gains, P.J. Soles, and Tony Todd–who is sorely underutilized here); seeing how much they have aged since the days of their prime is apt to make the viewer feel old, too. But the bigger issue is that Candy Corn, with its methodical pacing, moody tone, and murky morality, just leaves the viewer feeling cold.
I’d recommend this one only to the most indiscriminating Halloween horror film aficionado. All others aren’t likely to find it to their taste.