Films which fall into the “heavy metal horror” subgenre frequently tell tales where metal is the portal to hell (Trick or Treat (1986), Black Roses (1988), Deathgasm (2015)). In The Devil’s Candy (2015), however, writer/director Sean Byrne has subverted this narrative, resulting in one of the more horrifying and heartbreaking horror films of the last few years.
In The Devil’s Candy, loud guitars don’t tempt a man into becoming a monster, but quite the opposite. In a spooky farmhouse in the middle of the night, we meet Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who hears the Devil’s voice inside his head and uses a Flying V and a Marshall amp to drown it out. This is no cartoonish sonic motif. The infernal voice, provided by doom/drone band Sunn O))), is genuinely unsettling.
Ray’s mother does not like loud guitars in the middle of the night and threatens to send her son back to the hospital. Ray seems to acquiesce, but when mom walks away, he shoves her down the stairs with his guitar. When Ray’s father shows, up and discovers what’s happened, the film doesn’t show his murder, but the man is never seen again.
On the other end of the sonic spectrum, loud guitars and metal music provide an opportunity for bonding between artist Jesse Hellmann (Ethan Embry) and his teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco), much to the chagrin of stylist mom Astrid (Shiri Appleby), who thinks that Cavalera Conspiracy’s “Killing Inside” is a little too intense for the soundtrack of a family’s trip to check out a farmhouse that’s for sale.
Yes, it’s the very same farmhouse in which Ray killed his parents. Byrne and cinematographer Simon Chapman do a marvelous job of repeating the film’s opening establishing shot of a farmhouse and transforming it from obviously scary into potentially deadly. This will change as the safety of this family becomes more and more precarious; Byrne returns to the image of the spooky farmhouse later on.
The relationship between Jesse and Zooey is at the core of The Devil’s Candy and it’s one that comes across as completely convincing. While it’s obvious that the entire Hellmann family are free spirits, there is something special about the way that Jesse and Zooey love heavy metal and each other, communicating without actually needing to say anything.
In the commentary track Byrne notes that he wanted to “fly the flag for metal fans” who are too often presented as buffoons. He adds that “just because you grow old doesn’t mean you need to leave your passions or your subcultures behind.” The Hellmanns might look different from your typical suburban family but it doesn’t make their devotion to each other any less significant.
After the family moves into the farmhouse and Jesse sets up his studio in the barn, he also starts hearing the infernal voice. When he follows the voice to a dusty shadow of a crucifix on the wall of Ray’s old bedroom (now Zooey’s) he’s not sure what it is that he’s hearing. Soon he becomes possessed by the need to create a different type of art than the butterflies he’s been painting in a piece commissioned by a bank.
In The Devil’s Candy, it’s not the act of creating a piece of artwork that corrupts the soul, but the influence of something evil that leads to creating artwork. The shadow of the cross – and Jesse’s vision of it inverted on the wall – leads him to switch gears and complete a decidedly darker image, one that disturbs not only Astrid, but Jesse himself. Evil also haunts the house in the form of Ray, who shows up on the front doorstep wanting to come “home” but is turned away by a seriously spooked Jesse.
Still Ray lingers nearby in a field, watching young children playing with their dog, hearing the call of the Devil, and finally succumbing to his urges in a scene that is also depicted in Jesse’s painting: Ray hits a kid on the head with a rock and Jesse paints that same kid screaming in pain. As Ray and Jesse both capitulate to the Devil’s demands, there is a breathtaking sequence of cross-cutting between Jesse painting and Ray mopping up blood after his murder of the child. The connection between the Devil and the pathologies of these two men is made chillingly clear, even if Jesse does not yet understand what has taken control of his soul.
As the situation grows more and more dire – Ray tries to kidnap Zooey and is thwarted, but eventually succeeds – Jesse becomes more and more consumed by his new Satanic muse, culminating in an unbelievably grotesque painting of what Byrne refers to as “the angel of the bottomless pit,” one that features all of Ray’s child victims, including Zooey.
It is when the stakes are highest that Byrne transforms shopworn visual tropes into images that evoke real pathos: Jesse standing guard in the window holding a baseball bat, a black goat wandering in the field outside the house, a busted tire on the family car, the lack of cell phone reception when it is sorely needed, the dark hallways of an empty high school, wounded bodies crawling across the floor, a stairwell on fire.
All of these images have been utilized in various horror films, from haunted house flicks to teen slashers to home invasion movies to those which depict occult rituals. It’s because at this point the viewer’s investment in the plight of this family – and also Ray, who comes across as both pathetic and predatory – that these images have even greater gravitas.
Perhaps the greatest moment in a horror movie involving the Devil and heavy metal occurs when Jesse saves Zooey from Ray (and the fire pit of her bedroom) by killing him with a Flying V guitar. It can be seen as comical, yes, but mostly triumphant and a complete inverse of the film’s opening sequence. The Devil’s Candy definitely continues Byrne’s frequently stated maxim of filmmaking: “if you don’t care, then you don’t scare.”
It’s a tragedy that The Devil’s Candy, which premiered as part of the Midnight Madness programme at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, seemed to vanish soon afterwards, never receiving a proper theatrical release. It’s an apt movie for the times as it shows there is often little difference between madness and evil.
The Devil’s Candy Blu-ray was released by Scream Factory on September 26. It includes a fantastic commentary track from Sean Byrne, who talks about his inspirations and interpretation of the movie without coming across as redundant. He also showers praise upon everyone involved: the cast (who are outstanding), the music supervisor (Michael Yezerski), the producers (Keith and Jess Calder), and the artist who created Jesse’s paintings (Stephen Kasner), as well as various members of the crew. There’s also an informative short featurette which shows how some of the visual effects were created and a short film called “Advantage Satan” that’s pretty clever. Also included is the theatrical trailer, an art gallery, and a music video for Goya’s “Blackfire” featuring scenes from the film.