It took fearless Australian filmmaker Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones (2012), a comically twisted, balls-to-the-wall gem, a long time to finally see a release and now his follow-up is here. If anyone was brave and lucky enough to see Byrne’s debut, then it gives one an idea of what to expect with The Devil’s Candy (2017), a merciless, confidently helmed, and wickedly unnerving horror indie. On the most fundamental level, all a horror film really has to do sometimes is be horrific, and here is a purposefully horrific, tonally pitch-black throat-grabber that focuses on character to make the shocks feel well-earned. A story about a loving family moving into a home with a bloody past superficially holds similarities to other horror films, but that’s about where it ends for Byrne’s film. It combines several horror sub-genres to include elements of possession and the serial killer film in a good old-fashioned Faustian tale that crosses into the heart of darkness. If it is a little familiar in certain places, The Devil’s Candy is punchy, intensely creepy stuff on the whole.
Metalhead painter Jesse (Ethan Embry) moves wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) into a remote home in Texas. They get a good deal for it and learn why when the realtor discloses the deaths of the former owners. “It’s not like Charlie Manson lived here,” he jokes before selling Jesse and Astrid the house. Astrid is anxious about affording a mortgage and Zooey has a hard time adjusting to her new school, but Jesse is about meet bigger problems. Not long after turning the garage into his art studio, he begins painting over his latest commission project with something he has no recollection of creating on the canvas: an upside-down crucifix and fiery flames over children, including his own daughter. Something seems to be flowing through him, and though Jesse loses track of time, he could be painting his most inspired, albeit disturbing, work ever. Does Jesse have a new muse, or could it be leading to something more dangerous? Then, one night, Zooey answers the door to the former owners’ adult son, Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who doesn’t hide the fact that he’s very troubled. Astrid and Zooey are a bit more sympathetic, but Jesse tells him to leave, shutting the door in his face. Little does the family know that Ray sees Zooey as his next piece of “candy” to serve up to the Prince of Darkness.
Evocative of a more mature style of horror filmmaking, The Devil’s Candy smartly favors ideas and suggestion over explicit violence, at least initially before it has the gall to really shock. In almost all cases, writer-director Byrne knows how far to take things without merely making an exploitation picture. The film wades into disturbingly dark territory; the implication of Ray’s evil doings is obviously more palatable than seeing everything in graphic detail, but it’s still visceral and, in one instance that follows him spying on two boys playing in a field, even more frightening. Byrne does it again in a startlingly auditory moment where Astrid and Zooey hear something horrible outside in the front of their house and panic. The plotting is potentially standard, but Byrne’s film doesn’t look or sound like other horror films. With cinematographer Simon Chapman, he brings a bracing, incendiary style and some diabolical imagery that won’t be easily shaken; it also doesn’t hurt that Mads Heldtberg and Michael Yezerski’s doom-laden, metal-infused music score, as well as the sound design full of satanic whispers and chanting, is mighty effective.
On the strength of his writing and his actors’ performances, the stakes feel so heavy that all hope will be lost if anything bad happens to this likeable familial unit. Such an under-appreciated working actor, Embry finally gets his due in nabbing his third lead role after obscure B-movie Evolver (1995) and teen party flick Can’t Hardly Wait (1998). For those with fond memories of the latter, Embry’s character here only wears t-shirts, sometimes. Getting ripped for the part, the actor is terrifically tragic, throwing himself into Jesse with feeling and emotional complexity. On the outside, Jesse rocks long greasy hair and a body covered in tattoos, but unlike George Lutz or Jack Torrance, he wrestles more with sacrificing his love for his family for a successful career. His dynamic with Zooey, played by an appealing Glasco with impressive emotional availability, is so authentic that they feel like one and the same as father and daughter who share a love for heavy metal. Appleby (TV’s UnREAL) brings a warmth as wife and mother Astrid, and she brings forth such a desperate rawness in a key climactic moment that it’s upsetting. Having played his fair share of crazies before, Vince already has an imposing presence about him, but he’s even more frightening in that red jumpsuit and fills the role of the mentally ill Ray with glimmers of vulnerability. With the opening scene providing a glimpse of the torment Ray has faced by the satanic voices, Vince expertly navigates this human monster who is now a pawn totally consumed by evil.
There’s always been an association between heavy metal and Beelzebub and, rather inspiredly, The Devil’s Candy allows this genre of music to figure prominently into the film, primarily that of doom metal band Sunn O))). Here, Ray and Jesse are linked; the music helps Ray drown out the voices and Jesse is already a lover of the music. Admittedly, the idea of passion blending with madness could have been pushed a little bit more, as a subplot with art dealer Leonard (Tony Amendola) receives short shrift. Fortunately, writer-director Byrne gets so much right when it comes to creating an escalating sense of dread and developing active rooting interest for his characters. The audience genuinely cares for Jesse and his family, and the final twenty minutes are knife-cuttingly tense, gasp-inducing, and deceptively unsafe. For a game audience, The Devil’s Candy is a lean, extremely mean but never unfeeling level of horror that simultaneously walks the edge, willingly leaps off a cliff into hell, and yet remains grounded with human emotions. With Byrne thrashing back onto the horror scene, it gets one hoping that he can greenlight a third film sooner rather than later.
Courtesy of IFC Midnight, The Devil’s Candy is available in select theaters, VOD (iTunes, Amazon Video), and cable On Demand (XFinity, Time Warner, Optimum or your local carrier) from 17th March 2017.