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THE DEVIL’S CANDY (2015) review

May 2, 2017

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written by: Sean Byrne
produced by: Jesse Calder and Keith Calder
directed by: Sean Byrne
rated: unrated
runtime: 79 min.
U.S. release date: March 17, 2017 & April 21, 2017 (limited), also available on iTunes, Amazon & VOD

 

“The Devil’s Candy” is finally here and there’s a bit of both a trick and a treat. The horror flick is the first film in seven years from Australian writer/director Sean Byrne, who’s feature-length debut “The Loved Ones” has received a certain amount of cult status. His latest premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2015 and worked the festival circuit until it was available digitally last month and will perhaps eventually become something of a midnight mainstay in arthouse theaters nationwide. It deserves to because of what it does with familiar horror tropes and how Byrne delivers another legitimately unsettling, creepy thriller with some great performances. That’s the trick and the treat of it.

The movie opens with an ominous and effective introduction. The camera moves in on a lone farmhouse in rural Texas one night. Up the stairs and into one of the bedrooms we find a hulking figure in a red sweatsuit shredding some heavy power chords on a red V-shaped guitar, the louder the better. Why so loud? To drown out the demonic mumblings that itch inside his head. We can hear the guttural whispers but only he can understand them. Clearly, he doesn’t want to, but when his mother barges in the bedroom and tells her middle-aged child to turn down the racket, he must relent. Unfortunately the voices don’t and the next thing we know, his poor mother takes a fatal fall down the stairs and we later learn his father dies that evening.

The disturbed man is Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince) and we learn in this wonderfully shot opening scene that he was institutionalized not that long ago, perhaps because of how these voices effect his behavior. We’ll come back to this troubled and disturbing character and the home that he’s left soon enough.

 

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Intense heavy metal music transitions us to the Hellman family, consisting of struggling painter Jesse (Ethan Embry), his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their preteen daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco). They are far from a cookie-cutter family. Long-haired, fit and trim and covered in tattoos, Jesse is the cool artist dad who’s love for heavy metal is contagious, catching on to the women in his family, especially the purple-haired Zooey, who has a special bond with her father. Jesse and Astrid make the decision to move from their apartment into a house in a remote area, one that has a barn that Jesse can turn into a studio to work on his art. A change might spark some inspiration and find him creating work that will get him shown in a local gallery. The house is a steal, but when the realtor is compelled to tell the couple that there was a death in the house – “a poor old lady took a tumble down the stairs and her husbanded died soon after” – the Hellman’s decide to think about it.

With this being a horror movie that looks like it already has demon possession and is about to turn the corner into haunted house territory, Jesse persuades Astrid to go for it and they inevitably become homeowners. Everyone is excited and not long after a heavy metal montage of the family setting up the interior of the house just the way they want it, Jesse begins to hear the same guttural mumbling. It mostly comes when he’s alone in the barn in front of his large canvas. He begins to see horrific visions of people writhing and screaming while on fire, but when he’s painting he zones out, disappearing into his work which takes on a decidedly darker tone. Astrid becomes concerned at how absent the usually present Jesse is and when he forgets to pick up Zooey from school one day, they all begin to realize that something is off.

Things begin to get even stranger when Zooey answers the door one night and its Ray Smilie, who strangely mutters “it’s time to come home”, while grasping his electric guitar.   An interesting response to his appearance occurs when Astrid and Zooey have compassion on the troubled man for the loss of his parents, yet Jesse is extremely cautious, knowing how strange Ray is behaving. “You always say we should treat others the way we want to be treated,” Zooey says to her father. But we’re with Jesse on this one, especially since “The Devil’s Candy” is the kind of movie where the audience knows more than most of the characters in the movie. We know Ray has continued to struggle to keep the voices at bay since he’s left his home, because when he can’t he becomes susceptible to finding candy for the devil.

 

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No, I’m not going to tell you what kind of candy the devil likes, nor will I go on any more about the plot of this movie. I will tell you that Taylor Vince’s Ray develops an uncomfortable interest in Glasco’s Zooey and a nerve-wracking pursuit the develops throughout the movie that becomes truly terrifying. That Byrne crafts such a disturbing and effective story while using horror conventions we’re kind of used to at this point, is a credit to him as a filmmaker and a fan of the genre. I went in thinking “The Devil’s Candy” will likely be another shot at the demon possession subgenre of horror films, but I was surprised to find that at the heart of it is a family that I could actually become involved with and care for. Credit for that is due to the actors that make up the Hellman family, but it also can be awarded to Byrne’s screenplay.

Once you have a solid screenplay, casting becomes key and the roles in “The Devil’s Candy” are perfectly cast to suit the characters.  Nevertheless, it’s surprising to see these roles/characters become more than we expect them to be. The loving relationship established early on between Embry, Appleby and Glasco that is both palpable and refreshing to see in a horror flick. Usually the teenager in a movie like this is rolling his/her eyes throughout, annoyed or ambivalent to the situation or events unfolding around them or the such a character wouldn’t have a very good relationship with a parent and he/she will be easily swayed by the stranger who can understand her (remember Max Cady in “Cape Fear”?), but here there’s an obvious solid marriage and an endearing father/daughter relationship that seems so rare in this genre. I must add that Glasco makes for a formidable heroine as well in this movie, but that’s all I prefer to say since she’s yet another character who offer surprises. Because of how well Byrne developed these characters and how convincingly the actors portrayed them, the movie winds up subverting expectations, despite containing certain horror conventions.

More about the antagonist in “The Devil’s Candy” though, or villain, if you must call Ray Smilie such. I say that because in the beginning (actually through the first half) we see Ray trying to fend off the voices and what Byrne does here is give viewers someone to understand and feel for. Sure, the things Ray does are awful, but we know it’s not really him and because he is alone and doesn’t have the love of a spouse and child to connect him to something bigger than himself, to ground him, he is more susceptible to demonic influences, which is why Jesse ultimately has a different response to the same voices. Pruitt Taylor Vince has long been that-actor-who-can-do-that-thing-with-his-eyes, at least since “Identity”, which is when I became aware of his distinctive trait, but to me he’s also been an underrated character actor for some time. He could’ve just been the creepy, overweight guy, but he becomes as increasing unsettling and disturbing as he is sympathetic and pathetic as the story unfolds. That’s a testament to the actor’s handling of a what could’ve been a stereotypically evil role.

It’s surprising to me that Byrne apparently had difficultly getting this film (or any new projects) off the ground, but thankfully he managed to secure a green light for this one because it really winds up being a standout. Not just because of great writing and acting, but also due to the imagery and tone of the movie. His use of different variations of the color red is noticed throughout, from the paintings Jesse create to the lipstick and wardrobe of the gallery curator, there’s an evident alluring and magnetic pull to the color included throughout. Red can be the color of love and life, but it this genre it has a tendency of taking on a more ominous connotation, which is how Byrne uses it. It’s appropriate yet never heavy-handed symbolism.

Speaking of heavy, I’d be remiss if I didn’t reiterate how important music, specifically heavy metal is to this movie. It never overwhelms the movie, but songs by Metallica, Pantera, Queens of the Stone Age, Goya, Spiderbait and PJ Harvey become infectious enhancers to the distinctive look and feel to the movie. It never feels like certain songs are included just to stand out or become recognizable to viewers. Just the opposite, in fact, as each song appropriately blends in to the scenes they are in.

I’d watch “The Devil’s Candy” again, just to take in Byrne’s narrative structure again and watch more observantly how the story unfolds. Again, it’s a surprisingly clever story with some fine performances, that offers legitimate scares and an energy that builds right up until the end.

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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