Devil's Candy, The (2015)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-09-19 02:53

The Devil’s Candy (2015)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: September 26th, 2017

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Something wry and rowdy lurks beneath The Devil’s Candy, the latest film to revel in the frequent overlapping of horror and heavy metal mayhem. You sense it rumbling faintly beneath, sort of like a playful bassline creeping through a cascade of doom metal chords, waiting to break through and really shred. And while these notes aren’t completely drowned out in Sean Byrne’s latest effort, they also never quite break all the way through, resulting in a film that’s constantly on the edge of a raucous party vibe without completely embracing it. I can’t help but feel it’s neither as disturbing nor as fun as it could be.

But to be fair, that probably owes to my own expectations engendered by what little I knew about it outside of its wicked poster art and cool title font. If you go into The Devil’s Candy expecting something a bit glib or raucous, prepare to be taken aback by how damn grim it is at times. A bleak opening scene features Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an obviously disturbed man thrashing away loudly on an electric guitar at the behest of mysterious voices seeping through his wall. When his elderly mother dares to interject and demand he turns his music down, he kills her and shoves her down the stairs before barreling off in a car. Maybe this isn’t going to be a ton of fun after all, you know?

Sometime later, however, a rad family of three is looking to move out of their cramped city apartment to a countryside home on the outskirts of Austin. Of course, it’s the same house of horrors from the prologue, meaning the realtor has to admit the unseemly history of the place, which is being written off as an accident. While they’re apprehensive, they can’t turn down the offer—after all, their precocious metal head daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) loves the place, and an adjacent building would be a perfect space for patriarch Jesse (Ethan Embry, adopting a dad-grunge look) to renovate into an art studio. However, he soon begins to hear the sinister whispers emanating from the walls, crooning into his ears and guiding his art to some dark places.

These developments coincide with something even more immediately threatening: one night, a knock on the door startles the family, who is bewildered to find Ray Smilie himself rambling incoherently on their porch. Attempts to rid themselves of him prove to go horribly awry when Ray fixates on Zooey, insisting that he must feed her to the devil since children make for the sweetest candy.

A lot is stuffed into 79 minutes here, so much so that the setup is a bit leaden. Two obvious threads emerge—one involving Satanic forces coaxing Jesse into obsessive madness, another involving Ray’s unhinged pursuit of Zooey—and this might be a copout, but the two threads never quite come together in satisfying fashion. You can almost feel Byrne fumbling around in an attempt to bring them together—there’s a cool little subplot involving a Luciferian art dealer that almost accomplishes this—but The Devil’s Candy is ultimately just a bit too schizophrenic for its own good. Between all the pounding metal riffs and the family’s witty, lighthearted banter, you sense something a bit more, well, fun, trying to emerge.

But how can it when The Devil’s Candy also features multiple child abductions and at least one child murder? To Byrne’s credit, such moments are genuinely disturbing, and not just because he’s exploiting the natural discomfort of such material. He wrings these sequences for maximum unease, allowing his camera to track and linger on a pair of boys playing while Ray lurks in the distance, waiting to strike. His exploits become even more squeamish when he begins to invade the family’s home, going so far as to climb into Zooey’s bed like the sick predator he is. He claims he doesn’t want to do this, but Satan cannot be denied, not that Byrne is all that interested in making him a tragic figure (despite the fact that we know he’s telling the truth—the devil is making him do it).

Obviously, The Devil’s Candy doesn’t make a whole lot of room for such psychological or moral complexity, especially once it degenerates into an admittedly tense slash-and-stalk exercise. The last act here is a fine collection of nail-biting suspense and rousing action beats as Byrne escalates from a grungy bathroom escape to full on final confrontation set in a burning house. The Devil’s Candy features one of the most harrowing home invasions in recent memory, one that leaves you wondering just how in the hell anyone will survive since Vince is such a ruthless force of nature as Ray. He’s a menacing presence, though Vince does capture that faint, almost childlike demeanor lurking behind his demonic intentions, giving him the slightest bit more dimension than the usual maniac.

And really, that’s where The Devil’s Candy shines: though it’s a doubly familiar tale involving Satanic forces and home invasions, the character work is both distinct and wonderfully realized. Tales involving families under siege tend to work best when you’re actually invested in the family, and this bunch is eminently likeable. Even with a shaggy, unkempt dad-rock look, Embry has the sort of face that was made to droop with anxiety and guilt, and he effortlessly shoulders Jesse’s various internal conflicts as both a struggling artist and a father desperate to protect his child.

His relationship with Zooey—who is very much her father’s daughter—would likely come off as cloying, twee bullshit in clumsier hands, but it’s authentic here. When The Devil’s Candy isn’t making you fear for Zooey’s life, it’s breaking your heart by straining her relationship with Jesse, who begins to become so absorbed with his macabre work that he ignores her. Both the body and soul of this family is ultimately at stake here, though I do wish both dimensions were blended a bit more gracefully: at times, it feels like Byrne can’t decide if he’s going down the Last House path or the Amityville path, and he eventually settles on the latter.

This is fine, especially since Byrne harnessed such chops on The Loved Ones, and he removes any lingering doubts about his skill in this arena here. The Devil’s Candy is slick and assured, stuffed to the brim with guttural violence, unnerving demonic murmurs, indelible visuals (Jesse’s art—painted in real life by Stephen Kasner—is astounding and fit for any death metal album cover), and, eventually, a raucous finale that isn’t entirely in line with what comes before. The strains of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” usher in the credits, practically coaxing you to throw up the horns and headbang away any nagging concerns you might have about The Devil’s Candy. I’m not sure it completely works, but its charms are fiendish enough.

The disc:

After bowing to mass acclaim at Fantastic Fest two years ago, The Devil’s Candy will make a timely Blu-ray debut right in the middle of this year’s iteration of the festival next week. IFC Midnight and Scream Factory have teamed up once again to deliver a fine edition of what is likely to become a modern favorite, lavishing the film with a sterling presentation and a decent amount of supplements as well. Byrne supplies an audio commentary, while effects supervisor John Han narrates a 3-minute glimpse at the film’s fiery climax, which actually involves real flames alongside some clever compositing. A photo gallery, the film’s trailer, and a music video for Goya’s “Blackfire” are also included. However, the real treat for Byrne fans who have waited years for a follow-up to The Loved Ones will be “Advantage Satan,” a fun short film involving horny kids and an eerie, Satanic presence at a tennis court. Some dodgy effects aside, it boasts some clever visual touchstones—a Raimi-cam freakout, a group of demented Children of the Damned-style tykes—and captures the unabashedly fun vibe hinted at in The Devil’s Candy.

Which is not to say the main feature itself here is to be overlooked: on the contrary, The Devil’s Candy features some terrific performances in its thrashing mosh pit of Satanic panic and leaves you hoping Byrne’s next project won’t take nearly as long to come to fruition. He’s transported some of that slick, new-wave Ozploitation nastiness to the States here, and it's something we could no doubt use more of in the future.
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