Those fearing the dreaded sophomore slump from Australian director Sean Byrne can put those fears to bed, as his American debut The Devil’s Candy offered up one hell of a gloriously fucked up, bloody affair. If it’s possible, Byrne succeeded in amping up the violence, chaos and cringeworthy physical discomfort of his debut, the remarkable The Loved Ones.
On the outskirts of a sleepy Texas ‘burb, hulking man child Ray Smilie straps on his flying vee guitar in the late hours of the night, and turns his amp up to eleven in order to drown out the whispering demonic voices. Before his aged mother can make good on her threat to have Ray sent back to the psychiatric ward, she ends up dead by his hand at the bottom of the staircase. When the father returns home and finds his wife in a heap, he soon joins her in the afterlife. Both deaths are ruled accidental and the house is soon up on the market, where it sits unsold due to its sordid past.
Enter tatted up, metalhead painter Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), his banker wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their metalhead tween daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) into the picture. The house represents a chance for Jesse to give his family a bigger home and better life, while also allowing him the space to work on his art. Granted, the investment means making sacrifices, such as Jesse having to compromise his metal roots in order to take on commissioned projects like painting a butterfly collage for the local bank or Zooey having to deal with a bedroom covered in teddy bear stencils.
Of course, part of the problem with getting a deal on a home is you have to deal with the baggage. In most cases this means fixing a leaky roof, patching up holes in the walls or replacing broken down appliances. In the case of this particular house, it means Jesse soon hears the same voices that drove Ray to kill. The voices put Jesse into a zen-like trance and before long he’s painting demonic artwork that imagines Zooey engulfed in flames while demonic creatures surround her. Jesse has no recollection of creating these horrific paintings, yet he finds himself returning to his studio over and over to add more awful details.
The Devil’s Candy offers more than a standard tale of demonic possession as Byrne merges the supernatural element with a serial killer story as well. Byrne does enough with both to keep the audience on edge and play against expectations. The family has barely the time to unpack their bags when Ray turns up on their door step, , his sad moon face telling them that “he has to come home now.” He even goes so far to leave Zooey a flying vee guitar and Marshall Amp in their driveway as a sort of housewarming gift. A great villain is more than a mustache twirling embodiment of pure evil and Pruitt Taylor Vince brings a real sympathy to the damaged child killer Ray. Yet before you start to think Ray is little more than an overgrown puppy that just needs a good home, Byrne’s script has him committing unspeakable horrors on a small child before targeting the Hellman clan in earnest. The Devil’s Candy doesn’t quite approach the over the top levels of body horror and violence of The Loved Ones. However this time around the fact that its children who are targeted, along with the air of unstoppability Ray possesses make the graphic nature of the violence in the film even more unsettling in many respects. Warning: If you’re the kind of person that would get upset about children receiving the Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer sendoff in a movie, then The Devil’s Candy may not be for you.
Building off his comeback performance in Cheap Thrills, Embry continues to reinvent himself as a standout genre actor. Byrne offers him a fantastic platform here, as the relationship between Jesse and Zooey is the most human aspect of the film. Even covered in tattoos, grime and oil based pain residue, Embry manages to bring a world of soulful hurt to the table with just his eyes. It’s so easy to identify with him as the dad that wants to share all the things he loves with his kid so he can experience them anew, this time through her eyes. Glasco is just plain adorable as the tween metalhead. Watching her and Embry bang heads to early Metallica just filled the Dad part of my heart with pure fucking joy, and Glasco also knows when to rein it back and just be a scared as shit little girl instead of someone that’s too cool for school.
The flipside of that love is failure. Throughout the film we see and feel Embry’s hurt and abject terror every time he lets his daughter down or fails to protect her. There’s pseudo comical moments that still manage to break your heart, such as him telling his daughter she can’t keep the guitar since it was given to her by a psychotic, yet he knows he can’t provide her with one nearly as cool. That’s light and fluffy compared to the panic that comes with his inability to keep Zooey safe from Ray. Zooey is sure to let him know it too in a moment that just guts the viewer emotionally. Devil’s Candy mines some dark, brutal territory, and it’s clear that Byrne has no interest in watering down his brand of content to suit american sensibilities.
The Devil’s Candy is the second metal-themed horror movie I’ve watched this month, and as much as I love Deathgasm, if you put a gun to my head and told me to pick one, I’d choose this one. It’s a more grounded work that plays with themes of parenthood and the fucked up evil humans do to one another that are right up my alley. It’s clear that Sean Byrne is having a moment, and should be recognized as a modern days craftsman when it comes to horror. Hopefully The Devil’s Candy will be the film that puts him on the radar of a larger audience when it finds an eventual home. As it standsThe Devil’s Candy is a brutal, uncompromising mix of horror genres that stands out with one of the best family dynamics in recent horror memory. Embry continues to impress with his genre work, and if there is one lesson to be learned from the film, it is this: Do Not Fuck With This Man.