Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Sean Byrne
Writer: Sean Byrne
Producer: Keith Calder, Jessica Calder
Stars: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Kiara Glasco, Tony Amendola, Leland Orser
A disturbed man who believes Satan speaks in his mind stalks a family who moves into the haunted home where he used to live.
Metalhead Jesse Hellman isn’t a starving artist, but he is close to it. That’s why the cheap deal on a remote Texas farmhouse is too good of a bargain to pass up for relocating with his wife Astrid and teenage daughter Zooey. It’s a cheap deal because two people recently died there, though Jesse figures he’ll leave well enough alone and not dig too deep into those deaths.
The cause of those deaths is about to dig into Jesse and his family, however. Not-so-gentle giant Ray Smilie usually plays his Flying V guitar at top volume to drown out the sound of Satan speaking in his head. Yet when he hears the voice, he is compelled to come back to the house where his parents died in search of more candy to feed the Devil.
Jesse has an unusual connection to Ray, because he hears the voice too. Except for him, the sounds put Jesse in a catatonic trance driving him to paint the tormented faces of children, including his own daughter Zooey. Something sinister is certainly stirring in both men’s minds. And the collision course they are on doesn’t just run through the house. Sitting in its center is Jesse’s family, who is in for a terrifying experience of their own.
“The Devil’s Candy” is smart about flipping scripts for stereotypes. Jesse’s atypical relationship with his punky daughter is devoid of the usual angst versus authority tug-of-war, putting the loving father-daughter duo almost instantly in the viewer’s pocket through the sentimentality of a car karaoke connection. That sweetness grounds their family in a tangible reality where intangible darkness is thus permitted to come across as deeply unsettling.
Stepping up as the film’s MVP is Pruitt Taylor Vince as Ray. Ray is not the usual Gibson guitar gunslinger one might expect. Vince is no stranger to roles skewing toward a certain side of the spectrum. Yet his lumbering psychopath here is his most layered, evoking shades of Lennie Small sympathy in quieter moments and unfettered fear when his inner brute is uncaged.
Development of these dynamics kicks up initial investment in the personalities that plot progression puts on pause midway through the movie. Once tones of tingling terror are traded for acceleration toward amplified action, “The Devil’s Candy” ends up holding a handful of threads with no needle to tighten them.
Try finding a single adjective fitting for Shiri Appleby’s character, or a way to describe her that doesn’t include the words ‘wife’ or ‘mother.’ And if there is an essential thematic value that comes from Leland Orser’s brief, yet title card-credited cameo as a televangelist, the movie doesn’t make its meaning obvious. Ditto for Jesse’s ongoing courtship of a Mr. Scratch-like art dealer whose inclusion appears no more useful than as a tool to explain why Jesse is late picking up Zooey from school.
Scattershot subplots somewhat wash away in the light of an explosive ending featuring a spectacularly horrifying home invasion scenario. Raw power in depicted brutality delivers stark scares demanding full attention and elevated awareness. These frights are felt in the film’s final effect, accentuated by a palpable pall of demonic dread. Concurrently, there is a nagging notion that the fiction’s foundation is only partially-formed and ultimately underwhelming, hammered home by some suspect digital fire and final moments that aren’t as convincing as the film needs them to be.
From a big picture perspective, “The Devil’s Candy” reaffirms the genre filmmaking skills director Sean Byrne debuted in his lauded 2009 movie “The Loved Ones.” Byrne’s sophomore feature compiles a smattering of standard horror film concepts, e.g. haunted house, demonic possession, serial killer thriller, and whips them up in a cerebrally creepy presentation whose atmospheric sum is more compelling than its pedestrian parts. That’s what accomplished cinematic craftsmanship can do for a skeletal script requiring the flesh of fresh skin to seem sleek.
In the more immediate moment, what Byrne does not do is fulfill his film’s early promise of being a music-fueled nightmare of unrelentingly satanic proportions. The energy of “The Devil’s Candy” is more semi-hard rock than heavy metal, powered by a pace that would make Ti West proud and a sleepily hypnotic aesthetic reminiscent of “The Witch” (review here) in a contemporary setting. This smoldering style works well for stoking slow-burn suspense, though lingering substance is another story.
Review Score: 60