Way back in 1973, I was forced to sit through what I still believe to be the scariest film ever produced – The Exorcist. Because of that little ditty, I still have an aversion to films that feature satanic themes. If the plot of a film features someone being possessed by a demonic force, or by Satan himself for that matter, then you won’t find me too eager to watch it. But watching films is what I do, and my editor decided that I was the one person who was best suited to watch The Devil’s Candy. And guess what? It features a character that just happens to be possessed by you know who. But I am nothing if not a good soldier, so I sat down to watch this, but in all honesty – I was already creeped out before I pressed “Play”.
Written/Directed by Sean Byrne, The Devil’s Candy tells the story of Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), a talented artist who denies himself the pleasure of creating personal pieces of art in order to work on less imaginative commission pieces. He does this to save money to buy a house and give his family the approximation of a comfortable life, but those commission pieces don’t really pay too much money. But Jesse manages to save enough money to close on a house that has a bit of dark history behind it, that history includes the discovery of two dead bodies inside of it. But the price for the house was just right, and it comes with a separate studio so Jesse can work on the kind of art that he wants to create. But as Jesse and his family settle into the house, he begins to hear voices in his head. These voices lead him into blackouts where he paints extremely disturbing, but truly brilliant works of art. But he has no recollection of painting them.
And then Jesse meets Ray.
Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) knows something about the house that Jesse doesn’t. The deceased couple that were found in the house were actually Ray’s parents, and it was Ray that killed them. You see, Ray has been hearing the same voices that Jesse has, and Ray’s been hearing them for a long time. But those voices don’t inspire Ray to create anything but mayhem, because the voices make him do “bad things”. To fight back against those incessant voices, Ray strums bar chords from a bright red electric guitar. But despite his best efforts, he isn’t always successful in keeping the voices at bay. And when Ray loses the battle against the voices, he goes back to the house where his parents died in order to find more candy for the Devil. Eventually these voices will force Jesse and Ray into a struggle for not only their lives, but the lives of Jesse’s wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and his daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco).
What’s immediately evident while watching The Devil’s Candy is the relationship between Jesse and his daughter. They genuinely enjoy each other’s company, there’s none of the usual angst that you’d expect from a young girl on the cusp of puberty and her parents. The script imbues the family with a sense of goodness, one that the audience can immediately latch onto, and care about. The script also makes Ray someone to fear, but there’s a definite air of innocence to him as well. He’s a gentle giant who shouldn’t have a chance against those voices in his head, but he tries to fight back against them the best way he knows how.
Director Byrne makes music a big part of The Devil’s Candy. The bond between Jesse and his daughter is solidified by their shared love of heavy metal music, and the chords that Ray plays to keep the voices at bay are definitely based on metal music as well. Whenever I hear metal in a film, it usually represents something evil, but Byrne uses it here as something both good and evil. It’s a brilliant conceit that I didn’t even realize was taking place until the film ended. The discordant tones of the voices that Jesse and Ray were created by Sunn O))), and tracks from metal gods like Slayer, Metallica, and others can be heard throughout the film. And while I can’t say that I’m much of a metal fan personally, the tracks selected for inclusion in this film sound great, and fit the aesthetic that Byrne was shooting for perfectly.
As far as the performances go, Pruitt Taylor Vince pretty much runs away with the film. His singularly unique look has led him to play a lot of roles that are similar to Ray, and while that might some viewers to think he’s been typecast, I don’t find that to be the case. He gives Ray two clearly delineated halves, one being similar to Lenny Small (from Of Mice and Men), and one that’s the epitome of evil. Both halves are equally tremendous, and even when he’s being especially evil – you can see the innocence behind his eyes. Embry also gives a powerhouse performance here, I didn’t even recognize him at first because he’s physically different here from other films I’ve seen him in. But he makes the love Jesse feels for his family feel true, and the anger he goes through towards the end of the film when he squares off against Ray is palpable. Shiri Appleby does a yeoman’s job here as Astrid, but she doesn’t really seem to give her character any layers – she’s essentially Jesse’s wife, Zooey’s mom and nothing else. Kiara Glasco gives a very heartfelt performance as Zooey, and as I mentioned earlier – the bond between her and Jesse is well established, and believable.
The Devil’s Candy isn’t perfect, there are a few narrative lapses that slow the film down a bit towards the middle section of the film. the inclusion of a televangelist (Played by Leland Orser) is odd as it leads to nothing that’s thematically important to the film. But everything else works perfectly, and the finale is a dread filled delight that’s really scary. The atmosphere that Byrne creates is eerie, scary, and all encompassing – it really kept me on edge. At a lean mean running time of 79 minutes, the film is a near perfect example of genre film making at its very best. Byrne made a splash with his last film, The Loved Ones, back in 2009, and although he hasn’t made a film from then until now, it’s patently obvious that he’s grown leaps and bounds as a film maker. The Devil’s Candy is easily one of the best films of the year, and it deserves the attention of all genre film fans. It really is that good. Miss it at your peril.
The Devil’s Candy (4.5 / 5)