Of all the movies I saw at TIFF, THE DEVIL’S CANDY is the one I’ve had the most trouble writing about. Which is weird, because it is undoubtedly my favorite movie that I saw at the fest, but for whatever reason, articulating why has so far escaped me. Most of my conversations during and after have basically devolved into incoherence while trying to see it: “My favorite film from the festival? Oh easy, it’s THE DEVIL’S CANDY! Yeah man, it’s awesome. Why? Well…okay, because… okay, so there’s a house, and an artist buys it with his family, and there’s a big guy wearing a red tracksuit, and… what? No, the guy isn’t Santa Claus… Takes place in Texas, and maybe the house is haunted, maybe it’s the Devil, maybe not, and then crazy shit happens. Where you going?”
So kicking it around the last few weeks (Jesus, I’m slow), I began wondering if the film, entertaining as it was, was hurt by the fact that it’s living in the shadow of many of its much more prominent cinematic siblings from the last few years. THE DEVIL’S CANDY has elements of home invasion, haunted houses, serial killers, Satanic panic, and some potential Faustian bargains with a heavy metal backdrop, but from talking to a few people who saw it, the consensus seemed to be that they saw it as weaker than the movies of which it reminded them.
But thinking about it even more the last few weeks, I don’t believe that. Filmmaking is a specific kind of alchemy already, and what director-writer Sean Byrne (THE LOVED ONES) understands about that alchemy is that just because certain elements have been used effectively, doesn’t meant that they still can’t be used effectively. This movie is most definitely effective, and shows us a riveting exploration of a family catching the eye of a kind of evil as unrelenting as it is grounded.
Jesse (Ethan Embry) loves three things: Heavy Metal, Painting, and most importantly his family. Although he’s only scraping by doing murals for banks, he and his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) decide to take a gamble on a buying a house in rural Texas with an insanely low price point after the deaths of its previous owners, in the hopes of finally giving themselves and their preteen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) a home. However, almost immediately, Jesse starts feeling strange sensations in the house, and he ends up painting some of his best work, work that is equal parts eye-catching and disturbing. Almost immediately at the same time, though, Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), the son of the former residents, turns up on their doorstep. Ray is clearly disturbed, which is raises a red flag with Jesse, which is raised even higher when Ray takes an interest in Zooey, all while the house whispers its dark song into Jesse’s ear just as it did to Ray years earlier, leading both on a collision course.
So lets get this out up front: The majority of what works about this movie comes from the performances. Aside from a few minor characters (including a welcome if underutilized Tony Amendola as a cold big time art gallery owner) the whole of the movie focuses on the quartet of Embry, Appleby, Glascow, and Vince. Embry has been doing some increasingly interesting work in the last few years, and he is one of those actors able to radiate emotion off the screen. If he’s happy, you’re happy, and if he’s terrified (as Jesse is in the back half of the film) you’re terrified, because he exudes empathy like a megawatt lightbulb. This is doubly true when combined with Appleby and Glasco, with the relationship between Embry and Glasco being particularly strong, which is good since it sort of hinges the stakes for the whole movie.
Said stakes come in the form of Vince, a character actor you would recognize on sight as his build and a unique eye condition have made him a go-to for creeps and criminals. But in THE DEVIL’S CANDY Vince gets to craft a very particular kind of monster in Ray. He’s a guy that doesn’t seem to fit in any kind of physical space, just all twitchiness and childlike frustration. You would feel sorry for him if it weren’t for all the child murders. Which works given the story, as he might not be in real control of his actions, but despite that, he’s still terrifying, because you realize he doesn’t stop, which makes it all the worse when his particular brand of monster goes after Embry’s family.
Byrne knows all the proper notes to hit with a story like this, and I’ll be the first to admit that father-daughter-in-peril stories like this tend to affect me more than most (I don’t know why, I’m in my mid-twenties and have no kids, so if this stuff fucks me up now, God help me if I ever do), so the film hums at a decent clip. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge metalhead, but I appreciate the aesthetic which Byrne drapes the movie around, with its distinctive sound and some key pieces of visuals. It doesn’t always work but I can appreciate it. If nothing else, the man knows how to construct tension, and he even manages to make a gun scary for the first time I can remember (this might be due to, frankly, depressing normalizing of outside realities) and when people die, he makes you feel it. He wants to make sure we recognize Hell when we see it.
Although, speaking of Hell, I will say one point I think works in the movie’s favor is that there is some ambiguity to the whole “Devil’s making me do it thing,” to the point where given the reviews I’ve read, I’m surprised so many people take the satanic stuff at face value. It definitely works in the context of the film, but there’s no supernatural elements, outside of what could easily be a more empathetic connection between Jesse and Ray, with Ray being a the kind of all-too-common person who inflicts wickedness on the world because of a disturbed brain, more than supernatural urging. Of course, this might be because I don’t believe in the Devil, but I definitely believe some people have the Devil in them, and if Byrne had downplayed some of the supposed supernatural elements for ambiguity, it would work just as well here, if not better.
I’m not sure I’ve explained this better than I did in my ramble when I started writing this, but there you have it. Of all the movies I saw at TIFF, this is the one that’s stuck with me the most, and probably the one I’ll want to own the most once it hits Blu-Ray. Byrne is operating within realms that have been well defined by other artists at this point, but since he most definitely influenced those same artists with THE LOVED ONES, I think its appropriate he gets to play with these elements with his sophomore effort, and he makes it work for him. With a great cast, a bone-shaking soundtrack, and a villain that’ll probably have a recurring guest spot in my nightmares for the next few years, I highly recommend checking it out when you can, if only so we can get Byrne back in the directing chair sooner rather than later.
Patrick Smith has written for publications such as Spandexless and Paracinema magazine. He lives in New Jersey with his extensive collection of T-shirts.