Fantastic Fest review: THE DEVIL’S CANDY

Some films leave an impact on you so profoundly, that it takes a while for you to fully wrap your head around them. Remove yourself from the theatrical experience of seeing them enough to articulate what made the films hit you so hard. Sean Byrne’s THE DEVIL’S CANDY was that kind of film and that kind of theatrical experience, one that reaches through the screen and pulls you right into the film’s story of a father trying to be there for his daughter, in spite of other factors, supernatural and human, all trying to take the young girl away from him.

Ray (the always great Pruitt Taylor Vince), a man hearing demonic voices in his head, stares at a cross in his room. He grabs his flying V guitar and continually strums a single chord over and over, in an attempt to drown out the voices in his head. When the Ray’s aging mother comes into the room and tells him that he’ll have to go back to the “hospital”, Ray stops playing the guitar and uses it to murder both of his parents. With an opening like that, your attention is commanded, your eyes are glued to the screen and yet you have absolutely NO idea what’s in store. We then meet Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry in a career best performance), a metal head painter whose best friend is his teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco, MAP TO THE STARS), a young girl obsessed with Metallica, all things metal and being as much like her father as possible. Jesse’s wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby, Roswell) isn’t a square herself, but is a character who makes most of the money for the family, all while Jesse is forced to do painting commissions filled with butterflies and for banks and such. It’s a good family dynamic that Embry, Appleby and Glasco are able to convey, that before a single ounce of danger heads their way, you already fall in love with the family that as a viewer, you’re asked to take the film’s journey with, and boy is it an emotional journey.

When Jesse and Astrid decides to buy a house in the country, one with a huge studio for Jesse’s painting and so on, it seems to them, a dream come true. The realtor casually mentions that an old man and woman passed away while living in the house, and the low price of the house is a deal that the couple can’t pass up. Having seen the house ourselves, earlier in the film and knowing that Ray murdered his family in that house due to hearing demonic voices, driving him to kill, we know it’s a matter of time before things turn bad. What we’re then given is a combination of multiple horror film subgenres, seamlessly brought into one story. We see Ray checking into motels and stalking little children to sacrifice to the devil in hopes that the voices will stop. We also begin to see Jesse slowly begin to hear the voices himself, leading him to paint very dark and demented pieces of artwork, featuring young children murdered and his own Zooey in flames. The more Jesse gives into the voice that lead him to paint such dark pieces, his art opens up opportunities with dark art galleries, but what it also does is make him lose track of time, causing him to be hours late to pick Zooey up from school, causing somewhat of a wedge between the loving father and his best friend of a daughter. It’s a series of heart-aching moments for the film, something you rarely see in horror, well written relationships between a father and his daughter, something that director Byrne is able to do with such precision and reality. Anybody who has a child themselves and knows what it’s like to have them rely on you to be their rock and their friend can identify with the film and its story. There’s a level of honesty in Embry’s performance, that when he continually lets Zooey down, you can see the pain in his eyes, and it genuinely tugs at you as a viewer. The more Jesse hears and listens to the voices, the worse his condition gets and also the more he paints the brutal artwork of murders that Ray is committing.

Though THE DEVIL’S CANDY would have worked already as just a demonic possession film, the twist comes when ray decides to return home, and we’re then given an absolutely terrifying mixture of a kidnap film and a home invasion piece, all mixed in with a strong dose of the devil as well. Ray sets his sights on Zooey and with Jesse being led to paint without even knowing it, he’s accidentally allowing that wedge between himself and his daughter to grow and for her to become a target of Ray’s.

THE DEVIL’S CANDY is such a solid horror film and one that will without a doubt be remembered years from now as a genre mixture of horror and heart, of an absolutely metal as hell soundtrack (featuring everyone from Metallica to Pantera to the score work performed by Sun O))), which is as scary as it gets) and an examination of the bond between a father and his daughter. You can tell that Byrne took a while to write this one, because it shows in how endearing and also brutally terrifying the film is. Any other filmmaker would have put all of the different subgenres of horror into a messy film, but what THE DEVIL’S CANDY does so well, is bringing you as a viewer into the lives of a family fighting to stay together, fighting to stay alive, and fighting to overcome evil of all kinds, of demonic and human persuasions. It’s a heavy metal filled roller coaster of emotions that refuses to let you go until the shocking end.