Horror is expanding as a genre. Although your local multiplex is peppered with the usual contenders, look a bit closer at the schedule and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this new, bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror.
Hard candy isn’t just those horrible boiled sweets your mother force-fed you when the plane was about to take off, it’s also a term widely used by paedophiles to refer to underage girls when surfing the net. Thus the basis of David Slade‘s assured debut feature. The incendiary, exemplary, cringe-inducingly horrifying Hard Candy.
The film has gained infamy over the past decade for one particular sequence, during which Ellen Page’s teenage vigilante Hayley castrates Patrick Wilson’s assumed child molester Jeff, while forcing him to watch the whole thing as it happens. It’s later revealed she hasn’t done anything besides set up a videotape of castrations and source some believable, fake testicles to wave around in his face once the deed is supposedly done.
For me, the operation itself isn’t the only horror element to Hard Candy. At its core, it’s a remarkably brave, incredibly dark so-called “crime thriller” (really, who is the IMDb kidding with these genre specifications?) that pitches two flawed, arguably quite horrible, people against each other and forces us, as an audience, to decide who we’d rather see triumph. It’s horror, plain and simple.Page and Wilson are unbelievably perfect casting; him a good-looking, albeit slightly creepy man of a certain age and she a flat-chested, tomboyish almost-baby who turns from being suggestive and knowing to innocent and vulnerable with just a flick of her lashes. Page was 17 at the time of filming, but she’s utterly convincing as a 14-year-old, which in itself begs questions about the nature of desire and sexual gratification.
She gives a speech, once she’s drugged and restrained her prey, about being an adult (“You certainly act older than you are” he tells her during their first meeting) and the idea of assumed consent. It’s one of the most shocking and honest moments of the entire narrative, even more so than the third act reveal that Jeff and his buddy Aaron may have killed a missing teenager (a moment that feels slightly tacked on, and overly complicated).
The darkness of the subject matter is offset by the pastel wash of Jeff’s house, but everything turns to grey once Hayley has revealed her true intentions, making this both a literally and figuratively dark picture. In place of a score, there are quick bursts of techno but, for the most part, Hard Candy is sound-tracked by Jeff’s heavy breathing and screams for help, juxtaposed against Hayley’s impassioned speeches.
It’s sadly rare to see a woman in such a position of power in cinema, let alone a teenager, but Hayley makes the Catnisses and Trises of the world look like princesses in comparison, consistently outsmarting the older man and convincing him to do exactly what she wants, often by force. In one, particularly memorable sequence, he crawls towards her pathetically, weapon in hand, and she strolls over, blasts him with a taser and continues on. In another, she casually makes plans with a friend while wiping his house of her fingerprints.
The central conceit of Hard Candy is the question of whether or not Jeff is actually a paedophile. He consistently protests his innocence in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, but even when he’s pushed to admit to Hayley that he probably hasn’t been the best behaved man, there’s still an inkling of doubt. This is what makes the horrifying ending sting as it does, especially as Hayley goes back on her promise to exonerate him.
The movie has aged slightly, with the opening sequence–a creepy exchange of flirty pleasantries between Jeff and Hayley–taking place in a chat-room. However, given the considerable number of child molestation cases currently making the news worldwide, and bound to continue to make headlines for years to come, it’s unlikely Hard Candy will ever be considered passé. A terrifyingly realistic movie disguised as a thriller, it more than deserves its spot in the Not Quite Horror pantheon.