Films as special as The Devil’s Candy don’t come around that often. Hell, we’re lucky if we get one a decade, let alone one a year. It’s difficult to draw comparisons between it and any other horror movie released in the past five years. It would take forever to explain what exactly it is that’s so wonderful about it, because there’s so much here to love. Put simply, you must see it as soon as possible, purchase it, re-watch it, and make it the classic it deserves to be. This is proof that horror can, and should, do great things. And we must celebrate it accordingly.
The story follows adorable metal-head family Jesse (Ethan Embry, un-recognisable in a revelatory, career-making performance that outshines his smaller roles in Late Phases, Cheap Thrills and The Guest), Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco). Given this is a movie about Satanism, naturally, it takes place in Texas. And the family, naturally, inherit a farmhouse with a checkered past that we know about from a thrilling, creepy prologue. Luckily, the realtor assures them “it’s not like Charlie Manson lived here”.
Events don’t quite escalate the way one would expect from this kind of film, which is just one of the many joys of The Devil’s Candy. Jesse is a struggling painter who begins having visions about children in peril (including his own). Meanwhile, a tortured man tries to block out the voices in his head by playing loud electric guitar. Given metal and Satan go together like popcorn and Coke, it’s only fitting that the two feature just as prominently as each other. In fact, one could almost envisage double-billing this flick with last year’s Kiwi horror-comedy Deathgasm.
Although The Devil’s Candy would have to go first, of course, considering the only humor contained within is of the deliciously dark, and very fleeting variety. Writer-director Sean Byrne (The Loved Ones) has crafted an intense, thought-provoking but very subtle work here that gets under your skin by drip-feeding the information throughout, rather than chucking it all at the screen in the hopes of something sticking (or shocking). Take, for example, that creepy Devil voice that’s never quite explained, and is all the better for it.
The Texas countryside is gorgeously captured, with the same kind of sun-baked, lived-in quality that afforded Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the more recent The Devil’s Rejects and All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, an authentic feel. The sound design is incredible; every blow is felt, from a kick to the jaw to a door slammed shut. And it’s easy to understand why certain images – Jesse with the guitar, or in the mask while spray-painting – have already become iconic. And their reach will only grow with time, along with the movie itself.
The Devil’s Candy is anchored by a key central performance from Embry, whose pained, heavily tattooed Jesse looks like a cross between Matthew Mc Conaughey and Rob Zombie. Embry is fast becoming a bonafide Horror Icon and this performance sets him apart from the crowd as a go-to for filmmakers looking to make their mark. Appleby does fine work, too, as the loving Astrid, and Glasco is a real find as the sullen but good-natured Zooey. It’s a credit to them all how genuinely sad it is to see their lovely little family unit torn apart.
As sort-of villain Ray, character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince (who had a recurring role on TV horror hit True Blood) brings to mind a sadder, more pathetic version of John Carroll Lynch’s Zodiac maybe-killer (although, to reference another musician, he looks a bit like a meaner Kyle Gass). He doesn’t seem like a real threat at first, which adds even more fuel to the film’s super-tense final act, which is genuinely edge-of-your-seat stuff and also boasts one of the gnarliest kills in modern horror.
Byrne provides an interesting, and very welcome, twist on the norm, wrong-footing us at every turn and emphasising the positive rather than the negative. We’re rooting for these characters throughout, but their fate is never sealed either. The little metal-head family is so cute and realistic but also, crucially, new. It offers a whole new dynamic, a new perspective, and one that some of us will only really be seeing on film for the first time. The parents aren’t fuck-ups either, nor is the kid troubled. It’s refreshing.
At one point during The Devil’s Candy, a pretentious art curator tells Jesse that his latest painting is “wonderfully disturbing”. The same could be said of the film itself, which manages to be moving, involving, terrifying, funny, sad and instantly memorable – often all at once. It’s one of a kind and, as a follow-up to the shocking torture opus of The Loved Ones, is a major calling card for Sean Byrne. As a showcase for Ethan Embry, it’s a defining moment in an already strong body of work. As a moment in horror, it’s life-changing.
WICKED RATING: 10/10
Director(s): Sean Byrne
Writer(s): Sean Byrne
Stars: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Kiara Glasco, Pruitt Taylor Vince
Studio/ Production Co: Snoot Entertainment
Length: 90 mins.