Way back in 2009, director Sean Byrne unleashed The Loved Ones, a tongue-in-cheek slasher that was smartly written and acted. Not to mention, it was pretty brutal in the violence department. The film garnered critical acclaim, and we waited for Byrne’s follow-up. That came in the form of The Devil’s Candy, which made its debut at TIFF back in 2015, scheduled for a limited US release and VOD March 17th. Yes, much like The Loved Ones, The Devil’s Candy had has a long road to getting a theatrical release. But hey, any film that kicks off with Metallica’s cover of Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?” demands to be seen, right? And what a delicious film it was.
Jesse (Ethan Embry) is a painter who loves metal and his family. Along with his wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby), and their teenage daughter, Zooey (Kiara Glasco), Jesse buys a home in rural Texas. The move goes well, although unbeknownst to Jesse, the previous residents of the house were murdered by their mentally-disturbed son, Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who may have had some “influence”. This same influence is now after Jesse, whose art begins to take on a darker tone. As well, Ray is still at large, and has taken an interest in Zooey.
As in The Loved Ones, Byrne continues with the strong writing. And it’s no more prevalent than in the relationship between Jesse and Zooey. The father-daughter bond may seem trite to some, but it’s also quite touching and grounded. And, it’s something necessary for a story like this. Not only do you have Jesse’s inner conflicts of artistic frustration and the expected friction of having your daughter grow up, but there’s also shades of The Amityville Horror and The Shining at play with Jesse. Byrne also pays attention to building up Ray, adding a bit of tragic dimension to a character that could’ve been a one-note antagonist that gets lost in the shuffle. Of course, once you see the depravity of the character (and his crimes), this sympathy gets twisted and thrown back into the audience’s face, which is something I love. This playing with emotions, coupled with the masterful way in which Byrne conjures up tension and dread, turns what could’ve been a simple story of good versus evil into something more interesting.
Obviously, none of this work on the writing side would mean anything if the actors weren’t up to the task. Lucky for us, everyone’s on point. Ethan Embry is fantastic as Jesse, communicating the required emotions and frustrations as required for the character, but also flips to the dark side with his inner torment once those voices come calling. Likewise, Shiri Appleby and Kiara Glasco are also great, maintaining the strong familial component that Byrne put into the characters. It makes it all the more torturous once Jesse begins being affected by the demonic whisperings in his ear, as you suffer with the family. Pruitt Taylor Vince is fantastic as the little boy lost inside the hulking man in Roy. Again, that sympathy you feel for the character who feels he has no choice in what he does is largely accentuated though Vince’s performance.
In spite of the largely solid writing, the film does hit some sour spots. Given the nature of Roy’s crimes involving children, how is he able to continue his spree largely unimpeded by the police? Given his conspicuous appearance and his history of psychiatric disturbances, you’d think that the police would focus on him as a potential suspect. Surprisingly, that’s not the case. Another hole occurs in the film’s climax, which flies in the face of logic in parts. Still, it’s a credit to Byrne’s writing and presentation that keeps the film together in these rough spots.
For my taste, The Devil’s Candy was delectable. Not only were the writing, acting and presentation quality carried over from The Loved Ones, but Byrne manages to take a simple premise and mold it into something unique. And yes, while there are points in the story that aren’t as fleshed out or as strong as the rest, these can be easily overlooked in favour of seeing the quality that’s been put into the overall film itself. One hopes that Byrne will get the notice of studios, and be given the opportunity to create a film on a larger scale. In the meantime, you’ll be gorging on The Devil’s Candy and loving it.