The Devil's Candy 2017
A struggling painter is possessed by satanic forces after he and his young family move into their dream home in rural Texas, in this creepy haunted-house tale.
Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Kiara Glasco
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” That quote from horror master H.P. Lovecraft could apply to The Devil’s Candy, written and directed by Sean Byrne. He made a splash at Sundance and the People’s Choice Awards with Advantage and The Loved Ones, and Byrne’s new film, distributed by the good horror-hounds at IFC Midnight, does not disappoint.
A struggling painter named Jesse Hellman, (Ethan Embry, looking like a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Jesus Christ), moves into an isolated Texas farmhouse with his wife and daughter. The wife Astrid, (Shiri Appleby), voices trepidation about the move affecting them financially. Daughter Zooey, (a fantastic Kiara Glasco), doesn’t want to start over at a new school. Jesse thinks the move will pull him out of his creative rut. Jesse is a man possessed. Quite literally, actually. Turns out, the Hellman family is sharing room and board with the devil himself… and the beast is hungry.
Admittedly, the plot of The Devil’s Candy isn’t terribly fresh; however, the great performances more than make up for it. The brilliant character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince plays Ray Smilie, the previous tenant of the hell house. After years of the house “speaking” to him, Smilie has gone quite mad. His actions propel the horror, and actor Vince delivers in every way possible.
I have been a fan of Vince ever since his turn in James Mangold’s Heavy (1995). An Emmy-winner, Vince has the power to elevate even the shakiest of material, such as that strange John Cusack movie Identity (2003), but this film is tailor-made to his talents. While Jesse fights the darkness for the sake of his family, Smilie is all too willing to be Satan’s gourmet chef. Vince is able to make the character empathetic, pathetic, odious, compassionate, all with minimal dialogue. His internal life, the world beneath his eyes, is fascinating to watch. It’s fortunate that Vince doesn’t completely steal the show.
The other performances are equally compelling, in particular the relationship between Jesse and his daughter Zooey. It’s established early on that they share a love of metal music. A small detail, but what that rapport represents, (a father’s pride in his daughter and vice versa), really makes you root for them. Astrid, the mother character, is placed more in the background of the story. Appleby is solid in every scene she is given though, and her turn as classic “scream queen” near the end is effective.
Kiara Glasco is a young actress to keep an eye on. On paper, there isn’t much to the character of Zooey. She falls into the damsel in distress category. Her main purpose in the second half is to be kidnapped by Smilie and rescued by her dad. A thankless role if ever there was one. But Glasco makes Zooey a force of nature. She turns the teenager into a dynamic animal, emoting ferocity with every expression. Ethan Embry sells the idea of a man fighting demonic forces. His emotional journey, from relief at rediscovering his artistic voice, to revulsion when he discovers it’s source, is believable. In many ways, the reluctant hero is the hardest part to play in a story. Embry succeeds admirably.
Director Byrne keeps the pacing tight. The narrative doesn’t get bogged down in needless subplots, but there is enough world-building to create audience investment. Byrne also understands visual metaphor. With the help of cinematographer Simon Chapman and production designer Thomas S. Hammock, The Devil’s Candy creates a very gothic, very Catholic world. Crucifixes decorate walls, red lights paint the shots, and shadows are ash black. Every moment, no matter how small, is filled with anxiety and a sense of impending doom. One scene in particular, when Jesse sells a new painting to a rich patron, might as well be a scene out of Häxan. Overt when it needs to be and subtle the rest of the time, for the most part.
The end of The Devil’s Candy does go to hell, and not in the good way. Regrettably, Byrne decides that bigger is better, and the results are egregiously cornball. The CGI doesn’t look remotely realistic. It will pull you out of the experience, which is a shame. The religious subtext becomes too literal. The ending doesn’t betray the internal logic of the story, but it does undercut the ambiguity that had been built up. It’s a whimper to an otherwise rapturous horror flick.
The Devil’s Candy will be on DVD and limited theatrical release on March 17, 2017.