'Devil's Candy' Unwraps Disturbing, Flimsy Supernatural Horror

Directed by: Sean Byrne; Runtime: 78 minutes
Grade: C

Despite leaving a mark on the horror genre with The Loved Ones, a polarizing mixture of revenge cinema and torture porn centered on a rejected high-school dance invitation, it took Australian director Sean Byrne over a half-decade to follow up on the mounting cult status of his feature debut. Regardless of its controversial nature, the visual interest and challenging rawness within the film seemed like it'd nail Byrne into the commercial horror discussion, but year after year passed without hearing out of the director. Eventually, Byrne's latest, The Devil's Candy, emerged on the "midnight madness" docket at Toronto's film festival, only to vanish after its screening without gaining the same traction as his debut. Both more tonally ambitious and less viscerally provocative than The Loved Ones, writer/director Byrne's sophomore effort trades pure warped psychosis for the uncontrollable mind-twisting of demonic possession, and relying on the supernatural ends up keeping it from striking the same chord.

Times aren't easy financially for the Hellman clan, but that doesn't prevent them from considering the purchase of a home in rural Texas, reduced due to the troubling history that fills the place. They're a "metal" family: the father-daughter duo of Jesse (Ethan Embry) and Zooey (Kiara Glasco) are into aggressive rock music, which is tolerated by wife and mother figure Astrid (Shiri Appleby). Jesse's a struggling painter who resorts to somewhat flowery commission pieces to pay the bills, amount to just barely enough for them to meet their mortgage; his true artistic talent goes largely unappreciated by local galleries. Once Jesse moves into the house -- and into a sprawling new studio -- there's a presence that overtakes him as he's painting, yielding disturbing yet visually interesting pieces that he cannot fully recall creating … and oftentimes distracts him from his other obligations. As he starts trying to manage this new onset creativity, a heavy and intimidating relative (Pruitt Taylor Vince) of the previous owners starts to impose upon the Hellmans, generating fear for their safety.

The Devil's Candy never offers a glimpse at Jesse's artwork in an untainted state, transitioning from the butterfly-infused commission piece he hates making to the disturbing paintings composed under supernatural possession, which turns out to be an appropriate reflection of Sean Byrne's objectives. Joy, humor, and concern are generated by the Hellman family that lead to endearing development from the start, driven by the ups and down of father-daughter bonding amid their headbanging and Jesse's troubles in discovering financial success with his artwork. The Hellmans serve purposes without summoning more engaging traits that'd flesh them out as characters, though, notably the reasons behind Jesse's rejected creativity and, well, much of anything about his anchor of a wife beyond her concerns for the family and her skepticism for their music choices. Their poverty and edginess come across as explanations for buying a foreclosed house with a dark past instead of the traits of a nuanced family unit, each lacking an extra something to compliment the cast's universally soulful performances.

Unsettling madness and murder are what actually kick off The Devil's Candy, hinged on a large, intimidating man loudly rocking out on a Flying V guitar to drown out the voices plaguing his head. Much of the film's escalation of his demon-infused ruthlessness relies on other people getting concerned or agitated over the extreme loudness of his playing, when, really, it could've been avoided had he plugged headphones into the amplifier and quietly muted the spectral urgings. The Devil works in mysterious ways, though, so let's assume it'd worsen and provoke the villain anyway. Primetime Emmy winner Pruitt Taylor Vince offers a fiercely disconcerting presence as the dazed, disconnected brute with a violent streak, amplifying the domestic invasion dread alongside the painter's own struggles with voices in his head. The harshness of the guitar thrashin' parallels with the scraping and stroking of Jesse's artwork into a tense provocation of the senses, invigorated by Byrne's grasp on mood and discomfort.

There's a theme at play in The Devil's Candy that attempts to add layers to the horror experience, one not-so-subtly hinted at by the title: that of the distraction and pitfalls of temptation, notably involving Jesse's artistic profession. While it seems as if director Sean Byrne wants to channel this into the spark that gets the suspense roaring on a meaningful note, the vagueness of the supernatural persuasion's functionality and the unbreakable control it enacts upon its victim drains the film of those deeper possibilities. Despite the eerie, piercing presence of Tony Amendola at a crucial juncture in this side of the film's intentions, the concept of the trademarked Devil luring in the susceptible gets undercut by the enigmas of mind control interwoven into the spirit of the house itself. It's the human component of temptation, of surrendering to the rewards of ambition even when it does harm to the other facets of one's life, that make the concept work and that Byrne has obscured; see The Devil's Advocate for a more compelling representation.

Regardless of its more thoughtful endeavors, The Devil's Candy continuously swells with intensity and terror as satanic possession seeps into Jesse and deeper into his family's menacing stalker, going in some rather dark directions involving child kidnappings and murder. Again, though, so much hinges on mistake after mistake made by Jesse while under supernatural influence that it's partially distracting from the mood generated by Byrne, even if they deepen the supernatural intrigue of what's transpiring. Either way, the brutal events possess such a potent, well-executed escalation of the situation that the success of its thought-exercise becomes secondary, where the mysteries flare up into an unpredictable ending that isn't afraid to go in chaotic directions that defy common sense. Stylistically and viscerally, The Devil's Candy is a concise, admirably shocking follow-up to Sean Byrne's premiere feature, and those merits should hopefully put him in the horror spotlight; however, the ways in which the director executes and leans on the supernatural like a crutch also twist this into a lesser sophomore effort.

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