THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE DEVIL'S CANDY"
The Devil's Candy is not a horror movie that scares you with cheap jolts. There are no cats popping out of cabinets, no doors mysteriously slamming themselves, no mask-wearing lunatics abruptly appearing behind unsuspecting victims. Instead, writer/director Sean Byrne (The Other Ones) scares you with the power of ideas. The entire concept of this movie is disturbing, and the heavy metal-inspired tone Byrne brings to it makes for a horror movie that can legitimately be described as horrific.
Ethan Embry plays struggling artist Jesse Hellman. Together with his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco), he moves into a house in the middle of the Texas boondocks. The place has a sordid past, but the price is right. Almost immediately after arriving, Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince) shows up. He claims to have lived in the house previously. Jesse, finding him creepy, somewhat rudely shoos the man away. That's when things get bad, starting with bizarre trances during which Jesse receives hellish artistic inspirations. He doesn't know why he's drawing such morbid pictures, he just knows that he can't stop.
Byrne uses songs by Metallica, Slayer, and Pantera to help score The Devil's Candy, and that proves to be an inspired decision. Fairly or not, heavy metal music has always had Satanic connotations. It fundamentally sounds menacing. And, of course, many bands have utilized demons and related imagery on their album covers and in music videos. The musical selections go a long way toward setting the mood, immediately and continually putting the audience on edge.
The heavy metal approach helps the story get at some intriguing ideas. The heavily-tattooed Jesse is, outwardly at least, a more stereotypical metal fan. He loves the music, finding its energy to be artistically inspiring. Ray, on the other hand, is a middle-aged bald man. Not exactly who you'd expect to be listening to Pantera. The music inspires him, too, although to sinister ends. Heavy metal has long been the subject of debate as to whether some of it really is Satanic and whether it warps the minds of listeners who may already be unstable. The Devil's Candy examines both sides of that coin. For one guy, it's just music. For the other, it's the devil speaking directly to him.
At its core, the story is about the insidious nature of evil and the way the devil can sneak up on you in the most mundane of disguises. Jesse would never think that Ray is capable of being dangerous until he proves otherwise, at which point it may be too late. The Devil's Candy has a deeply unsettling vibe, with Byrne ensuring that the atmosphere of dread continually ramps up. When bad things happen, you feel the sting of them. Nowhere is that more true than in the final fifteen minutes. The film's conclusion is almost unbearably tense, while still finding a way to end on a note that is simultaneously chilling and unexpectedly poignant.
Appleby, Vince, and Glasco are all very good here, but it's Ethan Embry who brings everything together. The actor gives a performance of immense depth, showing how the kind-hearted Jesse becomes susceptible to trances, then feels both perplexed and appalled when he realizes that something has caused him to zone out and create suddenly-gruesome artwork. That's the sort of thing that could come off as cheesy in the wrong hands. Here, it's carried out perfectly. Every good horror movie needs a strong, human center. Embry provides one, ensuring that the scary elements pack a full punch.
The Devil's Candy is fairly short – only about 80 minutes – but it contains more genuine horror than most fright flicks that run two hours. Byrne maintains impressive control in the way he tells his story, tightening the screws with precision. The movie is absolutely scary, not only in the way it depicts innocent people defending themselves against evil, but also for its suggestion that art with dark inspirations can have merit. And, going a step beyond, for the implication that artists can be frightened by their own work.
Bottom line: Indie horror doesn't get much more stylish or creepy than The Devil's Candy.
( 1/2 of four)
Note: The Devil's Candy will be in select theaters and on VOD/digital platforms on March 17.
The Devil's Candy is unrated, but contains sequences of violence and strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!