Satanism has been a film trope in horror films for many years, and it has paid off with fantastic offerings like Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil’s Advocate and The Omen. However, it has also produced some terrible films like End of Days, The Devil Inside and Jennifer’s Body; films that tried to be different but failing for different reasons.
Now we enter Australian director, Sean Byrne. His debut torture slasher/dark comedy film, The Loved Ones, was a surprise success, winning many awards and has earned him critical acclaim. Now he has changed from one horror trope to another with his second effort, The Devil’s Candy. Will he be able to deliver another great effort like The Loved Ones, or will he suffer from the sophomore slump due to raised expectations and the staleness of the Satanic genre?
The film starts off in Rural Texas, with Ray Smiley (Pruitt Taylor Vince) whining when his elderly mother stops him in the middle of a late-night, jam session. Unfortunately, that decision takes a dark turn as plugging his Gibson Flying V into a Marshall stack is the only thing that drowns out the voices in Ray’s head. Voices that come straight from Satan himself and that tell him to do very bad things.
We then meet the Hellman family, with headbanger/struggling artist Jessie (Ethan Embry); employed and comparatively mellow wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their teen daughter who shares her dad’s love of rock, Zooey (Kiara Glasco). They have recently purchased a new house, despite the story of deaths within the house, due to the price being a steal (it always is).
They seem to be happy when they settle in, but weird occurrences happen when Jesse hears the exact same voices Ray heard and gets hypnotically drawn into painting disturbing images of suffering children. The images turn out to be prophetic of Ray doing his work to satiate the appetite of Satan. Will Ray and most importantly, Jesse’s actions cause harm to Astrid and Zooey?
If the synopsis seems cliched and predictable, your fears are founded – but what elevates this film close to greatness is the direction of Sean Byrne.
Having a fantastic soundtrack that would make blockbuster films green with envy, the music actually elevates the tension as well as the storytelling due to conveying the mood of characters. Rock music is known to be the music of Satan, but director Byrne cleverly subverts this expectation to draw away the magnetic lulls of Satan. The rock ‘n roll element also adds a fresh new coat of paint to the many cliches that are present in the film. Like the average American family or the many tropes of horror like the haunted house genre.
The cinematography by Simon Chapman is beautiful to witness, with plenty of extreme of wide shots, conveying the loneliness, the ennui and the hopelessness of the characters.
Speaking of the characters, the actors of the film are fantastic in their roles and do wonders to make their characters worth caring about, although the script may shorthand them at times. Ethan Embry (who looks like Matthew McConaughey playing Jesus here) is great as Jesse, who is desperate to get out of his confined shell of painting for others but not for himself; but his supposed transformation does not have a true payoff and it just results in a lull and nothing more. Shiri Appleby is sympathetic and loving as Astrid, but her role is thin, as she is stuck in the supporting wife archetype. Pruitt Taylor Vince is menacing, yet convincingly child-like as the antagonist, Ray Smiley, and as evident in his previous roles, he can play this character in his sleep. Amusing cameos from Leland Orser and F. Murray Abraham add to the fun.
But the standout here is Kiara Glasco as Zooey. Creeping me out before in her small role in David Cronenberg‘s film, Map to the Stars, Glasco is put through the emotional wringer as she goes through tortuous scenes and she plays it out with aplomb. She also plays her character with utmost sincerity that she makes it easy for the audience to believe her when she empathizes with Ray when she first meets her. Her arc going from her hesitance to adapt to a new world to a strong woman by the film’s end feels strong earned.
Like all pieces of candy out there, not everything about this film is good. In the case of The Devil’s Candy, there are a few flaws. For one is the storytelling, as there are plot holes that will puzzle like how does Ray evade the police after the murders and missing children, despite having a criminal record? The underdeveloped characters are another problem but the biggest flaw of the film is the ending. It ends on an abrupt note that frustratingly brings more questions than answers and does not give the cathartic feel the audience needs to give it a fist-pump.
Overall, The Devil’s Candy is fitting proof that director Sean Byrne is no one-trick pony and can deftly change genres with skill and verve. Hopefully, his screenwriting improves over his next film, which I hope does not take another 6 years.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Devil’s Candy screened at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.