[NOTE: This is a repost of our review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival; The Devil’s Candy enters limited release this weekend, March 17]
It’s been six years since Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, but he’s finally back with a new feature called The Devil’s Candy. While introducing the film to a packed house, Byrne briefly addressed the difficultly of getting new projects off the ground, but thankfully he managed to secure a green light for this one because it’s a standout.
The movie stars Ethan Embry as Jesse, a struggling painter doing everything he can to support his wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco). They manage to get a great deal on a bigger home, but this is a horror movie so you know what that means – someone died in it. Sure enough, shortly after moving in, Jesse starts experiencing disturbing visions, indicating the threat of a demonic presence.
Before jumping into the violent and horrific portions of the film, Byrne appropriately takes ample time to introduce the family. It is abundantly clear that they have a traditional, loving relationship, but Byrne also throws in a handful of more unique qualities that make them feel especially real and interesting. Jesse’s a tough guy with a penchant for metal who rocks straggly long hair and is covered in tattoos, but Embry also effortlessly sells him as a loving family man. He isn’t just Zooey’s father, he’s her friend, and their connection is wildly charming. Astrid is a little thinly drawn, but Appleby’s conviction and her chemistry with Embry and Glasco still make her a vital part of the family unit.
The Devil’s Candy could be classified as a possession movie, but in an extremely refreshing approach to the scenario, Jesse doesn’t walk into the house, act erratic and start speaking in tongues. The evil entity here just messes with his head, distracting him with a sinister chant and forcing him to unknowingly paint horrific pictures, something that causes him to make relatable human mistakes, like forgetting to pick Zooey up from school.
On top of that, The Devil’s Candy also features an especially disturbing and unforgettable human villain. Pruitt Taylor Vince steps in as Ray, the imposing and unhinged son of the home’s deceased previous owners. He’s a total monster who’s guilty of some of the most heinous crimes imaginable, but Vince still manages to delicately highlight a degree of innocence, making Ray so much more than a villainous wrecking ball, rather, a murderer with vulnerabilities, turning him into a far more interesting and nerve-racking character to track.
Glasco is a revelation as Zooey. She’s got streaks in her hair and digs metal but not in a teen angst, “look at me, I’m different” kind of way. She truly is Jesse and Astrid’s daughter. You can trace every ounce of her personality to her parents. Glasco also makes for one kick-ass heroine. She’s got one particularly tense scene that had the entire theater dead silent until the crowd erupted during the moment’s big finish.
Byrne has an especially deft handle on every element of this production. Before things descend into pure chaos, the film is flooded with stunning foreboding imagery. There’s this red cross on the front door that occasionally changes from red to black when the door opens and closes, and a particularly stunning shot of Embry’s silhouette against a blank canvas. These types of visuals never feel like heavy-handed devices. They all fit seamlessly into the natural shot progression and always enhance the tension.
He also expertly weaves Jesse’s painting and love of metal music into the narrative. Jesse’s visions look just like his artwork so, similar to the aforementioned foreboding visuals, these dream sequences don’t feel forced, but rather natural extensions of the real world nightmare. And the same goes for the music, too. Not only is their shared love of metal key to Jesse and Zooey’s relationship, but Ray uses it to keep the demon’s voice out of his head and then Byrne incorporates it into the soundtrack in ways that enhance scene transitions, scares and ups the intensity of the film as well.
The Devil’s Candy is the complete midnight movie package. It’s got characters to root for, a clever narrative, and a spot-on mix of scares–those that are brimming with energy and others that’ll seep in and mess with your head.
The Devil’s Candy opens in limited release March 17.