Overview: A heavy-metal loving painter and his family move into a house that promises tranquility and inspiration, but offers so much more when the hellish visions begin and the previous occupant comes knocking. IFC Midnight; 2017; Not Rated; 79 minutes.
Moth into Flame: Horror iconography has always been a staple of heavy metal, and in turn much of contemporary horror has become infused with heavy metal through soundtrack and aesthetic. Metal has been used as a doorway to satanic forces, playing on the fears of parents’ groups, and has scored the violence in countless scenes of bloodshed. In horror films, metal is melody of sin. But in Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy, metal becomes the thing that holds this family together; it is solace and a communal bond. The relationship between Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry) and his pre-teen daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) forms the heart of the film, and their mutual love of metal isn’t the sin that separates parent from child but the thing that brings them together. Every chance where we’d see characters typically turn up their noses at metal, express concern over their long, dyed hair, tattoos, and endless supply of Metallica t-shirts, we instead see acceptance and admiration. Jesse’s wife, Astrid (Shiri Appleby) expresses amusement and gratitude over the bond, and everyone else from the real-estate agent to the cops that make up this small rural Texas township are no more nonplussed than if they were wearing jeans and cowboy boots.
Yet, despite the strong family ties we’re introduced to early on, and heavy metal given the reverence and power of religious faith, Jesse and his family still find themselves caught in a downward spiral towards the gaping maw of Satanic evil. It’s greed and gluttony that brings the devil into their midst, and as a satanic panic video that plays across a motel television screen interspersed throughout the film alludes to, the devil latches on to the smallest bit of greed in the human heart. The Hellmans (an on the nose surname, to be sure) are a modern American family in every sense, which means they are also bound to the financial troubles that delay passions in favor of bills. As Jesse’s frustrations over his struggling artistry are met with uneven paychecks earned from commissions of butterflies for state institutions, Jesse’s honest and understandable greed becomes a flame. And it’s this flame which draws a bonesaw wielding man in a red tracksuit to Jesse’s increasingly unattended daughter.
Master of Puppets: Pruitt Taylor Vince’s Ray Smilie moves like a landmass through the film, his heft and undeniable presence bringing a piece of Hell with him as he encroaches on the Hellman’s lives and the serenity of this rural countryside. He operates as a tool, sacrificing children to appease the devil’s sweet-tooth. He’s a frightening presence, but Vince, as he often does, adds a childlike simplicity to the serial killer. There’s a corrupted innocence to him that allows us to see the child he was before the devil clung to him like a parasite. Even as his acts grow increasingly brutal and the filth on his tracksuit becomes more pronounced, there is an inherent sadness to the character. As he’s drawn back to his old home, and Zooey becomes the focus of his attention, we can see the parallels between the characters. The beginning of the film establishes Ray as a metal enthusiast himself, the difference being that his mother refers to the music as noise, demanding he turn it down despite his insistence that it drowns out the voices in his head. The denial of heavy metal became Ray’s damnation, while it is Zooey’s salvation. The film suggests that it is our passions that assuage the head-talk, and to deny passion is to create an emptiness that we try to fill through other means, ultimately leading to the gluttony that the devil clings to.
Jesse’s passion for his art becomes a troubling component as he begins to lose track of time in his studio and his paintings become more disturbing. Composed by a good-humored madness, his sinewy body highlighted a tattoo of spinal column that runs down his back, Embry cuts a striking figure as he works. Jesse’s artistry culminates in a feverish decision to turn his commission piece of butterflies into a massive painting of his daughter being burned alive and surrounded by demons that would make Clive Barker proud. It would seem that the devil has gained control of Jesse, like Ray, and latched onto him, but Byrne is only baiting us with the typical demonic possession tropes, while offering something much more fulfilling. Jesse’s passion, his painting, is a chance for salvation, and his voices aren’t found in the act of painting but in his desire to succeed as a gallery artist.
Nothing Else Matters: Jesse’s desire to succeed cuts him off from his family, taking him away from them during the times they need him most. The devil that tempts him comes in the form of a gallery owner who encourages him to sacrifice the needs of his family for the sake of his art. This frustrated artistry met with the desire to be a good father makes Jesse Hellman a modern successor to the Jack Torrance of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. The flame filled finale and showdown with Ray certainly makes that allusion clear, but unlike Torrance, Jesse doesn’t seem inextricably doomed by the temptations that call to the darker aspects of his soul. Through music and artwork, Jesse becomes a heavy metal-stylized biblical prophet with the power to beat the devil, and Sean Byrne uses these typical avenues for darkness to create a shine born of amps and painted hellscapes. Just as with Byrne’s previous film, The Loved Ones, family is ultimately the thing that matters most, and becomes the deciding factor in creating saving grace or damnation in the face of horrors both psychological and physical.
Overall: Exceptionally well-shot and briskly paced, The Devil’s Candy creates an impactful, contemporary allegory about fathers lost in work, who sacrifice their children in the process. A fitting companion to The Loved Ones, The Devil’s Candy further displays Byrne’s ability to put horror tropes through a thresher and turn out something painfully personal. Sean Byrne is 2 for 2. We can only hope that the wait for his next foray into the genre isn’t as long.
Featured Image: IFC Midnight