Sean Byrne’s Aussie alternative-prom-from-hell “The Loved Ones” was one of the better horror debuts in recent years, a neat mixture of the outre, droll and hair-raising. By comparison, the U.S.-made “The Devil’s Candy” seems a bit of a sophomore slump. Accomplished visually and busy sonically, it nonetheless falls short with a story of rock ‘n’ roll demonic possession that scarcely begins to exploit the ideas embedded in its serviceable premise. Genre fans should be welcoming enough at fantasy tests and via home-format release, but the lack of marquee names won’t help what’s ultimately a lively but underdeveloped B-horror-thriller attract many theatrical takers.
Headhanging painter Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), similarly inclined teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) and comparatively milquetoast wife/mom Astrid (Shiri Appleby) are excited to own their first home, a dirt-cheap but spacious old manse outside a Texas small town. The real-estate agent is required to inform them that the prior tenants died on sight: A woman fell down stairs to her death, apparently by accident, and her husband made a subsequent “can’t live without her” decision.
What goes unmentioned is that their son, heavy-set heavy-metal aficionado Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), spent 20 years institutionalized after sacrificing a younger local child to his personal Lord, Satan, and was notably back in residence at the time of his parents’ demises. What Byrne’s screenplay fails to explain is how Ray got away with killing Mom (we’ve already seen it was no “accident”). Not long after the Hellmans have moved in, they get a disturbing visit from this former tenant, who is currently living in a hotel but now wants to come home. Jesse gives him a firm “no.”
Jesse himself, however, has already begun experiencing some of the phenomena that turned Ray into a homicidal maniac: most notably, whispering ghostly voices and trance periods that he later can’t account for. The fugue states do prove good for the painting he now does in a converted-barn studio. It may or may not be good for artistic commerce, however, since the malevolent spirits guide his brushes to turn innocuous corporate-commission canvases into tableaux of screaming children menaced by ghouls. His resulting flakiness creates friction with the punky, tattooed Zooey, as he keeps being too “distracted” to remember she needs picking up from the latest school where she’s immediately been tabbed a goth-style misfit.
Ray’s return visits home are duly creepy. So are his other adventures collecting “the devil’s candy”–souls taken from children he kidnaps, cuts up (offscreen), and buries in suitcases for Lucifer’s enjoyment. But the pic isn’t quite atmospheric or tense enough to let one overlook the whopping implausibility that this stereotype of a nervous, sweaty, antisocial predator (with an actual record) somehow eludes police notice as local kids go MIA. And the story suggestion that Jesse will undergo his own “Shining”/”Amityville”-type transformation from dad to demon doesn’t really lead anywhere. Aside from painting disturbing pictures (created by Stephen Kasner) and being perpetually shirtless in his studio, he doesn’t change much at all. (In fact, with a body that toned, one guesses his shirt allergy was a pre-existing condition.)
Nor does “The Devil’s Candy’s” link between metal and the occult (all lead characters save Mom like to wail on their axes) really get worked into the narrative. Which disappoints, because that frequent offscreen cultural marriage suffuses the pic otherwise, not just through a father and daughter defined as genial metal heads, but in a soundtrack full of clamorous cuts by bands like Slayer, Metallica and doom outfit Sunn O))).
The film’s tightly paced progress arrives all too soon at a fiery finale in which Ray makes his climactic assault on the Hellman clan. What’s here is entertaining, bloody and gleefully macabre enough while maintaining a soft family-first center. But the pic really could have used more of an evolutionary arc for Jesse (Embry is too often stuck on a single level of anticipatory intensity that never quite arrives at a payoff), more exploitation of the house as malevolent entity, and perhaps a fully developed subplot or two. (For all the talk of Zooey’s social ostracizing, we never actually see her suffering it in school.) This is a case where a short running time doesn’t reflect concision so much as the fact that there just isn’t quite enough script here. “The Devil’s Candy” is all dressed up and ready to rock like Hades, but in narrative terms it never quite cranks it to 11.
Nonetheless, the performances are solid (Vince is the standout in an admittedly flash role), while all design contributions are nicely turned and showcased in Simon Chapman’s handsome widescreen lensing.