Warning: Mild Spoilers for Devil’s Candy ahead:
Devil’s Candy is a film hard to describe. It is grotesque without showing much gore, macabre without reveling in it, surreal while grounded firmly in the reality of evil. It is a film whose title betrays the thoughtfulness and brilliant execution deserving of a better name – or at least something that doesn’t conjure up “B” movie horror.
I enjoy a good horror film but I absolutely loath the gorefests without stories that are on the market today, so it took me a while to actually sit down and watch it – more than a year in fact. I remember scrolling right past it on Netflix, as it was nestled in-between the usual litany of “NR” horror films which I try to avoid for the obvious reasons of being high on gore and nudity while low on anything pertaining to an actual plot. I shouldn’t pick on the name, because it is one that after viewing, makes complete sense within the frame of the film. Not until recently did I finally select it on my queue, and that only after a friend on a horror Facebook page said it had to be the next movie on everyone’s watcth.
From the outset the film had me hooked. It opens with a close up of Ray Smilie, played by the distinct Pruitt Taylor Vince of the John Cusack horror film, Identity, as he is lying in bed asleep. All is normal until his eyes begin darting back and forth under his eyelids, and a mysterious, demonic voice is whispering thoughts in his mind. He gets up and pulls out his red “V” guitar and, like a rockstar about to go all out in a show, starts slowly strumming the same loud note, methodically repeated until his mother walks in. “It keeps the voices out,” is the only response he gives when his mother asks why. She threatens to take him back to the insane asylum and walks out, and well, the rest you have to see for yourself.
The main characters are endearing – it was nice to see an intact family where the kid isn’t in the “I hate my life and my parents” mode most films shoehorn teens into. The father, Jesse Hellman, is a down-on-his-luck but brilliant painter played excellently by none other than “The Bassist” from That Thing You Do, Ethan Embry. The family moves into a new houst just outside a small Texas town, the same house that just so happens to be the one Mr. Smilie used to live in. Not long after, Hellman gets inspiration for a new painting, his piece de la resistance. “It’s like it flowed through me,” he tells his wife who is unnerved by the graphic images painted on his canvas. The scenes of him painting in his studio made for some great pacing and editing choices which made the movie flow and slowly build the tension as to what the whispering voices in his ear were telling him to do.
The other two actresses, his wife, Shiri Appleby, and daughter, Kiara Glasco, I didn’t recognize, but they do a good job of looking and acting like a believable family. The dynamic among the core family is what makes this film so watchable. Oh, and the father and daughter both love, I mean love, heavy metal. And Director Sean Byrne weaves it splendidly into the film.
This isn’t a scary movie, it’s a horror, and not even truly one at that. There’s one jump scare (and it’s a practical joke by the daughter), the rest is a methodical masterwork of tension-building, unsettling images, followed up with stellar cinematography, and tightly-woven pacing that leads to a thrilling finale between a dad and the devil.
For what little screen time they get, even the two deputies are likable and feel real. Little lines of dialogue between the two, a look or a smirk, or a hug after a child went through something traumatic. This is how side characters are supposed to be written and acted. I would have actually liked at least one more scene with them in it. The amount they are in works well, but I liked those two so much I wanted more simply because of how well they worked. Cherry Jones’ Officer Paski from the underrated and soon-to-be classic Signs comes to mind when I think of one of the deputies.
What sets this film apart, other than a simple, short, solid story, is the beautiful and at times unsettling cinematography and film editing. There is a scene halfway through, where it splices together an unspeakably horrific act with the dad painting while possessed. The killing, the blood, and the paint are mixed together with efficacy that demands appreciation while leaving me terrified at the event unfolding before my eyes.
This film could have been boring. It could have been another grotesque film glorifying violence without taking thought to telling a good story. But its simple story was shot and edited in such a way that allowed tension to build, unsettled me with its images, yet ultimately is a story of hope in the face of evil.
If you enjoy well-crafted tension-filled thriller/horror films, this should move up on your to-watch list.