An artist finding the source of inspiration is a conceit often explored in cinema. Whether the source is love, nascent genius, or circumstantial, creation is frequently depicted as an act of channeling by the artist as a humble vessel. Rarely has the myth of the creation been funneled through the horror genre with the inherent destruction and sacrifice needed to manifest greatness. In The Devil’s Candy, the devil is not in the details, but is the muse itself.
Sean Byrne’s film begins with the consistent thread of the narrative front and center: heavy metal music. Long criticized as demonic in nature, the soundtrack itself (additional music provided by Sunn O)))) harshly whispers into the antagonist’s ear (played with bubbling cruelty by Pruitt Taylor Vince). Hardly an accomplished musician, Ray Smilie hears the call, and heeding it results in murder.
We meet our metal-loving clan, the Hellmans, whose life is taking a turn towards the mayonnaise, as patriarch/painter Jesse Hellman (played by Ethan Embry) is forced to paint butterflies for a bank lobby. This is not the work he imagined himself doing, but as father to Zooey (Kiara Glasco) and husband to Astrid (Shiri Appleby), he does what he must to provide. The family, despite their black-clad, tattooed exteriors, is striving toward the most “normal” of familial aspirations: home ownership.
The Hellmans achieve their dream and purchase a home complete with a huge garage space for Jesse’s studio. The only catch, the realtor is forced to divulge–although he puts a layer of primer on the truth–two deaths occurred on the property. The Hellmans can’t pass up the value; let the haunted house movie begin.
What distinguishes this film from its Amityville Horror roots is the voice that drives towards violence and madness may stem from the house, but it is not confined by location. Like an amp turned to eleven, the devil’s temptation floats far beyond its source. Not everyone is tuned in, and much like any metal song, reactions really reflect the listener.
Jesse Hellman struggled as a painter, unable to get the representation he desired, but now, in his new studio, his work consumes him. We are treated to a montage scored by enthralling metal that perfectly captures the act of creation, the violence, the loss of temporal awareness, and the murderous focus necessary to make something great. All else simply becomes background noise including parenting responsibilities. The results of his painting are shocking, both in subject matter and process. He barely recognizes the work or himself.
Jesse is not the only one compelled by the harsh whisper. Much like a song stuck in your mind on an endless loop, Ray can’t shake the voices. He shows up on the Hellman’s doorstep, his old house, with twitching eyes always scanning for something just beyond. He connects with Zooey through music, despite Jesse trying to pull the plug on their encounter. This is not the last time these two will share screen time.
The film manages to so expertly capture the dangers of singular obsession, whether that is the stroke of the paintbrush or the swipe of a knife. In a brilliant instance of parallel action we witness the violence of painting as both Ray and Jesse are immersed in their respective crafts. Stabbing strokes of red paint on a canvas dissolve into blood pooling down a bathtub drain all driven by a pounding heavy metal track. Their respective obsessions are secondary to who they are. We lose ourselves in the editing; violence is indistinguishable from creation.
The Devil’s Candy is taut storytelling that occasionally leans too far, but it plays it arch rather than eye-rolling. The demonic nature of the art world and the notion of “selling one’s soul” skirt dangerously close, as gallery girl and agent are resplendent in their reds and blacks. These characters are reminiscent of the neighbors in Rosemary’s Baby, and Byrne is a smart enough filmmaker not to travel too far down this path.
Loaded with beautiful imagery, strong performances, and clocking in at a brisk 79 minutes, The Devil’s Candy is one to watch. Like standing before a painting in a gallery or hearing a favorite song, the effect is singular and personal. If it happens to strike the right notes, it definitely compels a revisit. Byrne taps into the zeitgeist of smart horror as art-house fair, but fills the work with enough genuine scares to ensure that gore hounds don’t get lost in the gallery.
The Devil’s Candy can be streamed on Netflix.