Sean Byrne is a rising horror genre filmmaker whose work in writing and directing his debut feature The Loved Ones in 2009 brought him initial acclaim and attention. Eight years later, his sophomore outing The Devil’s Candy sees the Australian provocateur growing further as a storyteller whose primary interests continue to aim towards the macabre. Evil forces pervade throughout Byrne’s latest film in ways that often veer towards the kind of morbidity made popular by Rob Zombie. The devil plays a central role in The Devil’s Candy, a satanic influence that can be keenly felt in the sheer terror that pervades throughout.
But unlike House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects, Byrne spins a tale of demonic influences that never seeks to embrace its movie monster outright. Far from it, The Devil’s Candy builds its own scares in such a way that the viewer’s fascination with the evil contained therein proves self-reflective. Crossing the intersection of genius and madness, Byrne seeks to find inspiration in the darkest parts of the human psyche, where a loss of control sometimes amounts to an artistic breakthrough. Unfortunately for central protagonist Jesse Hellman (Ethan Embry), whose slavish devotion to an unseen force of primordial malevolence threatens to consume him and his family whole, that kind of fiendish obsession can prove all too alluring.
Byrne directs scenes of terror with a visual aestheticism unmatched by most of his contemporaries, and in The Devil’s Candy viewers are offered what is perhaps the most significant 21st century genre film since Zombie burst onto the scene in 2003. Like Zombie, Byrne‘s latest is unsettling on a subconscious level. Narrative logic gives way to viscerally shocking imagery and implied ideas that become fleshed out via the co-operation between the director and his audience.
You’d be hard pressed to find another horror movie from the past couple of years with the same kind of bite that The Devil’s Candy possesses, as Byrne manages to simultaneously disturb and provoke the viewer’s imagination. In Ray Similie, character actor Pruitt Taylor Vince provides for the most memorable movie monster of the past several years, and will undoubtedly become nightmare fodder for anyone brave enough to stomach a viewing of The Devil’s Candy.
Working as a freelance painter hired to produce flowery murals depicting butterflies amid grassy plains for a commercial banking conglomerate, Jesse Hellman (Embry) is an immediately sympathetic character. The father of young daughter Zooey Hellman (Kiara Glasco) and husband to Astrid Hellman (Shiri Appleby), the Hellman’s stand in for an idealized American nuclear unit. Granted, Jesse and Zooey share an eccentric affinity for heavy metal music and satanic imagery, but otherwise their home life is one of approachable honesty and love.
In order to perfect their very own iconic family portrait reminiscent of Grant Wood’s early 20th century American masterwork, the Hellman’s decide to purchase a house in rural Texas. Enamored with their new abode’s rustic integrity and backwoods isolation, Jesse immediately begins to set up his art studio in a repurposed barn. The only thing that stands in his way is the history of the estate’s previous tenants – who were viciously slaughtered by their troubled son acting at the behest of the Devil himself.
Soon enough, the voice of the Devil begins to torment Jesse, whose commissioned piece of domestic tranquility is quickly turned into a pictorial representation of demonic prophecy. Possessed by his newfound inspiration, he quickly seeks an audience from a local gallery owner who had previously rejected his creative outpourings. Meanwhile, Ray Similie (Vince) makes his presence known and begins to commit the acts of murder that Jesse’s painting foretold.
The extent to which Jesse hesitantly begins to surrender the wellbeing of his own mind and the livelihood of his family over to satanic forces in The Devil’s Candy provides for the emotional through-line in Byrne‘s script. Instead of devolving into the same kind of fatalism that so often plagues Zombie at his most heightened states of cinematic vitality, The Devil’s Candy walks up to the same edge of moral depravity only to shock its protagonist into fully realizing the gross reality of his transgressions. Byrne works towards the same frenzied state of abject horror in The Devil’s Candy, but unlike Zombie he manages to find a way out of the hellish furnace that he literally and figuratively places his characters into.
The Devil’s Candy plays to largely the same audience of horror fans who lapped up House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects at the dawn of the 21st century, and both Zombie and Byrne share a thematic kinship in unearthing the darker forces of creativity in the horror genre. Spiritually reminiscent of Tobe Hooper‘s cult-classic masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Devil’s Candy reexamines the same regional well of inspiration only to find another movie monster possessed of a grotesque appetite for the human flesh, spirit, and soul.
Following his debut film The Loved Ones, it will be exciting to see where Byrne will turn his attention next. The Devil’s Candy sees the rising auteur expanding his range and flexing his muscles in such a way that the viewer is forced to stand back in awe of his unmistakable grasp of cinema as an artistic medium. Offering much more than an adolescent fascination with heavy metal and its influences, The Devil’s Candy tells an American horror story that is ethereally tinged with a subtlety that often lends to frightening visions of presumed domesticity.
There’s nothing quite like a good horror movie, and The Devil’s Candy might be a great one. It’s easy to imagine Byrne becoming an underground sensation within the horror community, and his sophomore outing is more than deserving of such a distinction. The performances given throughout are menacing, the set design and visuals are lurid, and the climactic conclusion is genuinely horrifying. Horror fans won’t want to miss out on The Devil’s Candy, and neither should anyone else who professes to love good movies.
What’s the scariest movie you’ve seen lately? Do you plan on checking out The Devil’s Candy?
The Devil’s Candy is currently available to rent online. Find international release dates here.
Sean K. Cureton
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